North Carolina History Digital Textbook Project

A technological tour of the Biltmore Estate

By Sue Clark McKendree

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.


Photograph of the furnace of the Biltmore House. (Photograph courtesy of Biltmore Company. More about the photograph)

Interpreting the coal bins

At the turn of the last century, these bins, or bunkers, held coal for the boilers, the water heater, and the kitchen. They held 200 tons of coal.1

In January of 1900, Charles McNamee sent a memorandum to Mr. Vanderbilt regarding the use of coal in the House, where the supply of range (cooking) coal had been exhausted sooner that expected. McNamee wrote: “We sent about one hundred tons to the House in August, and it would seem that coal is being burned more rapidly than heretofore.”2 In March of 1900 he noted that 25 tons of coal were burned in the boilers between February 21st and March 8th (two weeks).3 The winter of 1900 must have been exceptionally cold!

  • Coal suppliers included The Southern Jellico Coal Co., Jellico, Tennessee,4 and the Queen City Coal Co.5 and the Tennessee Coal Mining Company (Coal Creek Coal), both of Knoxville.6
  • The openings to ground level above, in the Kitchen Courtyard, let in light, ventilation and served as coal chutes. Originally, Hunt designed both summer and winter covers. Presumably, the summer covers provided ventilation.
  • The bricks are worn away from the thousands of tons of coal that were dropped into the bins through the years.

Interpreting the bins as storage

Ask the students to think about all the “stuff” that they might have stored in their basements, attics, or garages. Have them consider how much more “stuff” they could have accumulated if they lived here in a house that has 250 rooms, 175,000 square feet of space and has been continuously used for over 100 years.

As we already have seen, because Biltmore House is over a hundred years old, it has been necessary to replace some components with more modern (and, in some cases, safer) versions. This is a process that began near the turn of the century. Unfortunately, some of the original mechanisms were disposed of when new ones were installed. But because Biltmore House operates as a historic house museum today, we are very reluctant to throw things out. We never throw away anything that we know is original, and we rarely get rid of things that were used up into the 1930s. If there is any doubt as to whether or not something is original, we err on the safe side and keep it! Some of the things that are stored here are:

  • Original toilets, tanks, sinks, tubs and other bathroom fixtures,
  • Radiators and heat registers,
  • Doorknobs and locks,
  • Light fixtures,
  • Drapery rods,
  • Electrical panels,
  • Old backings for the tapestries,
  • Gates,
  • Ornamental ironwork,
  • Brass conduit pipes (note that these are the original conduit used when the House
    was wired for electricity),
  • Stable fixtures,
  • Ladders,
  • Embossed copper from the roof (original and reproduction),
  • Servants’ call boxes,
  • Biltmore Dairy equipment,
  • Wheels and pulleys, and
  • Parts! Lots and lots of parts!


Lead the group into the Furnace Room. Remind them of the sequence to changes made to the original boilers (wood/coal → stoker → coal oil).

Interpreting the furnace room

Today we use a modern natural gas furnace/boiler to heat Biltmore House. It was installed in the 1980s.

The July 1984 issue of Service Reporter noted that Biltmore Estate was installing a new “steam boiler designed for fuel-efficiency by Weil-McLain, Michigan City, Indiana… [installed by] Moser, Inc., Asheville.” It went on to say that the old oil boiler (Boiler #3) was consuming fuel oil at a rate of 80,000 gallons each winter, and that the new oil boiler would use at least 25% less fuel.7

  • Boiler #3 now is used only as a backup for emergencies. However, we use the same heat delivery or distribution system that was used at the turn of the last century.

Interpreting fire safety systems

Biltmore House had an internal fire alarm system that allowed someone in any one of six different sections of the House to report a fire to the Butler’s Pantry. This system most likely also operated off of the rechargeable batteries.

