Marion's History

The City of Marion, serving as the County Seat of McDowell County, was planned and built on land selected by the first County Commissioners, “after much bitterness and in‐fighting among a number of local citizens”. The community was divided, many citizens wanting the County Seat to be built near the Carson House at Buck Creek several miles from its present location. Prior to creating the city boundaries, court was held at the Carson’s home. Sam Carson himself did not want the town built close to his home fearing it would disrupt plantation life. To settle the matter, Mr. Carson and his family donated 50 acres for the County Seat, and the commissioners acquired an additional thirteen acres at a cost of $65.00 dollars. The land acquisition settled the debate, and Marion was established in a centralized location at a crossroads of the county on March 14, 1844.

Though referred to as Marion, it was not until 1845 that the official name City of Marion was sanctioned as the County Seat by the North Carolina State Legislature. The city was named in honor of Brigadier General Francis Marion, the American Revolutionary War Hero, who is well known for his service with the Continental Army and the South Carolina militia, where his talent in guerilla warfare earned him the name “Swamp Fox”.

In 1843, a committee of founding fathers whose last names are still recognized today, including Thomas Baker, Samuel W. Davidson, A.D. Whitesides, David Corpening, and J.J. Erwin, were charged with selecting a site for the new town. Benjamin Burgin and David Chandler surveyed the 63 acres of acquired land, and laid out the town’s original jurisdictional boundaries. George S. Walton, John Dobson, Andrew Hemphill, and Jesse Burgin were on the committee charged with the task of platting the new town, and for selling lots to the highest bidders.

General Marion Inviting a British Officer to Share His Meal by John Blake White.

The town was divided into 90 lots, which sold based on size and location. According to early records, the corner lot directly across from the courthouse sold for a premium at $601.00, while the corner lot diagonally across the street sold for half that amount. The first town residents to officially call Marion home were Alfred M. Finley and Samuel J. Neal.

Marion began to grow at a steady pace following the topography of the land and the multiple wagon trails that emerged with growth. Main Street and Court Street were the first public streets established in town stretching from the base of Mt. Ida and traveling north to where the street branched into smaller wagon trails. Horses, mules, and wagons were all used to help build the first streets in town long before the first train or Ford Model T rolled through town.

Marion was the “end of the line” west for the new railroad, and the old stage coach road west wound around from the end of Main Street winding by the pastures of Pleasant Gardens following the Catawba River. Here buggies, horses, wagons, carriages, and stagecoaches could ford the river when levels were low. The road then made its way to Buck Creek, the Carson House, and on westward.

In the early morning hours of November 25, 1894, a big fire swept through downtown Marion destroying most of the buildings in its path. At the time, most of the construction in town utilized local timber as the primary building material. The fire spread through Main Street and Court Street, even jumping the railroad bridge destroying everything within its path. With no public water supply available at the time, even the few brick buildings that existed were destroyed by the fire. Cinders and burning timbers were blown all the way to the top of Mt. Ida, but miraculously some homes escaped damage with help from bucket brigades. The original county courthouse building constructed between 1843 and 1845 was destroyed in the fire along with many original town documents. Marion’s citizens took in neighbors and shared what they had until homes and businesses could be replaced. Citizens were determined to rebuild their town, and their efforts paid off with many of those same buildings still standing today as a testament of their determination. These buildings are recognized as some of the most significant architectural resources in the community, and are identified as contributing structures within the Main Street Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

By this time, the Industrial Revolution was beginning to make its mark on the community, and this shift dramatically changed Marion from a small rural community to a booming urban mill town. By the late 1800’s, Marion was well on its way to becoming a highly
productive industrial town. The Southern Railway constructed a railway line westward through Marion to Asheville to help link the Greensboro‐Knoxville line; and in 1908, the Clinchfield Railroad competed its track through the Blue Ridge Mountains to Marion. Marion was at the junction of two railroads linking north to south and east to west. Convenient freight shipping made Marion an attractive location for a number of industries looking establish operations in the region. By the early twentieth century, three large industries including Marion Mill, Clinchfield Mill, and Cross Mill had established operations in the area. The mills not only provided jobs, they were responsible for installing water and sewer infrastructure, streets, sidewalks, parks and homes for employees and their families. Though the mills are no longer in operation, the neighborhoods known as “mill villages” have flourished. Many former employees and their families still call these areas home, and share an unwavering pride for their community with fellow neighbors. Aside from work and family, church has always been a central part of life for Marion residents, and as such has always played an important role in the community. By the early twentieth century, six churches of varying denominations had been established in Marion, and all but one still hold regular service in their original sanctuaries. Every Sunday morning church bells would ring throughout town calling their members to worship. Each bell had a unique tone giving each congregation the ability to identify the right bell for service. Today, these churches are all individually listed as historic sites on the National Register of Historic Places.

While Marion continues to grow and evolve economically, culturally, and environmentally, the civic foundation it was built upon remains strong and steadfast. Today, citizens are committed to preserving Marion’s historically significant architecture, cultural and natural resources, and most of all its sense of place which can best described as a small town community with a big civic heart.

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