Elizabeth Colton, an Asheville journalist with international ties, draws from the travels of her great, great uncle to reintroduce a book he first published in February 1859.
Before the Civil War, Henry Elliott Colton was the editor of the Asheville Spectator from 1857 through 1858, and later the Western Advocate.
By the age of 22, Henry Colton had written many travel articles published in North Carolina magazines before publishing his book, Mountain Scenery, the Scenery of the Mountains of Western North Carolina, and Northwestern South Carolina. An original copy can be made available, by request, in the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library.
Elizabeth Colton said at junior high school she learned in Latin class that according to the writings of Cicero and Horace, immortality can be achieved in only two ways, by producing offspring, or by writing. “It was a very exciting idea as I had been writing, reporting, editing, and publishing my own newspapers since the age of 8,” she said.
Traveling on old roads originally used by stagecoaches and horseback riders before the railroad came to our region, one can revisit the expeditions described in Henry Colton’s book. “The little-bound book is 120 pages in length, and it’s full of colorful descriptions with dramatic adventures, lots of philosophical reflections, and detailed facts about travel such as the cost of hotels,” Elizabeth Colton said.
In his book, Henry Colton wrote about roads, towns, waterfalls, springs, people, geology, and the names of the mountains. It revealed where to dine, where to get horses or stagecoaches and the best means of any kind of conveyance. Elizabeth Colton said each chapter is full of surprising and memorable quotes and descriptions.
In the first chapter after the introduction, Henry Colton wrote, “The town of Asheville is adorned with many beautiful residences, the result of cultivating tastes among its inhabitants. While broad yards of these make large the limits of the town, they yet are an attraction not to be dispensed with.” Likewise, the uniquely inclusive and welcoming spirit of Ashevillians noted often in our times is not new, Elizabeth Colton said.
As this 19th century author writes, “The people of Asheville are everywhere noted for their hospitality. We have heard many remark that in no town did they receive that attention from its inhabitants as in Asheville. A stranger, who is at all disposed to be social, can add much to his enjoyment while sojourning thereby a free intercourse with the citizens. A resident of months enables us to say that there are few towns which contain a more generous-hearted, hospitable, and moral set of inhabitants, and our opinion is that expressed by almost every traveler.”
While Henry Colton’s description of our mountain scenery most accurately informs the reader, it is nothing less than poetic in its prose. “An excellent view of the mountains is obtained, the grandest panorama of mountain scenery which is to be found easy of access anywhere in the west. The highest colors of the imagination fail to picture a tithe of its sublimity, and the artist’s pencil would need the tenfold power of a Titian or a Raphael to make the canvas glow with an alm of its magnificence or give the beholder a faint impression of the awe it inspires. The fame of the beauty and sublimity of the scenery is extensive. The tall, grim, old rocks lift their bald heads far, far towards the heavens,” Henry Colton wrote.
Still fresh in the minds of his contemporaries was the 1857 death of Elijah Mitchell. Of Mt. Mitchel’s summit, Henry Colton wrote, “Mitchell’s peak, now invested with a new and sorrowful interest, is to be seen standing in solemnest grandeur, the monarch of the giant of the Black Mountains range.”
By the early 20th century Henry Colton’s book had been all but forgotten, and considered to have been lost. But, a copy materialized in 1930 and the Asheville Citizen-Times wrote, “A veritable goldmine of information on the old days in Western North Carolina was unearthed in Asheville recently in the form of an old book, Mountain Scenery, written in 1859.” Elizabeth Colton said the headline for the article read, “Author of old book describes olden days in Western North Carolina mountains. Volume located here furnishes picture of past, rumbling stagecoach is almost audible in its pages.” The article was written by Glenn W. Naves, a descendent of one of the last stagecoach drivers in Western North Carolina who had died the year before.
Relative to what Elizabeth Colton learned about immortality in Latin class, she said without Henry Colton’s book this great, great uncle, without direct descendants, would have been only a name, ancillary and inherently lost on her genealogical tree. “Instead, he is for me in 2017 a very live person, and living character. His enthusiasm and joy in telling his readers about this place, these our mountains, exude from his writing, and it’s true that in his book he achieved a kind of immortality,” Elizabeth Colton said.
An electronic edition of the book is available online as part of the UNC-Chapel Hill Digitization Project. Elizabeth Colton is working on republishing an updated hard copy with her foreword for circulation.
By Mark-Ellis Bennett