D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections and University Archives

Walter B. Gwyn Papers


Title Walter B. Gwyn Papers (1891-1897)
Creator Walter B. Gwyn, (1853-1911)
Identifier http://toto.lib.unca.edu/finding aids/mss/gwyn_w_b/default_gwyn_w.htm
F.C.B. Avery ; J.C.Baird ; G.E. Edwards ;;French Broad Lumber Company ;;R.B. Groesbeck ;M.E. Hilliard ; E.F. Hines ; W.B. Kelly ; B.M. Lyons ; G.W. Pack ; S.J. Sharpless ;G.W. Swain ; George Summey ; Karl Von Ruck ; Gen. R.B. Vance ;Zebulon Vance ;  santoria ; law ; real estate ; real estate law ; Pack Square ; Vance Monument ; Manyoaks ; timber ; lumber ; travel ; lawyers ; businessmen ; Freemasonary ; Masons ; Asheville Ice and Coal Company ; Asheville Brick Company ; Boilston Mines ; James Gwyn ; Mary Gwyn ; Asheville & Craggy Mountain Railway Company ; R.P. Foster ; Henry Phipps ;
Description The papers are contained in two "letterpress copy books" or ledgers holding correspondence written between 1891 and 1896 by Walter B. Gwyn. The correspondence pertains to his business as a land agent concerned with agricultural property, mines, mill properties, and timber lands. Many of his correspondents were major politicians and land holders in North Carolina and the Northeast. Correspondence with George Willis Pack is particularly important for an understanding of the development of the area surrounding the main square in Asheville, NC. The ledgers also contain personal correspondence with the Gwyn family, particularly Walter's brother James B. Gwyn. The detailed accounts of the rise and decline of real estate speculation in Asheville is of particular interest. 
Publisher Special Collections, D.H. Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina at Asheville 28804
Date Creation: 2002-06-20
Format 2 bound volumes ; Letterpress copy books ["letterpress copy" is a form of duplication that uses a special ink that when moistened and pressed on very thin paper such as onionskin, the traces of the original type or handwritten document are transferred to the paper. The quality of transfer is very erratic. Often the copy is incomplete or faint or blurred. This is the case with many of the copies in these ledgers.]
Source D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, Manuscript Collections, M2002.7.1
Language English
Coverage 1891-1897 ; Asheville, NC
Rights No restrictions.  Copyright: Retained by the authors of certain items in the collection, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.
Acquisition 2002-06-20
Citation Preferred citation: Walter B. Gwyn Papers, Special Collections, D.H. Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina at Asheville 28804
Processed by Special Collections staff, 2002-06-20, 2005-12-08, 2008-11
Last update 2008-11-13
Biography: Walter B. Gwyn, a native North Carolinian, was raised in Wilkes County. Green Hill Plantation, the family home,  was later occupied by Walter's brother, James Gwyn and family, his sister, Mary and his mother. A lawyer by trade, Gwyn worked most of his career in Asheville. He was married and had two girls. The youngest child, Helen, is frequently referred to in his letters.

Gwyn studied law and received his degree in the early 1870's. While he pursued a law degree, his primary practice was as a land agent for property in and around Asheville, particularly for George Willis Pack, whose name is well known from the major donation he left to Asheville, the land for Pack Square. Gwyn also ventured into railways and mining, two popular enterprises at the turn of the century. One of his well-known ventures in Asheville was the building of the Asheville & Craggy Mountain Railway that ran from Charlotte Street to a point known as "Overlook" on Sunset Mountain, near the "Old Quarry". His partner was R.P. Foster and their venture proved to be a very popular ride for residents and visitors to Asheville. The narrow-gauge railway terminus on Sunset Mountain had one of the best views in the area. The steam engine that ran the route was a narrow-gauge train, called a "dummy." According to Preston Arthur in his History of Western North Carolina, Gwyn applied for a license on November 28, 1890 to extend his railway along Charlotte Street into the city of Asheville. This expansion of service was also successful as was his partnership with Richard S. Howland, who chartered with Gwyn to extend the railway to the "Golf Club" at the end of Charlotte Street. Vandalism, over-extension of resources, the ubiquitous automobile, failure in the stock market and a dwindling patronage eventually led to the demise of the rail line.

Walter B. Gwyn's early business contacts were impressive, if the two ledgers in this collection are any measure. He was instrumental in the building of the city through his legal negotiations for his clients for property during the property boom that exploded at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century . But like so many of the entrepreneurs at the end of the century, his prospects and those of his clients began to dim in 1896 when debt began to pile up and many found themselves over-extended.. He wrote to brother James M. in December of 1896 that he was without means to re-pay his debts and that the Great Panic of 1893 had left his fortunes ruined as stocks tumbled and railroad investments were hard hit. What happened to Gwyn, is not unlike the events before the Crash of 1929. Asheville had been in a feeding frenzy of land speculation from the mid to late years of the nineteenth century.. The ledgers are filled with speculative "deals." Land that can be had by buying "cheap" and selling "high" is found throughout Gwyn's correspondence. The prosperity of the land boom in Asheville in the early part of the 1880's and 1890's led to a false sense of well-being. Land monopolies in Asheville such as those held by George Willis Pack, Henry Phipps, the Vanderbilts, the Pattons, the Davidsons, the Merrimons, the Coxes, and others was not an exercise in planned economy, but one of opportunity that eventually ruined all but the very rich. While the very wealthy prospered, new entrepreneurs such as Gwyn, often found their over-zealous buying eventually brought them into crushing debt. In one letter to his family Gwyn laments that his assets in the early years of his life were recorded at over $100,000 and at the end of his life his debts were well over that amount. Such was the case with Gwyn in his later years and such was the history of Asheville, generally.

Walter B. Gwyn's early business contacts were impressive, if the two ledgers in this collection are any measure. He was integrally instrumental in the building of the city through his legal negotiations for various clients. Real estate negotiations at the end of the nineteenth century and continuing into the early twentieth century in Asheville were rapid-fire and included many of the major so-called "Robber-Barons" in the north east. Also, in 1886 Gwyn had a Gold Mining Company located in Henderson County. The Boylsten [Boilston] Creek area of Henderson County was thought to have a large deposit of gold bearing quartz. In the Ores of North Carolina, 1887, p.316, we read, “Explorations were so favorable that a company was formed to work it [the mine], and the proper machinery erected for treating the ores.”  The mining company Gwyn created  was called Boilston Mining Company, and was incorporated under Cert. #59, in 1886. Walter B. Gwyn was the President, and the secretary was P.S. Cummings. Initially, Gwyn successfully sold shares in the company, but it did not turn out to be the "large deposit" that was first thought and mining returns did not sustain the company. It quickly fell into hard times and Gwyn moved on to other ventures.

Item List:
Box Folder Description
M2002.7.1 Items Gwyn Legal Correspondence Ledgers, index is intact (2 ledgers) *Ledgers are extremely fragile. Letters on onion-skin paper. Do not expose to intense light. Do not photocopy.
  1 Index of correspondents Ledger I
  1 Index of correspondents Ledger II
  1 Gwyn Ledger I - 1891 - 1896 (partially digitized)
  2 Gwyn Ledger II - 1895 (partially digitized)

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