A History of Morganton, North Carolina

Burke County Courthouse - Morganton, North Carolina

Morganton is more than just another small, quaint Southern town. Originally named Morgansborough, then Morgantown, it was shortened to Morganton.

Burke County and its largest city, Morganton, welcome all newcomers. Burke County, with abundant forests, rolling hills, 154 miles of shoreline on Lake James (where the movie, "The Last of The Mohicans" was filmed), ninety miles of shoreline on Lake Rhodhiss, and mountains all around, is a beautiful place to live and do business. The county has a relatively low tax base and efficient road systems.

The largest county in western North Carolina, nestled at the foot of the glorious Blue Ridge Mountains, Burke County occupies 511 square miles. Morganton serves as Burke's county seat and hub of cultural, governmental and commercial activities. Bisected by the Catawba River with views of majestic Table Rock, Morganton's natural beauty is unsurpassed.

Prior to the middle of the eighteenth century, the region now known as Burke County was a wilderness serving as hunting ground for the Catawba and Cherokee tribes. In 1750, the Great Southern Migration of Scots-Irish and German settlers began. It was temporarily halted by the French and Indian War, but resumed until the eve of the American Revolution.

In 1777, the people petitioned the North Carolina Assembly for formation of a new county, which was named after patriot Thomas Burke, who became the third governor of the state. Established in 1777 and incorporated 1784, Morganton was named for Brigadier General Daniel Morgan of Revolutionary War fame. Its first name was Morgansborough which was later changed to Morgantown then to Morganton.

The town of Morganton was established in 1784 as the site of a circuit court for the North Carolina frontier. A post office was established in 1795, and an east/west road (now Highway 70) stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Tennessee was soon built. From 1847 until the outbreak of the Civil War, the local court house hosted the summer session of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Government was suspended just after the Civil War, but the charter was revised and fully reinstated by the General Assembly in 1885. Morganton is the largest city in and the county seat for Burke County.

There was never a slave market in Morganton, however, William Walton, Jr., a merchant living in Charleston until 1808, sent slaves that had recently arrived from Africa to his Burke County plantation along the Johns River. There they were taught to speak English and to farm using American methods, then they were sold to plantation owners. After 1850, an agent, Z. D. Lancaster, made his headquarters here.

Because of its prominence as a "court town," two of the state's largest institutions, Broughton Hospital for the mentally ill and the NC School for the Deaf, were located in the city in the late nineteenth century. Today, it is also home to Western Carolina Center, a research and hospital facility for the mentally retarded, as well as home to correctional facilities for male youth and adults.

A fire destroyed many of the wooden commercial structures in downtown Morganton in 1893. Within a few years, the mercantile and retail stores were rebuilt and, except for some facade improvements, remain much the same in appearance even today.

Morganton can best be described by the word "progressive." It was one of the first municipalities in the state to provide its own electric system. Public education began in the early 1900s; classes met in the town hall and at the First United Methodist Church.

Prior to the turn of the twentieth century, Waldenses from the Cottian Alps of Italy settled in nearby Valdese. Valdese, is the second largest town in the county. It was founded in 1893 by the Waldensian pioneers who escaped generations of religious persecution in the Cottian Alps of Northern Italy to settle here. Valdese (derived from the Italian word Valdesi, which means "Waldensian") was incorporated in 1920. The story of the Waldenses is unique in the history of North Carolina. A European ambiance is still evident in the downtown. Alba Waldensian Hosiery and Waldensian Bakeries rank as two of the largest industries in the county.

Beginning in the 1970s, an influx of Hmong immigrants came to escape political persecution. In the 90s, Hispanic men and women from Central America, seeking economic opportunities, migrated here to work in poultry, textiles, and furniture industries.

Recent historical events include Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr. of Morganton serving as chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee. Senator Ervin, a longtime advocate of individual liberties, was an admired authority on the Constitution and Constitutional Law. His library has been reconstructed on the campus of Western Piedmont Community College and is open to the public.

The original site for classes for Western Piedmont Community College was in the City Hall basement. The campus is located inside the city limits. Following a bond referendum in 1985, the city built the City of Morganton Municipal Auditorium (CoMMA), site of Broadway productions as well as fundraisers for local charities and graduation ceremonies. Although it has a staff of four, its strongest component is a volunteer force of ninety provided through our American Association of Retired Persons chapter. Morganton operates its own cable television system (COMPAS), which offers a variety of programming to 90% of city households.

In 1926, recognizing the need to protect its water supply, Morganton purchased 6,000 acres of land in a nearby mountainous watershed. In the early 1990s as state and federal governments shut down private watersheds, Morganton transferred the acreage to the state for protection of the watershed and for a large park for outdoor and recreational use.

In late 1998, the city of Morganton, in one of its efforts to maintain a vibrant downtown and its historical integrity, formed a joint venture with private developers to restore Premiere Hosiery, a vacant mill in the downtown area. It will be used for a variety of purposes including condominiums, retail stores, and professional offices and is the home of Morganton’s City Hall.

Morganton was the first city in North Carolina to adopt the City Manager form of government; and in 1998, named its first female City Manager, Sally Sandy. The governing body, the City Council, consists of the mayor and four elected council members.

Morgantown was granted a US Post Office on January 1, 1795, and its first Postmaster was Mr. William Watson. It has been in continuous operation ever since.

© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved