Asheville Archives: Buffalo return to WNC

BUFFALO ROAM PISGAH: In 1916, plans were announced to bring herds of elk and buffalo to Pisgah Forest. The objective encountered many roadblocks and delays.
BUFFALO ROAM PISGAH: In 1916, plans were announced to bring herds of elk and buffalo to Pisgah Forest. The objective encountered many roadblocks and delays. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville

The headline for the May 22, 1914, issue of The Asheville Citizen declared: “Government buys Pisgah Forest; will welcome great National Park.” Roughly 86,700 acres were acquired from the Biltmore Estate, two months after George Vanderbilt’s untimely death in March.

At $5 an acre, the National Forestry Commission paid a total purchase price of $433,851.30. The newspaper went on to proclaim: “The purpose of the commission is to turn Pisgah Forest into a national game preserve and means have already been adopted to bring this about as soon as possible.”

By 1916, The Asheville Citizen reported on plans to obtain herds of elk and buffalo to populate Pisgah. The paper’s May 29 edition declared, “With this big game as a start, the members of the Appalachian Park association expect the park to become one of the greatest drawing cards for tourism in the coming years[.]”

Talk continued throughout the year. The newspaper’s July 12 headline read, “Southern Foresty delegrates welcomed to Asheville by Mayor Rankin and Governor Locke Craig.” Among the event’s guest speakers was Edmund Seymour, president of the American Bison Society. According to the paper, “The speaker said that experiments in raising apples on bleak hillsides not adapted to them is a waste of money, but all the mountains are suitable for buffalo and they should be here.” Seymour went on to remind his audience that the large animal once roamed the area, calling the buffalo the region’s “first tourist.”

Before big game could arrive, though, a fence was needed to enclose the area formerly known as Morgan pasture. It would cost an estimated $2,500 to encompass the 250-300 acres. Efforts to raise funds among neighboring counties failed. Ultimately, the city of Asheville and Buncombe County were the project’s sole local financiers, contributing $1,000. The remaining costs were mitigated by donations from the United States Steel Co. and the American Steel Wire Co. The Southern and Burlington railroads also volunteered their services to transport the creatures free of charge.

Not everyone shared in the enthusiasm over the future arrivals. “What kind of protection have the citizens of Asheville itself from these wild animals?” asked The Asheville Citizen on Nov. 27, 1916. The article continued:

“Suppose that herds of buffalo should break through the pasture fence some day and tear down Patton avenue? Don’t you know that would be an embarrassing situation for the traffic cops? The buffalo … don’t know anything about traffic ordinances, and think what would happen to the motor cars on the square and crowded Patton avenue.”

Despite such fears, plans moved forward (albeit, with much delay). On Jan. 15, 1917, The Asheville Citizen reported the arrival of W.J. McGrath, “the fence expert of the American Steel company[.]” The paper noted that the pasture would be enclosed on both sides of the road, with runways underneath the thoroughfare, so that the big game could travel between sections. The fence, the paper continued, “will be the only one of its kind east of the Mississippi river.”

On March 16, The Asheville Citizen announced the arrival of 20 elk, by way of Yellowstone National Park. “There were twenty-five of the animals in the car when it started on its twelve-day journey, but five of them died,” the paper noted, adding: “The buffalo to inhabit the pasture with the elk will also arrive here soon it is stated.”

However, by April 2, the paper informed readers: “Owing to the extreme difficulty experienced in securing proper express cars for transporting the buffalo destined for Pisgah National Forest … the big animals will not be forwarded from New Hampshire until the fall.”

When autumn arrived, transportation options remained unavailable due to wartime efforts (See “Asheville Archives: A cloud of war welcomes 1918,” Xpress, Jan. 2). On Dec. 1, 1917, The Asheville Citizen reported that “there are no hopes entertained of securing” the big game. The War Department, the paper continued, “has a first claim on all the available express cars … and just now is exercising its claim.”

Despite these setbacks, a herd of six buffalo would arrive at the Hominy train station on Jan. 21, 1919 — three years after the plan’s initial announcement. Wagons hauled the crates out to the old Morgan pasture.

According to the Jan. 22, 1919, edition of The Asheville Citizen: “A large crowd of people, including a number from Asheville, witnessed the event.” Among the participants was Martin S. Garretson, secretary of the American Bison Society, who named all six creatures. Designations included: Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, Davy Crockett, Virginia Dare, Winnie Davis and Bettie Zane. “It will be noticed that the names are those of famous southern characters,” the paper pointed out.

Sadly, the animals did not fare well. On Jan. 10, 1921, The Asheville Citizen reported that the original herd “suffered severe depletion through deaths due to the difficulty of speedy acclimation.” Such results, however, did little to deter those involved in the project. The article added: “The Board of Trade has not permitted itself to become discouraged over the relatively large mortality rate and is now arranging for the shipment of additional buffalo.”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents. 

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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6 thoughts on “Asheville Archives: Buffalo return to WNC

  1. Phillip Williams

    A lot of folks don’t realize that the Appalachians were once home to their own subspecies of bison and elk – the Woodland Bison and the Eastern Elk. I believe that a few wood bison still exist in Canada – sadly, the last recorded Eastern Elk was shot in Pennsylvania in 1877 and the subspecies was declared extinct in 1880.

    • Virginia Daffron

      Mr. Williams, one of my WNC ancestors was listed as killed by a “gang of buffalo” in Tennessee historical records. I believe this was in the 1830s (if my memory of tagging along on a genealogical research expedition as a child is accurate). That’s always stuck in my mind when it comes to bison in this region.

      • Phillip Williams

        One bison alone could easily kill a man, so a gang of them could sure do it – I don’t remember when the last one was seen or killed in WNC, but seems that the late Mr. John Parris mentioned it in one of his columns. He also named off a number of place names in WNC that referred to the elk and bison..

  2. jason

    Can we hunt elk yet? I’d sure like to kill a few for food and get some antlers.

  3. ApePeeD

    That’s going to be really cute. You guys can’t even handle five turkeys crossing the road, much less stampeding bison.

    • Phillip Williams

      I thought the article addressed an attempted reintroduction of bison that took place over 100 years ago….I didn’t see any references in it that suggest it is going to be tried again or that anyone recently has proposed it. Perhaps I missed it….Elk (not the original Eastern Elk that once populated WNC) were introduced to the Cataloochee area some years back and do have their own set of issues.

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