How citizen resistance derailed plan to dam the French Broad

RISING UP: In the 1960s, the Tennessee Valley Authority planned to build a 1.4-mile-long, 10-foot-tall levee to protect Asheville’s near-derelict industrial riverfront from flooding. Citizens defeated the TVA’s proposal. Image courtesy of Buncombe County Special Collections


Today, visitors to Asheville’s Wilma Dykeman Greenway encounter a cheerful parade of runners, bikers and dog walkers; parents pushing strollers; and couples ambling hand in hand. But just imagine if, instead, this area consisted of a 10-foot-tall, 1.4-mile-long earth-and-concrete levee. That was the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plan for Asheville’s riverfront when I first saw it, back in 1967.

About 100 feet wide, the earth-fill portion of the levee would have extended from the Smoky Park Supper Club to the Lyman Street roundabout, and from the entrance to the 12 Bones Smokehouse to just above plēb urban winery. The river side of the levee would have been armored with quarried blocks of granite, and the slope along Riverside Drive would have been tufted with hard-to-mow grass.

Between these two earthen berms would have stood the levee’s reinforced, 10-foot-high concrete floodwall, 3 feet wide at its base, tapering to a foot at its crest and about a half-mile long. Just imagine what a blank concrete canvas this would have presented for street artists.

Unfit for anything?

John Ross

As a field geologist, I worked summers with the seismic team that conducted preliminary studies of the rock foundations for TVA’s proposed Asheville levee and 14 small detention dams in the upper French Broad and Pigeon River watersheds.

Along the levee’s centerline, we set a string of geophones. At each end, we’d bury detonating cord — think thick, explosive clothesline — and then set it off. Shock waves triggered the geophones, enabling us to measure depth of soil down to bedrock. What a blast for a college kid!

Back then, North Carolina’s Board of Water and Air Resources had given the French Broad an “E” rating, meaning it was basically considered “unfit for anything,” as the Asheville Citizen explained it at the time. Before the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, industries were pretty much free to dump whatever they wanted into this and other American rivers. Tributaries were redolent of straight-piped sewage. Junked cars, old iceboxes and rusty washing machines were deliberately placed along riverbanks to deter erosion.

No wonder Wilma Dykeman demanded to know “Who killed the French Broad?” in her seminal 1955 book, The French Broad.

At that time, Asheville’s riverfront — which, decades later, TVA targeted for the proposed levee — was lined with aging industry. There was the shuttered cotton mill; stinking stockyards and slaughterhouses; truck stops; oil-storage depots; warehouses; and the Southern Railway’s marshaling yards, roundhouse and repair shops — all of them in decrepit condition.

Just say no

In the event, however, the proposed dams and levee were never built.

The more than a thousand citizen activists who came together as the Upper French Broad Defense Association, bolstered by staunch support from state Rep. Charles Taylor, forced TVA to abandon its plans in 1972. Taylor later represented the area in Congress, and TVA went on to become a financial partner in the French Broad’s rejuvenation, teaming up with the Land of Sky Regional Council and affected cities and counties.

Fast-forward 11 years to 1983, when the French Broad River Foundation was established under the auspices of Land of Sky to enlist the residents of Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties in preserving and restoring the river corridor. Land of Sky had already spearheaded the creation of several river access parks, and the foundation began organizing events to build awareness of the French Broad’s potential and got involved in developing river access points.

Four years later, the Chamber of Commerce hired Karen Cragnolin to head up its Riverfront Attraction Committee which, under her inspired leadership, evolved into RiverLink. In collaboration with other local entities and even TVA, both the foundation and RiverLink continued to develop parks and greenways along both sides of the river. Eventually, the foundation was absorbed into RiverLink.

In 1998, RiverLink bought the former Asheville Motor Speedway property, and a year later, with a grant from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, acquired the strip of riverfront along Amboy Road across from the mouth of the Swannanoa River. Both were turned over to the city, with the former becoming Carrier Park and the latter Amboy Road River Park.

In between the two, however, sat the 5.3-acre EDACO junkyard — the missing link in the greenway connecting the two parks. Everyone knew it as the place to get “Your Parts in the Park.” But year after year, gas, oil, antifreeze and heaven only knows what other chemicals seeped into the soil from the mangled wrecks of crushed cars. Meanwhile, contractors dumped leftover concrete on the property, entombing the pollution deep in the flood plain. Clearly, EDACO more than qualified as a brownfield under the state Division of Waste Management’s program for restoring such sites.

Making it happen

MISSING LINK: Phase one of construction in Karen Cragnolin Park, a walking/biking trail linking Carrier and Amboy Road parks, is scheduled for completion next year. Rendering courtesy of RiverLink

With support from conservation-minded donors, RiverLink bought the EDACO property in 2006, aiming to close the final gap in nearly 4 miles of pedestrian/bike trail along the river — including the section where TVA had planned to build its flood control levee years before. And now, after more than a decade of phytoremediation (using plants to naturally detoxify the soil), the old junkyard is ready to be reborn as Karen Cragnolin Park.

Designed by internationally known landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, it will be developed in several phases. Soon after RiverLink acquired the property, the state Department of Transportation funded a sidewalk along Amboy Road between the two adjacent parks. Phase one, however, will create a sinuous 800-foot trail winding through the property.

Signage along the route will illuminate the river’s natural and cultural history, including its origin, the evolution of flora and fauna, and how the waterway has sustained human populations for the last 14,000 years. Future phases will likely include pavilions, seating and river-access ramps.

Initial construction is expected to begin later this year, once RiverLink has secured $1 million in funding. The anticipated opening of the trail sometime next summer will be another milestone in riverside greenway development.

Honoring the past

Having moved to Asheville in 2014, I’ve been amazed at the extent to which our riverfront has been revitalized. Nonetheless, one key element is still lacking: Nowhere in Western North Carolina is there a museum that interprets the watershed’s rich natural and human history for residents and tourists alike.

I cannot envision a better location for a comprehensive French Broad science and cultural center than a former industrial building in the River Arts District along the Wilma Dykeman Greenway. For nearly 50 years, citizens, local governments and nonprofits have come together to transform a decaying industrial wasteland into the marvelous urban riverfront that we enjoy today. With the same kind of concerted effort, surely we could make such a riverside facility happen.

Asheville resident John Ross serves on RiverLink’s board of directors. His newest book, Through the Mountains: The French Broad River and Time, was a finalist for the 2021 Reed Environmental Writing Award, sponsored by the Southern Environmental Law Center.


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2 thoughts on “How citizen resistance derailed plan to dam the French Broad

  1. Mike Rains

    I tend to be more of a “functional is beauty” type of person. While I don’t know anything about the levee’s cost and benefits, I do know that the much touted river arts area will suffer many floods in the coming years and very likely be hit by a “big one” that will do untold damage to the millions of infrastructure placed down there in the recent past. All you need to know to understand this prediction is the ongoing and worsening effects of climate change.

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