General E.R. Hampton

General E.R. Hampton, a lawyer who died in 1908, is the man responsible for securing both a post office and a railway station for the town of Sylva. Though born in Buncombe County and a resident of Swain County in the last years of his life, it was in Jackson that Hampton left a permanent mark. He died in Bryson City, but was returned to Sylva for burial in Keener Cemetery, which overlooks the town he founded.

Hampton’s career is similar to that of Dillsboro founder William Allen Dills. Both supported education and were involved in politics and community well-being. Most importantly for Jackson County, both Hampton and Dills recognized the potential of the railroad and took the necessary action to secure the stations that provided an enormous boost to the economy.

According to local historian George Frizzell, it seems that despite Hampton’s status as town founder, his name and family are most typically invoked in the account of how the post office (and eventually the town) came to be named for W.D. Sylva (who actually spelled his name Selvey, but that’s a story for another time). In the oft-repeated version of that story, Hampton asked his 9-year old daughter, Mae, what the name should be, and she proclaimed it should be called after her father’s construction worker, Mr. Sylva. “To let his daughter name the post office for another person rather than for himself or a family member is a nice humanizing touch,” Frizzell said.

Hampton’s personality emerges in the writings of those who claimed to have known him, such as James H. Cathey, Robert L. Madison and Mr. Sylva himself, with several accounts describing Hampton’s tenacity in building a depot using his own resources when the railroad declined his request. “Hampton even volunteered to serve as the unpaid station agent for a year until the company found it gainful,” Frizzell said. “One thing I especially like is his support in late 1888 for a newspaper based in Sylva, the Tuckaseige Democrat, to accompany the Webster Herald. But Robert Madison, the paper’s editor and later founder of Western Carolina University, noted that Hampton’s ‘multifarious duties and activities impelled him to relinquish to others some of his heavy responsibilities.’”

Hampton was typically referred to as “General” in contemporary reports, though the origins of that title are unclear, Frizzell said. Hampton has a Civil War record, and apparently entered service at age 17 when North Carolina began to enlist younger men. Without further research at this time, the best summation of his post-war title is likely the one in the obituary written by James Cathey, which appeared in the March 13, 1908, issue of The Jackson County Journal. “How he gained the sobriquet of ‘General’ we are not informed.”

Madison, however, professed to know the answer to the “general” question. In a Sunday series he penned for the Asheville Citizen titled “Experiences Of A Pedagogue In The Carolina Highlands,” Madison writes that “at the age of 17, (Hampton) entered the service of the Confederacy and was hospital steward in the 20th N. C. Battalion. For a special military service, he later received a general’s title.” According to Frizzell, Hampton himself in 1901 wrote a chapter on the 20th Battalion for Walter Clark’s “Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina, in the Great War 1861-’65,” in which he is identified only as “Hospital Steward.”

To add even less clarity, an article in the Sept. 13, 1951, Sylva Herald, titled “Jackson County Lawyers and Judges,” reveals that “‘General’ E.R. Hampton, ‘General’ being an honorary title bestowed upon him, was one of the leading attorneys in the early days of Jackson County. He was a son-in-law of Judge R.H. Cannon. He served in the Southern Army during the Civil War and immediately following the war, during the ‘Carpet Bag’ days, the record is that he obtained his license by sending to Raleigh a certificate of ‘Good Character’ and $20.00, this being the only requirement at that time.”

Hampton’s efforts on behalf of a depot are reported in The Sylva Herald’s 1951 Centennial edition. It’s a lively story, complete with quotes from Hampton, who had died more than 40 years earlier. Though the writer is not named, the late Bob Terrell, an Addie native and longtime columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times who got his start at The Herald, is believed to have written the piece. It also appears likely that Terrell based his account of Madison’s 1938 recollections, given the colorful descriptions in this sample:

