Riverside Cemetery: A National Treasure - TribPapers

Riverside Cemetery: A National Treasure

The Riverside Cemetery historical marker along Broadway. Photo by Clint Parker

Asheville – Located along Broadway and Magnolia Ave. in Asheville, you come across this historic marker reading: “Riverside Cemetery: Graves of Thomas Wolfe & ‘O. Henry,’ authors; Zebulon B. Vance, governor; Thomas L. Clingman; and Robert R. Reynolds, U.S. senators. One-half mile W.”

Set amidst a picturesque backdrop of sturdy stone houses and lush greenery, Riverside Cemetery, ensconced within Asheville’s historic Montford District, stands as a veritable archive of Western North Carolina’s illustrious past. 

Its gates first swung open in the year 1885, and since then, this tranquil resting place has unfurled over eighty acres of hallowed ground, bearing witness to more than a century of regional history. As a special historic site accessible to the public, Riverside Cemetery seamlessly intertwines historical, architectural, and cultural narratives within a sober yet serenely beautiful environment.

The origins of Riverside trace back to 1885, when the Asheville Cemetery Company established it to meet the growing demand for underground interment. However, facing financial turbulence in 1952, the company decided to transfer ownership of the burial grounds to the City of Asheville. 

The city’s dedicated employees have since shouldered the responsibility of preserving and tending to this revered cemetery. Encompassing a vast expanse of eighty-seven acres, Riverside is now the eternal home to over 13,000 graves, adorned with 9,000 monuments and graced by a dozen mausoleums. While plenty of resting places are still available for purchase, an average of 75 burials transpire each year. 

Moreover, the city operates a service center within its bounds, facilitating guided tours, aiding in genealogical research, and offering plots for sale. Riverside’s remarkable collection of tree and plant species led to its designation as a Buncombe County Tree Preserve in 1997.

Within Riverside’s sacred grounds repose the mortal remains of numerous luminaries who have indelibly shaped North Carolina’s history. 

Distinguished authors such as Thomas Wolfe and William S. Porter, known as O. Henry, find their eternal abode here. Among the political titans at rest are Robert B. Vance, Thomas L. Clingman, and Robert Rice Reynolds, each of whom has left an indomitable mark on the annals of North Carolina’s governance. 

The cemetery also cradles the remains of visionaries pivotal to Asheville’s growth, including Isaac Dickson, the first black American to serve on the Asheville School Board, and other notable figures like James H. Merrimon, Thomas W. Patton, Solomon Lipinsky, Nicholas Woodfin, and Jeter C. Pritchard. 

As one strolls through the exquisite garden-like setting of Riverside Cemetery, it becomes abundantly clear that although these figures from the past have departed, their legacies remain etched in the fabric of time, ensuring that they shall not be forgotten.

Riverside Cemetery owes its existence to the efforts of Rutherford Platt Hayes, a prominent Asheville lawyer and son of President Rutherford B. Hayes. Inspired by the rural cemetery movement sweeping the nation, Hayes envisioned a final resting place where the deceased could peacefully coexist with the city’s natural surroundings. In 1885, with the assistance of landscape architect Samuel Parsons Jr., Riverside Cemetery was officially established.

The cemetery’s initial design embraced the principles of the picturesque style, with meandering pathways, serene water features, and carefully curated plantings. The first burial took place in June 1886, when a child named Blanche Coleman was laid to rest, marking the beginning of Riverside’s role as a sacred space.

One of Riverside Cemetery’s most compelling aspects is its role as the final resting place for a diverse array of notable individuals who played pivotal roles in Asheville’s history. Among them is Thomas Patton, a Civil War general and a prominent figure in the community during the post-war era. Another figure of note is Zebulon Vance, a Confederate officer, North Carolina governor, and U.S. senator. 

The cemetery also houses the graves of several prominent architects, writers, and artists who contributed to Asheville’s cultural development, including Richard Sharp Smith, the supervising architect of the Biltmore House.

Notable burial sites, such as the Soldiers’ Circle, where Civil War veterans rest, gained historical recognition. Over time, Riverside Cemetery evolved into a significant historical resource, attracting visitors interested in exploring the region’s past.

Today, Riverside Cemetery continues to serve as a serene and informative destination for residents and visitors alike. The cemetery’s lush grounds, historical monuments, and captivating stories draw history enthusiasts, genealogists, and nature lovers alike.

Guided tours and educational programs offer insights into Asheville’s history and the lives of those interred within its bounds. Riverside Cemetery remains a cherished testament to the rich tapestry of Asheville’s past and an enduring symbol of remembrance, reflection, and reverence.

Riverside Cemetery is a testament to the city’s evolution over the decades. From its picturesque beginnings to its role as a historical treasure trove, it remains a vital part of Asheville’s identity.