Do forgotten treasures lay just below the streets and homes of Asheville, North Carolina? Some think they do. One of those is Cormac McKnight, a college student, from Nashville, who was searching Applewood Manors’ grounds with a metal detector. He said he was a detectorist, and he was on the hunt for Asheville’s buried treasure—a topic he was researching for his graduate degree. At any rate, he took a break from his search to join me on the Rocking Chair Porch for a cool glass of lemonade.
Cormac told me that there is little dispute about the existence of an extensive system of tunnels under the streets of Asheville. Initially, moonshiners used the tunnels to move product and later prohibition placed new demands on the system of tunnels extending their reach even further connecting suppliers with speakeasies, hotels, private clubs, restaurants, and even some private homes and estates of the wealthy. The tunnels made use of connected natural caves and vaults for storage of contraband.
He said that even before the moonshiners completed the first integrated system of tunnels, there had been considerable underground activity. It was not until the 1900’S that banks became a trusted place to secure funds. Prior to that, wealthy Ashevillians found creative ways to protect their assets by hiding them—sometimes in tunnels or underground vaults that started out as root cellars. During the Civil War, looting was widespread, and it became increasingly important to hide things of value that could be easily carried off. That lead to increased use of subterranean Asheville as a safe harbor for the wealth of its citizens. Tunnels were also used as early versions of safe houses. Then there were the enterprising saloon owners who increased profits by digging tunnels to connect their establishments with the town’s brothels.
After a sip of lemonade, Cormac continued to explain. “Mr. Collins, you can add the stories of a lost government gold shipment to the list of reasons for my belief that underground Asheville is a treasure chest waiting to be opened. According to the story I found in my research, fifty-two bars of gold disappeared in route to a mint. It is a haul worth some $76 million in today’s market. Most treasure hunters believe the gold is hidden in northwestern Pennsylvania but based on my research I believe those who argue that the wagon carrying the gold was hijacked and made it to Western North Carolina where it was stashed away somewhere underground here in Asheville. And that is not all, Mr. Collins. Do you know anything about the missing wealth of Jefferson Davis’s Confederate government?”
I indicated that I did not, but I could tell my visiting detectorist was bursting at the seams to tell me about it.
“Well, when the Confederate capital was about to be overrun by the Union Army, Jefferson Davis fled Richmond, Virginia with what remained of the Confederate assets including gold, silver, and valuable jewelry that ladies of the South had donated to the cause. We know some went south by train, but with Union troops on the hunt for Davis and Confederate wealth, it is likely that multiple shipments left Richmond. And my research indicates that some of those assets probably made it to Asheville, to be secured by a Confederate loyalist for the South’s government in exile. During Reconstruction, it is unlikely that any attempt would have been made to retrieve the hidden stores and considering the turbulent times, the recipient may have taken his secret of the hiding place to his grave having been a victim of vigilantes, or one of the illnesses ravaging the South at that time.”
Cormac took another lemonade break before continuing his dissertation. And I have to say that his enthusiasm was catching. I was about ready to go shopping for my own metal detector.
“And Mr. Collins, did you know that during World War II, Irreplaceable documents and artworks were stored in secret areas of the Biltmore Mansion? Asheville’s remoteness made it the perfect place to protect this country’s treasures from our enemies. The government confiscated the Grove Archive Building and rented three of Asheville’s main hotels and the basement of the Asheville City Auditorium. Valuable government supplies and top secret documents replaced illegal alcohol in the storage areas beneath Asheville. It would not be a surprise to find that some of those stored items remain there to this day.”
While Cormac’s stories about treasure had almost convinced me, the more I thought about it, something did not add up. It was the part about the tunnels. So, I said, “Why are you looking for your treasure using that metal detector equipment of yours? Shouldn’t you be looking in those tunnels you talked about?”
The detectorist shook his head. “The problem for me or any other treasure hunter today is that there is no longer an extensive underground tunnel system to be explored. It was disrupted and broken up by post war growth and development. Pre-Civil War buildings and estates, lacking modern plumbing and wiring, were torn down and replaced by new mega mansions or subdivisions. New construction, including shopping centers, hotels, office buildings, factories, and even new roads, all required development of a modern underground infrastructure. As a result, the maze of connected tunnels is now just a series of isolated inaccessible pockets of the original system including its spurs, caverns, and vaults. That is why we must search above ground using our detection equipment.”
With that said, Cormac McKnight, the detectorist, thanked me for the lemonade, took his metal detector and returned to his search for long forgotten hidden treasures that may still wait to be discovered.