The history of Highlands, NC starts with the journey of Samuel Truman Kelsey and Clinton Carter Hutchinson. The two Kansas developers chose Highlands because of its prime location between large cities from New York to New Orleans, and from Chicago to Savannah.
In 1844, Captain Joseph W. Dobson owned parcels of land in the area, where he kept his livestock. It’s known today as downtown Highlands. His family and the caretakers of his livestock, Hugh and Mary Ann Gibson, were the first people to settle in what is known as modern-day Highlands.
Fast forward approximately 30 years later to the arrival of Kelsey and Hutchinson, and they saw Highlands as being more than a trading town. They recognized that the cooler temperatures, thanks to the elevation of more than 4,000 feet, and the unique flora and fauna would set Highlands apart in more ways than one. It was a fascinating place for biologists to come and study, and it was a perfect place to vacation to and escape the brutal summer heat of the Deep South. Kelsey and Hutchinson were smart men who knew Highlands was destined to grow into something bigger than they imagined.
The Moccasin War is a big part of the history of Highlands, NC. In 1885, Highlands was a “dry” town which means selling alcohol wasn’t allowed. Georgia, however, did sell alcohol. This means people from Georgia hopped across the border to sell it, since Georgia is so close to Highlands. The people of Highlands weren’t happy about this, as most people in the town were very religious and “dry.” But the people who did like alcohol were upset that they had to compete with smaller, local underground stills.
The conflict began when two Georgia boys were arrested and jailed in Highlands. Fighting immediately broke out when a small militia of Georgia men came to Highlands. For three days, each side shot at each other from opposite sides of the street. Eventually, when one of the Georgia boys was killed, they retreated back to Georgia. They swore to come back to fight, but they never did. Instead, a blockade rose up from the Georgia side and they wouldn’t let anyone from North Carolina pass through into Georgia. But eventually, and thankfully, it fizzled out without any more casualties.
This war magnifies a lot of what early Highlands was about. It was a simple, small town settled mostly by New England Christians. At this point in time, Highlands wasn’t quite the resort town it is today. It still resembled many similar, surrounding small mountain towns.
In the 1900s, tuberculosis was sweeping the United States. Mary Lapham, a pioneer in tuberculosis treatment, used Highlands as the testing ground for her revolutionary method of treatment. Patients came from all over to be treated on what was called “Bug Hill.” Lapham put patients in tents so they could breathe in the fresh, cool mountain air at night. This would collapse their infected lung, allowing them to rest and recover. Unfortunately, the sanatorium burned down in February 1918 from an accidental fire, but the legacy of Mary Lapham and her contribution to the tuberculosis epidemic lives on.
Highlands remained a quaint town, and it was only really known for Lapham’s treatments, until approximately the 1920s when the Cullasaja River was dammed. This helped form Lake Sequoyah, the beautiful lake you see as you drive into Highlands. At this time, the Franklin Road was constructed, and it became a beautiful, scenic attraction. When the road was built, it was designed so that drivers could drive behind Bridal Veil Falls. To this day, it technically makes Bridal Veil Falls the only waterfall in the state that a vehicle can drive behind. Unfortunately, the road behind Bridal Veil is blocked off now, due to how badly it ices over in the harsh winters. Nonetheless, it’s still a really neat piece of Highlands’ history.
Golf was a huge driving force in the history of Highlands, NC. In 1928, Highlands Country Club opened its doors. Donald Ross designed and built a golf course that set the town of Highlands up to be a golfing destination. Famous golfer, Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones, was the first person to strike a golf ball on the course. In 1930, he went on to win the Grand Slam. This event set a precedent for Highlands, NC to be known as a luxury golf town.
As the years went by, the allure of Highlands became less of a secret. More people wanted to live and stay in Highlands, but there was one problem: the steep, rocky landscape and protected Nantahala National Forest restricted Highlands from growing as quickly as it demanded. Therefore, property in Highlands became very exclusive, and prices of real estate shot up, which chiseled Highlands into the luxury resort town it is today.
The same principle applies to businesses in Highlands. In the city limits of Highlands, there are rarely any commercial real estate opportunities. Building is extremely limited. This is also what makes it so expensive to own and operate a business in Highlands.
Because of its reputation as a resort town, Highlands has attracted people from all walks of life and from all corners of the country, and the globe. For that reason, there’s really no “culture” in Highlands. High-end? Definitely. Southern charm? Mostly. Artists, retired CEOs, architects, chefs, writers and lawyers alike have all made their homes in Highlands, which makes it a very diverse, small town.
The dining and shopping you find in Highlands is not like anything you’ve ever seen. It doesn’t quite fit the business culture of the small mountain towns surrounding it, but it doesn’t fit in with big city ideals, either. Locals have dubbed Highlands’ style “mountain chic” as you still have access to city luxuries, but you have to acclimate to the small town and outdoorsy style.
The history of Highlands, NC is colorful, for sure. Settled by tradesmen, farmers and pioneers, and now inhabited by some of the wealthiest people in the country (at least seasonally, anyway), Highlands has an array of influences that make it what it is today.
Landmark Vacation Rentals is proud to have plenty of vacation rentals to choose from in Highlands, NC. We invite you to come explore and appreciate the rich history of Highlands, NC and the surrounding areas. We can point you in the right direction and help you learn more about the area.