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Founded in 1844, Marion serves as the eastern gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the seat of McDowell County. The area that would become McDowell County was home to both the Cherokee and the Catawba for more than 1,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. Joara, the largest indigenous settlement within North Carolina, was likely established around 1000 CE and sits less than 25 miles northeast of Marion in Burke County. Fort San Juan, the first European settlement in North Carolina, was established in Joara by the Spanish conquistador Juan Pardo in 1567. It was destroyed and abandoned one year later.

American colonists began to enter the area as early as the middle of the eighteenth century. The Joseph McDowell House, which was erected in 1787 by the county’s namesake, is still standing to this day and sits roughly three miles northwest of what is today downtown Marion. Another historic site, the Carson House, was built in 1793 on the site of a 6,500-acre plantation owned by Colonel John Carson. Carson’s mansion was the center of social and political life in the area for several decades, especially during a gold rush in the early nineteenth century that brought people from all over the country down to the area well before the California Gold Rush of 1849. Carson’s home was even the place where leading citizens from the vicinity met and formally decided to request McDowell County be formed from portions of Burke and Rutherford counties, and then served as the county’s courthouse for several years thereafter.

The railroad arrived in Marion in 1867, which connected it to points east. Like many other cities in Western North Carolina in the late nineteenth century, Marion experienced a population boom as hundreds moved to the area to take advantage of the tourism boom, but then experienced a major setback when most of the buildings on Main Street were lost to a fire in 1894. Showing extreme resilience, the city of Marion came roaring back to life and many of the brick structures that were built in the aftermath now make up the Main Street Historic District. Of course, several structures in this district predate the fire, including St. John’s Episcopal Church, the Eagle Hotel, and the Marion Depot, which is the oldest surviving depot on the Western Rail Line.

Today, Marion is a thriving city of approximately 8,000 residents that was even named “North Carolina Small Town of the Year” in 2018 by the N.C. Rural Center. This is largely because of its quaint downtown; tree-lined residential streets; and embrace of citizen engagement, diversity, and strong partnerships.

In addition to being a major destination in its own right, Marion offers proximity to outdoor recreation areas like Pisgah National Forest, Mt. Mitchell, and Lake Saint James State Park, as well as easy access to nearby towns and cities. Remote mountain communities like Little Switzerland are only a 25-minute drive to the north, while Morganton and Black Mountain sit only 30 minutes away on I-40 to the east or the west, respectively. Downtown Asheville can be reached in only 40 minutes.

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