  • We do not have any documentation regarding the operation of this system. We do know that Biltmore House was constructed with five firewalls forming six separate sections. Section One was the Library Wing at the south end of the House. Section Six was the Bachelor’s Wing at the north end.
  • If there were an emergency in the House, we think that a guest would have pressed the nearest ivory call button for the Butler’s Pantry, where the butler on duty would have called someone to respond and see what the person needed. (It also was possible that a servant could have used the telephone or speaking tubes to relay an emergency message to the Butler’s Pantry.)
  • We believe that the butler would sound an alarm (believed to be the large bells located throughout the House) by pressing the appropriate house section button to alert family, guests and staff in that area of the emergency. In addition to this internal fire alarm system, the estate also had its own fire-fighting equipment, as did many English country estates. Point out the original fire wagon.
  • As early as 1890, Brick and Tile Works supervisor O. B. Wheeler wrote to Estate manager Charles McNamee, “I would respectfully suggest that the night–watch at the Quarry be given the key of the Blacksmith Shop at night – so that in case of fire he could telephone me, and I have the whistle at the Brick-works sound the alarm.”8
  • In 1894, Mr. Vanderbilt received a letter from the Harden Hand Grenade Company of Chicago offering to sell him their fire extinguishers in order to protect “your magnificent palace which will be one of the grandest in the World.”9

On February 1, 1901, the estate ordered “four (4) sprinkling wagons, No. 252, capacity 600 gallons, with Archibald wheels, truck, platform, gear, etc.” at a cost of $327.50 each, from the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company, South Bend, Indiana.10 A “Proposal for Furnishing Fire Apparatus” dated June 20, 1900 from Rumsey & Company, Seneca Falls, New York, describes a “Light Village Hook and Ladder Truck” for a cost of $275.00.11 Other equipment included hoses and valves for fire hydrants from NY Beling & Packing Co. and the Fabric Hose Co. in New York,12 fire extinguishers from Stemple F. E. Manufacturing Co., NY,13 and “Bucket Brass Spray Pumps and fire extinguisher” from Montgomery Ward & Co. in Chicago.14

  • Although there have been fires on the property, and the one noted below in the Stables, fortunately, there never has been a fire in Biltmore House.

Around midnight on Sunday, April 8, 1917, a fire broke out in the wood storage room below the Carriage House. It was thought that the fire was extinguished with little or no damage. However, two hours later lights went out in the House and the night watchman found that the West Wing of the Stable was on fire, “the flames and smoke appearing from the rooms of the Men’s Quarters. The Asheville Fire Department was summoned, and - the fire was extinguished, but not before very considerable damage was done the Carriage Room, Stairway leading to the Men’s Quarters, and to the sleeping rooms and bath room. The fire burned through to the garret or gable, and three small openings were burned in the roof.”15 The fire resulted in $5,000.00 worth of damage. A subsequent investigation led to the conclusion that the second fire was set intentionally, although it does not appear that anyone was ever arrested for setting it.16

Interpretation of the master clock system

All of the auxiliary wall clocks found in the work areas in Biltmore House were connected to a master clock located in the courtyard tower above the Stable and Carriage House. The system was manufactured by E. Howard & Co. of Boston.

  • The master clock, whose face and hands were designed by Hunt, was guaranteed to be accurate within one minute per month and was impervious to weather. It featured a gravity-driven movement. When each minute passed, its escapement wheel activated a cam which opened an electrical connection just long enough to create an electrical current to drive the auxiliary clocks. In this way, all of the house clocks were synchronized to show the same time.
  • These clocks were located in servant’s and other work areas throughout the House and always placed above or adjacent to doorways, just like in most commercial applications. They allowed for the adherence to work and meal schedules by a diverse staff working in many different areas, at a time when not many people could afford to own a watch.

