Bordering Georgia and South Carolina, Jackson County was formed in 1851 from Haywood and Macon counties. Just under an hour from Asheville, the county seat of Sylva was not selected until 1913, following a 25 year campaign by a faction called the “Removalists” to have the county seat moved to Sylva from Webster. The Removalists were led by a wealthy industrialist, CJ Harris, who believed that Sylva possessed the greatest economic opportunity, chiefly for its proximity to the railroad. The Sylva Courthouse, which was constructed by Harris, is the most photographed building in the county.
Prior to Jackson’s formation, the Tuckasegee River served as a dividing line between Haywood and Macon counties. The river runs nearly the full length of the county is a desired destination for whitewater rafting and fishing. Of the 16 waterfalls populating the county, Whitewater Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Rockies with a 411 foot cascade.
Jackson County contains the highest summit in the Nantahala National Forest at Lone Bald’s elevation of 5,800 ft. The county also contains a favorite for hikers, Panthertown Valley, which has been referred to as the “Yosemite of the East.” In addition to tourism, the county’s rich forestry has made lumber and Christmas trees a major part of the county’s economy.
Part of the largest contiguous portion of the Qualla Boundary, the reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is located in Jackson County. Of special significance to the Cherokee is the Judacalla Rock, a soapstone boulder known to contain more petroglyphs than any other boulder East of the Mississippi River. The carvings are believed to date back to 200-1400 AD. Jackson also contains one of the oldest mountains in the world, Whiteside Mountain, which is estimated to be between 360-490 million years old.
Located in Cullowhee, Western Carolina University began in 1889 and is the fifth oldest institution in the UNC System. Founded as a secondary school, WCU was designated as a regional university in 1967 and joined the UNC System in 1972. Early iterations of WCU provided a model for both Appalachian State and Eastern Carolina University.
In 1930, Jackson County native, Gertrude Dills McKee, was the first woman to be elected to the NC Senate. McKee served three non-consecutive terms between 1931 and 1945 and was elected to a fourth term in 1948, but tragically died from a heart attack prior to the beginning of the session. It was believed in some Democratic circles at the time that she could be the state’s first female governor. In addition to her political legacy, McKee and her husband were known for their entrepreneurial efforts in the county, specifically the High Hampton Inn in Cashiers. The landmark resort dating back to 1922, was recently reopened in 2021 following a complete renovation. In addition to the High Hampton, the Highland-Cashiers plateau is home to a number of luxury inns and resorts with Travel + Leisure calling the area the “Aspen of the Carolinas.”
Cashiers is also home to the Zachary-Tolbert House, a pre-civil war home built c.1852 that has remained virtually unaltered for 150 years. Today the Greek Revival home serves as a museum and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The home also boasts the largest known collection of “plain-style” furniture, built by Mordecai Zachary himself.
Politically, the location of the University makes Jackson more competitive than most of its neighboring counties where Republicans have comfortably secured more than 60% of the vote share in the last two elections. In 2020 and 2022, Republicans averaged 53% and 54.5%, respectively. The last time a Democratic presidential candidate won the county was in 2008 when Barack Obama received just under 52% of the vote.