This is not a fairy tale.
Once upon a time, coal was king and the French Broad River was queen. Smoking, fire-breathing dragons hauled long lines of huge wagons loaded with coal and other supplies destined for the kingdom. The railroad also delivered finished products, bringing much treasure to the realm.
An abundance of willing subjects supported the industrial complex that burgeoned along the flatland in the French Broad and Swannanoa River plain during Asheville’s industrial revolution.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, many industries flocked to this fiefdom to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the king and queen, who even dictated their strange architecture—long, narrow, one- and two-story buildings with high ceilings.
Companies like the Asheville Cotton Mill, National Casket Company, Sayles Bleachery, Hans Rees Tannery and scores of other textile, furniture, wood- and metal-working plants found this kingdom to be gracious and welcoming.
It was all about power—generated by burning cheap and abundant coal to heat the water pumped from the river to create steam and then discharge the effluent back into the readily available waterway.
The high-pressure steam powered the generators, and the smoke from the burning coal belched from the massive smokestacks like the one in front of the old Asheville Cotton Mill on Riverside Drive, punctuating the skyline. Like many cities, Asheville took great pride in the number of smokestacks it had, which advertised the area’s industrial progress.
The pressure from steam turned a huge flywheel that was connected to what were known as power trains or line shafts. These long steel rods were threaded through many flat wheels that stretched the length of these long, narrow buildings.
Leather made from cowhides was found to be the best material for transferring the power from the flywheel to the power train above, and then to the machinery below. Strong, durable and flexible, the huge loops of leather belting became the kingdom’s strapping and reliable brown knights.
To operate the machinery, the subjects who toiled on the factory floor simply pulled a lever, tightening the belt on their lathe, saw, drill, knitting machine or other equipment.
(If you’re interested in what these series of wheels and pulleys looked like, remnants of this type of machinery still stands at the Weaverville Milling Company out on Reems Creek Road (now a restaurant). Although this mill was water-powered, the drive machinery was much the same.)
The kingdom prospered for many years, and generations of subjects grew up in the area’s mill villages. Eventually, however, the kingdom began to grow old, turning grey and black after decades of soot and smoke from the fire-breathing trains and the output of the towering smokestacks.
Somewhere in the 1930s a new king appeared, riding in on a wave of centralized electric-power generation provided by new plants in the area.
He sent out his white knights, wielding their awesome modern, cheap, convenient electrical swords and began to overcome the brown-belt knights that had faithfully served their masters for so many years.
The old kingdom began a gradual decline, and within 30 years it had almost totally disappeared as a zone of heavy industrial production.
King coal and queen river were no longer critical to manufacturing. Now all the subjects had to do was plug their machine into an electric-power source—no more need for the outmoded steam generator and the line-shaft-and-belt system.
Factories no longer had to be located on the river, where they were subject to dangerous and disruptive flooding. Buildings could be built to any configuration, without worrying about power distribution.
Similarly, rail was no longer critical to most modern operations. The kingdom was repopulated by smaller manufacturers, storage warehouses, service companies and recycling businesses.
Alas, the kingdom’s glory days have long since disappeared. But lo, there’s now a movement afoot to rejuvenate the river corridor as an area for craftspeople, tourists, workshops, parks and residences.
Unfortunately, some royal advisers are impatient and want to banish many of the existing businesses along the river. If they’re forced to move to other lands, these businesses—which now provide various essential services—will meet only with hostility and will be destroyed, causing much gnashing of teeth, rending of garments and perhaps a bloody uprising.
It is hoped that reason will prevail and this renaissance will come about not by the sword of controversy but by a natural evolution dictated by economics and fairness.
The king has passed on, but the queen still reigns in a much more dignified manner.
Long live the queen!
[Local developer Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the community scene, owns property on both the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers. He can be reached at email@example.com ]