BY JERRY STERNBERG
Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of articles offering a virtual tour of the riverfront as it has evolved over time. The previous installments were “The Birth of Asheville’s Industrial Riverfront,” “The Ballad of Old King Coal,” “Insurrection in the Kingdom,” “Ragtime and Ruin” and “Hard Times and Cheap Thrills.”
As the trains laboriously churned though the economic canyon of the 1930s, hardly anyone could see the fiscal peaks above.
The kingdom was broke, and the only new infrastructure installed in the river basin was an unregulated dump on Riverside Drive where the realm disposed of garbage, industrial waste and other rubbish. Extending north from what’s now Hill Street almost to the Pearson Bridge, it was terribly smelly, with loose trash blowing everywhere. It’s hard to conceive that a community could possibly assault the river so destructively.
In all fairness, garbage was a serious and growing problem, and this was a cheap and practical solution. In retrospect, this looks like a scandalous act, but in hindsight it’s all too easy to condemn actions taken more than three-quarters of a century ago. Back then, we had no substantive knowledge or sense of environmental consequences, and getting rid of these waste products was critical to our day-to-day survival.
In those days, many communities burned their garbage in open pits, creating offensive smoke and odor and causing unbelievable air pollution. Big kingdoms like New York loaded trash on barges and dumped millions of tons of it in the ocean.
Across Riverside Drive from the dump were a bunch of low-lying structures known as the “pest houses.” Most of you probably don’t know they existed and have no idea what they were for. Pest houses were built to incarcerate people in the community who’d contracted serious contagious diseases. Often forcibly removed from their homes, these poor folks were confined to the squalid, spartan buildings and apparently treated like lepers.
I remember, as a boy, going there once with my father, a generous and caring man who was delivering clothes or food to these wretches. I wasn’t allowed to leave the car, but I cannot get the image out of my head of these depressing shacks where people were apparently pretty much left to die.
At the time, this was seen as a practical way to prevent the epidemics and plagues that had devastated entire populations for centuries. Even so, treating these people as criminals to be punished was inhumane and unforgivable.
Meanwhile, the annual fall pilgrimage to worship at the temples of the evil Tobacco Prince continued, and the auction priests’ haunting chants would resonate through the valley. The pungent odor of the herb, mingled with the smell of money, permeated these houses of Mammon-like idolatry.
Little did the parishioners know that Prince Tobacco’s mistress, Nicotine, was carrying on simultaneous torrid affairs with the malevolent knight Sir Can and the heinous Gen. Carcino (names have been changed to protect the guilty, who would lay waste to millions of lives over the ensuing decades).
And then it happened: On Dec. 7 in the year of our Lord 1941, a quiet Sunday afternoon, a truly earthshattering event took place that triggered cataclysmic changes to dominions large and small throughout our world — including the river kingdom.
As the members of our little realm rested after church and Sunday dinner and worked on preparations for Christmas, word was announced on the amazing, relatively new medium called “radio” that the dastardly emperor of the faraway kingdom of Japan had attacked the western fleet of our great American empire in a place almost no one had ever heard of: Pearl Harbor, on a remote Hawaiian island. The attack struck a serious blow at our vast armada, killing and wounding thousands of American seamen and other military personnel.
Soon after, America declared war not only on Japan but also on two other powerful kingdoms, Germany and Italy, that had been threatening the whole continent known as “Europe.” Immediately, millions of men volunteered or were drafted, becoming warriors in this enormous conflagration.
The changes were swift and emotionally devastating. The fear, the demographic shifts triggered by all the men going off to war, and the urgency of supplying our brave soldiers with food, equipment and armaments stressed our quiet little kingdom beyond imagination.
The scene at the depot was a depressing beehive as these raw recruits, many no more than young boys, had their last meal with their families at the Atlantic Quick Lunch and then walked across the street to board a train.
The engines stood spewing their smoke and steam like impatient stallions, stomping their hooves, waiting for these vibrant and excited young men to kiss their loved ones goodbye and embark for hells unknown — in many cases, never to return.
Next time: The river goes to war.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.