Southeast Excursions: 4 places to explore Burke County’s past

The former Burke County courthouse in downtown Morganton features rotating exhibits about the county’s history.
The former Burke County courthouse in downtown Morganton features rotating exhibits about the county’s history. GARY MCCULLOUGH

History lovers will find much to like at a quartet of sites in and around Morganton, in Burke County.


Morganton is 68 miles from Charlotte, about a 75-minute drive.

To see and do

In its 10-plus years of operation, the History Museum of Burke County has gathered an impressive assortment of mostly ordinary, sometimes exceptional, artifacts from generations past, all displayed to good effect in a spacious, 1960s-era building originally used as Morganton’s City Hall.

Visitors get guided tours through the many exhibit rooms, some of which re-create such everyday settings from the mid-20th century as the Burkemont Hotel’s barber shop, Vivian’s Beauty Shop, Dave’s Cafe, and the generic offices of a doctor and a dentist. Other rooms showcase themed collections: military artifacts, children’s toys and games, farm implements and so on. A few rooms are very specific to Burke County, such as the one detailing explorer Juan Pardo’s efforts at Spanish colonization in the vicinity of Morganton in 1567, nearly two decades before an English colony was attempted on Roanoke Island.

The museum also oversees the recently restored Morganton Railroad Depot, built circa 1916, a few blocks away. Along with a handful of railroading relics, the depot exhibits photos of the Western North Carolina Rail Road and Southern Railway. One interesting photo shows Morganton itself, taken a few years prior to the fire of 1893 that destroyed much of the town. The iconic Burke County Courthouse, clearly visible in the photo, was one of the few buildings to survive.

More Burke County history can be gleaned at that former county courthouse itself, built in 1837 and used continuously until 1976. The stucco-covered building, with its distinctive Baroque-style cupola, dominates Morganton’s downtown. Changing exhibits focus on varying aspects of the county’s history, including architecture, education and economic development.

Rounding out the foursome of historic attractions is the Sam Ervin Library, inside the Western Piedmont Community College library. “Senator Sam” was a pivotal figure during the Watergate scandal.

Want to go?

Admission is free to the History Museum of Burke County. The main building is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday. The Railroad Depot is open 1-3 p.m. Saturdays only. Details:

The historic courthouse is open 9 a.m. -5 p.m. weekdays. The Sam Ervin Library is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays. Details: