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Connestee Falls: A Little Piece of Heaven
'People are drawn to waterfalls,” said Dick Smith of Brevard. “I think it's their power. Their pristine beauty. Their uniqueness.”
Smith, 77, knows the attraction of waterfalls as well as anyone. For nearly 20 years, he was the owner of iconic Connestee Falls, a 100-foot cascade near Cedar Mountain.
“It was like a little piece of heaven,” he said of his impression when he saw the picturesque Transylvania County waterfall in 1986. Smith had relocated from metropolitan New York, and in 1990, he purchased seven acres that included Connestee Falls.
Smith was seeking a place to open a realty office. The location just off of busy Highway 276 — and adjacent to the subdivision named for the falls — was an ideal one for his business. “But I didn't want to own a waterfall,” he said.
Ultimately, Smith didn't have a choice. The previous owner only offered sale of the property in its entirely — waterfall included. Smith made the purchase and opened his office. Fittingly, he named his business Top of the Falls Realty.
For most of the next two decades, Smith watched as droves of visitors parked at his office to make the short walk to view the falls — no more than a 50-yard stroll.
“I sat in my office watching a parade of people going by. Between 30 and 50 cars a day would stop,” Smith said.
In fact, so popular is Connestee Falls as a destination that guidebook author and photographer Kevin Adams, the leading expert on North Carolina waterfalls, calls it “among the best-known in the state.”
Added Smith, “it was unbelievable. I was taken aback by its draw.”
Smith was not only impressed by the sheer numbers of visitors, but also by the array of physical abilities that he saw accessing the falls. “Trunks would pop open. Walkers, wheelchairs and strollers would come out.”
The short, flat walk, to the water's edge enabled easy access to the top of the waterfall for just about everyone.
“Most of the time I saw entire families — from small children to grandparents without much mobility — make the trip,” Smith said. “It's one of the few falls that is readily accessible from a parking lot without stairs. And it's close to town and a major highway.”
Ease of access isn't the only characteristic that makes Connestee Falls popular among visitors. Smith's property actually hosts three waterfalls. Carson Creek flows over Connestee Falls, the largest of the three both in height and width. Immediately adjacent is Batson Creek Falls, a 40-foot cascade that drains its namesake creek from within the Connestee Falls development to the south.
A third falls — where the two others come together in a narrow flume — is known as Silver Slip. The three waterfalls form the backdrop of a deep gorge headwall as the united streams make their way to the French Broad River.
Smith is one of many to have owned the trio of waterfalls. According to waterfall historian Jim Bob Tinsely, in 1852 Will Probart Poor bought the falls and surrounding 100 acres for $5 from the state of North Carolina. By 1870, Lewis P. Summey was operating a gristmill at the top of the falls.
At that time, the falls was nameless. While the name Connestee is Cherokee-derived, it wasn't given to the falls by Native Americans. It instead appears to have been bestowed in the late 1800s by Dr. F.A. Miles, the owner of the Caesars Head Hotel, once located to the south on what is today U.S. Highway 276.
Tinsely's research unearthed a letter by Miles claiming to have first dubbed the falls Connestee in 1873. The cataract reminded him of a legend in which an Indian maiden of that name lost her life over the edge of a waterfall.
Different versions of the legend suggest that the fall was either accidental or intentional. Variations also suggest that it was either in unison with her Englishman lover or alone following heartbreak.
The story is a common one associated with dozens of other locales across the country — including a similar tale connected to Jump Off Rock in Henderson County's Laurel Park. And while such romantic tragedy might have actually occurred elsewhere, we know that it in fact did not happen at Connestee Falls.
After the turn of the 20th century, the area near the top of Connestee Falls hosted a roadside general store that drew tourists visiting the waterfall. According to Smith, the “five and dime store” operated a turnstile through which visitors passed after paying a nickel admission to view the falls.
In the early 1970s, the Connestee Falls development — a private community now hosting 1,300 homes — broke ground on adjacent property. The area between the road and the falls for many years became the home of the neighborhood's property sales center.
In addition to small cabins for overnight stays by prospective lot buyers, Smith said it also featured a lighted walkway down to the bottom of the falls. “There was even someone dressed as an Indian maiden dancing out by the road to attract business.”
Over the years, Smith received many offers to purchase the property that included the three waterfalls. “They wanted to build a private home overlooking the falls,” he said. “But that's not what I want to see happen.
“I kept thinking to myself that an individual should not own a waterfall,” Smith recalled. “This should be available to everyone in the community, always.”
In 2006, Smith approached Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy for help ensuring that his waterfalls were both forever protected and available to the public. Said Smith, “CMLC has an excellent reputation in getting these things accomplished — and accomplished well.”
Two years later, Smith and CMLC achieved a conservation easement — preventing the building of structures and any other degradation of natural resources in perpetuity — on three acres of his property that included the waterfalls. Funding from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund made that permanent protection possible.
That same year, CMLC also acquired ownership of the land itself to facilitate perpetual public access to the falls. Smith made a sizeable donation by selling the property well under its market value. The purchase was funded by the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, Fred and Alice Stanback, and donations from several residents of the Connestee Falls development.
In 2009, CMLC then conveyed the land to Transylvania County for the creation of a new county park. Remaining PARTF funding enabled construction of a new boardwalk trail and overlook platform above the falls.
The new trail and viewing platform is ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible, which was particularly important to Smith after watching so many visitors enjoy the falls regardless of their mobility.
Connestee Falls Park, forever protected and publicly accessible, formally opened in 2011. It continues to receive thousands of visitors annually.
“It's available to everybody and anybody, now and forever,” Smith said. “God made that waterfall for all of us to enjoy. I think the outcome was perfect.”
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.