Asheville Archives: Schools of dead fish float down the French Broad River, 1951

NO BAIT NEEDED: In 1951, toxic levels of pollution led to the death of thousands of fish in the French Broad River. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville; photo embellishment by Scott Southwick

In a March 4, 1949, editorial, The Asheville Citizen informed readers about a recent article published in the hunting and fishing magazine Sports Afield. The story was critical of North Carolina’s statewide pollution problem, especially as it pertained to the western part of the state. “[T]he French Broad River is so badly polluted by tanneries, rayon plants, domestic sewage and pulp mills that industries won’t even locate on it,” the magazine declared.

At the time of the article, Rep. J.V. Whitfield had introduced a bill to the General Assembly to address the issue. A result of a four-year study by the State Stream Sanitation and Conservation Committee, Whitfield’s proposed legislation called for the creation of a nine-member stream sanitation commission to set and enforce standards for the state’s waterways.

Opposition to the broad authority granted to the commission ultimately led to the bill’s demise in the House.

However, the issue of pollution and water quality did not cease. In February 1951, a substitute bill was introduced in the House. The following month, an editorial in The Asheville Citizen described the latest bill as a “diluted” version of Whitfield’s original, “stripped of its teeth right down to the jawbone.”

Yet opposition remained. According to the same editorial, Rep. Ralph Fisher of Transylvania County was one of the bill’s loudest critics, deeming it “socialistic.”

The article chastised Fisher for his characterization, proclaiming:

“‘Socialistic’ is a term used too often by people who (1) do not understand the meaning of socialism or (2) who pin that term to a subject which cannot be dismissed in any other way. If this bill is indeed ‘socialistic’ then a goodly number of members of the General Assembly and many private citizens who are concerned about our polluted streams deserve the same label.”

The substitute bill was voted into law later that spring. Teeth or no teeth, The Asheville Citizen noted its passage marked “the first new substantive legislation in 40 years to clean up North Carolina’s shockingly polluted streams.”

Sadly for some, the law proved too little, too late. “Thousands of fish have died in the French Broad River in the past 36 hours from a still undetermined cause,” wrote The Asheville Citizen on Sept. 6, 1951. Trout, catfish, mullets, horneyheads, horsefish and German carp were among the list of casualties. “The game protector [Walter L. Heath] said other fish were reported to have literally churned up the water of smaller streams … seeking to escape from the contaminated waters,” the article continued.

Two days later, the paper informed readers that the State Stream Sanitation Committee did not plan to investigate the mysterious deaths. Committee member W.H. Riley told The Asheville Citizen that the group was “not completely organized and … must set stream standards before it can move to halt pollution.”

Other agencies, however, continued to monitor and investigate the case. On Sept. 9, 1951, the Sunday edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times, wrote that state fish biologist H.M. Ratledge had inspected “several points along the river and … found some ‘groggy’ fish but no wholesale quantities of dead ones[.]”

In addition to surveying waterways, Ratledge interviewed officials at Ecusta Paper Corp. near Brevard, as well as other plants in the Rosman area. According to the paper, these representatives claimed no “drastic change” had been made to their disposal methods, prior to the mass extinction of fish.

A month later, on Oct. 9, 1951, The Asheville Citizen reported on the State Wildlife Resources Commissions official findings. The commissions’ executive director, Clyde P. Patton, declared: “Excessive pollution caused the death of several thousand fish in the French Broad River several weeks ago[.]”

However, the article continued, “the commission had made no attempt to determine the source of the pollution, [as] the law prohibited [the] agency from exercising any control over pollution.”

Though coverage of the report’s findings soon ceased, the issues surrounding clean waterways continued. In her 1955 book, The French Broad, writer Wilma Dykeman revisited the 1951 case in her chapter, “Who Killed the French Broad?” While critical of industrial waste, Dykeman ultimately placed equal blame on community members at large, writing:

“Is it not typical of the legendary American that he will accept any bad situation as inevitable. Why then have we allowed ourselves to suppose the scum of our river inevitable? … There is one answer: the apathy of each of us. Our cities and our industries are lagging because we lag. … Let the people’s will, then, speak with a law saying this killing of the French Broad must cease.”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents. 

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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