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Follow the history of Asheville’s Urban Trail

Asheville’s historical Urban Trail has everything from a giant flat iron to a swinging bell to a bronze version of Thomas Wolfe’s shoes.

Flat Iron Sculpture

This giant iron by Reed Todd is a replica of one used by a local laundry.

Photo by @downtownasheville

Table of Contents

Scattered across downtown, over the course of 1.7 miles, there are 30 intriguing art works, including everything from a giant flat iron to a swinging bell to a bronze version of Thomas Wolfe’s shoes. In a place like Asheville, where art is around every corner, they could be easy to overlook. But these sculptures + plaques are telling a collective story, each marking a stop along the city’s historical Urban Trail.

While each of these public art pieces represent a slice of history in their own right, today we’re charting how the Urban Trail came to exist in the first place and how the trail has continued to evolve to reflect a more inclusive, contemporary history of Asheville.

Wall St. Cat

One of these 3 cats was stolen in 2018 + recently replaced by the City. | Photo by @karenthib

Blazing a trail

The Urban Trail initially took shape in 1989 when city staff + residents came together to rejuvenate a downtown that had been long deserted. The goal of the 30 works of public art was to commemorate Asheville’s history, culture, and architecture, while inviting more growth and new activity to the spaces.

The trail is divided into five historical periods that have corresponding symbols:

  • A feather for the Gilded Age (1880-1930)
  • A horseshoe for the Frontier Period (1784-1880)
  • The city building for the “Era of Civic Pride” (late 1800s)
  • An angel for the impact of Thomas Wolfe on downtown (1900-1938)
  • The eagle, representing the age of “cultural diversity” (mid to late 1900s)
A map of the 30 stops on the Asheville Urban Trail

The Urban Trail takes ~2 hours to walk. | Screen grab courtesy of Explore Asheville

Map via Explore Asheville

Spearheaded by the Asheville Downtown Association, the trail took 10 years to complete. Much of the project was funded by individual donors who purchased commemorative bricks to support its creation, which can be seen downtown between the now-former site of the Vance Monument and Pack Fountain. The final piece of art, named Walk Into History, was installed in May 2002.

Pro tip: For folks who want to learn more, check out the short documentary “Walk into History,” which was produced by local filmmaker + historian Erin Derham.

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The 18-minute film “Walking Into History” highlights stories from the folks who created the urban trail. | Screen grab from Vimeo

History in the modern day

In 2017, the trail was updated with an interactive website, map + audio tour that allows folks to experience it with their smartphones. And in 2021, the City had a special ceremony that rededicated + recontextualized 3 of the trail’s newly updated stations:

  • The Shopping Daze marker, recently reinstalled following the Haywood Streetscape Project, added a plaque that honors the contributions of Jewish merchants.
  • The Cat Walk received a recast bronze statue after 1 of the 3 cats was stolen.
  • The Grove’s Vision marker was also reinstalled following downtown construction and now includes solar lighting for viewing at night.

The updates aren’t stopping there though. The City and the Public Art and Culture Commission (PACC) put out a call for local artists to reimagine and replace Station #7, a tile mosaic marker called “Art Deco Masterpiece” that honors the architecture and era of its home, the S&W Building. Semi-finalists will be notified on Wednesday, May 22, and the contract will be awarded in early July. The City hopes to have the new art completed by early 2025.

Members of the City’s Public Art and Cultural Commission have also shared that they are reckoning with the way Black Asheville’s history has been recast (and often erased) in the Urban Trail’s narrative. The PACC hopes to use City funding to recontextualize even more of these pieces to help tell more of the full, inclusive history of Asheville, and the Asheville Black Cultural Heritage Trail, which opened last December, aims to tell the stories of Asheville’s Black community.

Take a hike

Learn more along the way with descriptions of each stop and an audio tour. If you’re cartographically inclined, you can download a printable map.

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