“Hampton, regardless of friendly protest or vigorous opposition, requested the railroad authorities to establish a station at Sylva,” writes Madison. “The request seemed so absurd as hardly to be entitled to respectful consideration. Why should the railroad build a station just a mile and five-eights east of Dillsboro? ‘Excuse us, General; but we can’t afford to put a depot on every farm on Scott’s Creek.’ Did Hampton take ‘no’ for an answer? Not he. Generous-hearted ‘Uncle’ Jasper Allen and progressive, far-sighted Allen Dills were called into consultation by General Hampton. They ‘went into a huddle.’ When they came out of conference, what do you suppose they had decided? Why – bless their brave, liberal hearts! – they had decided to lay off a station site, build a depot, put in a side-track, and offer all these gratis to the railroad company. When the company hesitated because of the expense of an agent’s salary, Hampton, resolving to remove the last reasonable excuse, offered his services free till the station should justify paying such an employee. Then, after the train continued to pass Sylva without stopping, the resourceful general several times halted the engineer by rushing into the middle of the track and furiously waving a red flannel shirt. The railroad company, overcome by the general’s importunity, persistence, and liberality, yielded and put Sylva on the railroad map and schedule. Hampton’s faith and sacrifice thus found its first phase of fruition.”

And now, back to Terrell’s toned-down 1951 account:

“It was a long time before the turn of the century that Gen. E.R. Hampton saw the need for a railway station in Sylva. In fact, it was in the 1880s when the Western North Carolina Railroad Company pushed their initial line through the small settlement.

“Possibly General Hampton foresaw that Sylva’s chances of getting the county seat moved there from Webster would be considerably better if the trains stopped at Sylva. The move for removal of the seat was on at the time and was growing strong.”

It would actually be another 30 years before Sylva became the county seat after a hard-fought 1913 referendum that saw the “removalists”– led by C.J. Harris – carry the day, but Terrell had the advantage of hindsight.

“At any rate, the WNC company had planned no station for Sylva,” Terrell’s story continues. “Trains stopped at Dillsboro (then New Webster) but just kept chugging when they steamed through Sylva. General Hampton owned all the property on the south side of Scott’s Creek where Sylva now stands. He proposed to the railroad that if the trains would stop in Sylva, he would personally build a depot.

“The railway company answered to the affirmative but added the clause that the company would not furnish a station agent.

“‘By God,’ that was Hampton’s favorite by-word, ‘I’ll serve myself.’ And he did. He acted as station agent free of charge for 12 months.”

According to the story, Hampton, Allen Bartlett Dills (father of fire department founder A.J. “Jonah” Dills) and Jasper Allen constructed the building from lumber supplied by Hampton’s sawmill, which was located on what is now the east (Innovation) end of Mill Street.

“After Hampton’s year as station agent, he built up such a trade for the WNC company that the company furnished an agent and has been doing so ever since,” Terrell writes.

When Terrell was writing that story, a portion of that depot still stood. “Most of the beams in the freight room are the original ones which these three men put up,” adding that Dills had “snaked out the logs” that were used to construct the building.

Sylva’s depot was torn down in the late 1970s. It stood between Mill Street and Railroad Avenue, near the Spring Street intersection, in the spot that is the geographic center of the original town limits.

When Hampton’s house was being torn down in 1934, it also made the local news. The Dec. 20, 1934, edition of the Journal includes an article headlined “Oldest Landmark of Town is Being Razed by Workmen.”

The Journal report includes the information that the old Hampton home, which was located on Main Street near Hampton’s sawmill, was erected in 1879, and built by General Erastus R. Hampton, the founder of Sylva, for his home. It credits that information on the house’s history to a 1924 letter written by William Sylva, the man for whom Hampton’s daughter had named the town. The newspaper describes the house as the “show place of this part of the county,” and goes on to say that “with its stately verandas and spacious, terraced lawn, stretching down to what were then the crystal waters of Scott’s Creek, it was indeed a lovely spot. It and its master were, in bygone years, the center of social life, and of the political battles.” According to the story, business buildings had for years been encroaching on the house, lawns and gardens, “leaving nothing but the old house itself. Now the house is leaving, and before many years have passed it will be forgotten.”

In 2015 the Jackson County Genealogical Society and town of Sylva joined together to restore Hampton’s headstone and place a plaque acknowledging his role in Sylva history. His grave marker reads “E.R. Hampton / 16 Nov 1846 / 8 Mar 1908.” The plaque added later reads “Erastus Rawley Hampton / Founder of Sylva / 1889.”

Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.