The railroads had recently created “Standard Time,” and divided the U.S. into zones in order to coordinate schedules across the country. Although [timekeeping] systems such as this were in common use in train stations, schools and factories, the employment of such a system for residential use was unheard of at the time.17

Some of the Biltmore House technologies depended on a reliable source of electricity in order to function (the lights, the elevators, the low-voltage communication systems, the master clock system, the electric water heaters and laundry equipment, the feeder for Boiler #2, the electric dumbwaiter, etc.). In a sense, the electrical system in Biltmore House supported most of the other technological systems, and without the incorporation of such a system, none of these other technologies would have functioned.

Interpreting other technological systems in the house

In addition to the larger systems, there were other less obvious systems that also contributed to the running of Biltmore House.

The in-house telephone system

Biltmore Estate and the house had their own internal telephone system before telephone service became available in Asheville. It was used by Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt to communicate with estate managers and for staff to communicate with one another in the house.

The first English home to have an internal telephone system was Hatfield House. “Visitors were startled by hearing Lord Salisbury’s voice resounding oratorically from selected spots within and without the house, as he reiterated with varying emphasis and expression ‘Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle.’” English historian Clive Aslet notes that “…internal telephones saved housework. Rather than ring the maid who then had to make a special journey to find out what was needed, return and make another with the article required, members of the family could telephone requests and instructions to whomever’s duty it was to fulfill them, cutting out…unnecessary leg work.”18

  • The Biltmore Estate telephone system initially allowed Mr. Vanderbilt, Estate management and upper staff the staff to communicate throughout the House and across the Estate.
  • Even after telephone service became available through The Southern Bell Telephone Company, connections from the Estate to Asheville were not very reliable. Correspondence between the Estate and the Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company documents numerous problems.

We do not know exactly when the servants’ telephones were installed. Biltmore’s first telephone system originally had six stations located at departmental offices, all connected by six miles of wire, as early as 1892. The central exchange may have been first located in the Biltmore Plaza office building in Biltmore Village. In 1896, private lines were added between Mr. Vanderbilt’s office and Estate Manager Charles McNamee’s office, as well as between Mr. Vanderbilt’s office and the steward and housekeeper’s rooms. “These interior lines were supplemented by a bell system like those used in contemporary hotels.” [Note the ivory call button on the telephone.]

As of June, 1898, there were 10 Bell telephones, four Mason long-distance phones, and one other non-Bell phone at the Dairy. By 1900, Biltmore Village had telephones with underground wires. In 1901, Charles Waddell reported to Mr. Vanderbilt that “The telephone connection is also made between the Butler’s Pantry and the Stables, this is so arranged that the Butler can ring the Stable but the Stable cannot ring the Butler. You desired that this telephone line also run into Mrs. King’s [the housekeeper] Office, on investigation I found that the conduits were so full of wires that drawing an additional pair was impossible.”

  • The servants’ telephones in Biltmore House were conveniently installed in numerous locations so that staff could call one another to relay messages rather than having to deliver them on foot in such a huge home.
  • One telephone can be seen in the Pastry Kitchen on the self-guided tour, and several are seen on the BTS Overview Tour.
  • By 1911, in-house telephones were used more than any other form of in-house communication in English country homes, and the telephone exchange was usually located in the Butler’s Pantry. We do not know whether or not our in-house system required an exchange, nor if it did, where it might have been located.

“Low–tech” systems

In addition to the complex systems that are seen on the tour, there were other systems carried over from other large homes that might seem simple but still contributed to the day-to-day functioning of the house. Point out the black box that once contained the speaking tube connecting with rooms upstairs.

  • This “low-tech” but very convenient feature allowed staff to speak directly with one another.
  • For example, the exposed bell above the speaking tube from the Main Kitchen to the Butler’s Pantry might have rung when the cook needed to alert the butler that the first course of dinner was on its way. The butler would hear the bell and go to the tube to speak to the cook.
  • Another tube in the Butler’s Pantry hallway connected here to the Dynamo Room. We speculate that this tube may have allowed staff to communicate changes in power needs to the staff in the Sub-basement.