Asheville Archives: A cloud of war welcomes 1918

READING INTO THINGS: In December 1917, an unusually large cloud appeared in Asheville's western sky. An article on the phenomenon featured residents' speculation over the cloud's meaning in relation to the Great War. The above image is undated. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war against Germany. In late June, the country’s first infantry landed in France. By the holiday season, shortages of food and coal were in full swing. (See “Thanksgiving and the Great War, 1917,” Nov. 23, Xpress)

On account of the Great War, New Year’s revelry going into 1918 was minimal. In the Dec. 31, 1917, edition of The Asheville Times, the only direct mention of the holiday came courtesy of a New York byline. Its headline read: “Celebration Will Not Be As Lively As Usual.”

As with national and world news, much of the local focus centered on wartime efforts. The New Year’s Eve edition of The Asheville Citizen reported on a Dec. 30 speech delivered by J.C. Pritchard. (See “Pritchard Park replaces the old post office,” Nov. 14, Xpress) The paper described Pritchard’s oration as “one of the strongest patriotic addresses in Asheville since the beginning of the war.”

During his talk, the judge and former senator listed the atrocities carried out by the German government. This included the German U-boat’s sinking of the Lusitania, a British ocean liner, which resulted in the death of more than 1,100 passengers.

Pritchard also raised the concept of loyalty, noting America’s debt to Marquis de Lafayette, the French military officer who fought in the American Revolutionary War. Pritchard was quoted as saying: “So long as there is a Boche [German soldier] on French soil, America’s debt to Lafayette is not entirely paid.”

The article concluded with Pritchard declaring:

“The war is our problem. It must be won by American soldiers. Our men are there now and are going over there in great ship-loads. They may stay for years, but before they come home, the war will be won and the cause of humanity will be safe!”

The uncertainty of the war’s duration and the hope for victory preoccupied many Ashevilleans, manifesting in unusual ways. A separate article in that same day’s paper reported on a “gigantic cloud figure [that] dominated the western sky[.]”

In the piece, residents speculated over the apparition’s meaning. This included an unnamed man who described the cloud as “a great arrow pointing to the earth, which … touched on the height across the French Broad river.” The man went on to call it a “portent … set in the heavens for those who could to interpret. It was a black arrow and everyone may read its meaning as he chooses.”

Within the same article, an unnamed woman’s account was also reported. The paper wrote:

“According to a woman who saw it, the figure was that of an enormous V, whose point touched the earth, with a perpendicular column rising to the sky, which would fit the conception of the arrow. But the impression made on this lady was that of a long and narrow human head between upraised arms.

“‘I think it was a sign set in the sky,’ said this lady, ‘but whether by the powers above or below I do not know. But somehow when I saw it I instantly thought of the German kaiser. Were the arms uplifted in a threat or was the cloud shape a token our chief enemy raises his hands in token of surrender?’

“To appreciate the viewpoint of these observers it must be remembered that no other cloud was in sight; the planet Venus was blazing in unusual splendor because the sky was particularly clear. And the figure was sharply outlined, not a vague form pictured by any out of a mass of clouds. Both observers recognized the arrow shape. Prosaic people will deride any supernatural suggestion in the figure and decry the idea that it was set as a sign in the heavens. They will say that as it showed just beyond the railroad tracks in the river valley that it was formed by the smoke from locomotives which rose in spirals because of unusual atmospheric conditions. However this may be, it is evident that a remarkable cloud figure was visible Saturday evening.”


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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