BY JERRY STERNBERG
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles offering a virtual tour of the Asheville riverfront as it has evolved over time. See the box below for links to previous articles.
The trains kept delivering huge quantities of black treasure to the river basin, but some pretenders began to threaten King Coal’s empire. These upstart princes came from a rapidly emerging dynasty called Petroleum, whose emissaries were traveling far and wide to challenge King Coal’s awesome power.
Prince Oil, Prince Natural Gas, Prince Diesel and Prince Gasoline were extraordinarily powerful in their own right. They were also more convenient and far less obnoxious, because their use did not produce the billowing black smoke and ash that had fouled our air and grayed our landscape for decades.
These princes had yet another crucial advantage: great wizards who produced two miraculous inventions: electricity and the internal combustion engine. Long lines of copper wire were strung above the land, as if a huge spider had spun its metal web, which transferred this groundbreaking, life-changing energy to homes, businesses and factories.
Meanwhile, underground pipelines delivered Prince Oil and Prince Natural Gas to every corner of the kingdom, making them available to all the king’s subjects. King Coal’s once impregnable throne was now in jeopardy.
No longer did that little boy have to shovel heavy coal into the great gaping maw of a stoker. No longer did the cookstove or the water heater need to be fired with soot-producing coal. At the flip of a switch or the turn of a valve, the furnace would produce the required heat. These new energy sources also powered brilliant lamps that did not require coal oil or candle wax.
Soon the populace began to shun King Coal. No longer a merry old “soal,” he found himself banished to his last defense: the powerhouse.
For a time, though, King Coal — holed up in his fortress there — was able to salvage much of his influence, because he was still abundant and was the cheapest producer of the new sorcery known as electricity.
Sparks flew as the sovereign valiantly battled these potent foes over his place in the sun. Little did he know, though, that even that distant luminary would eventually attempt to gain a princedom, and yet another unheard of prince, called New Clear, would join the ranks of King Coal’s adversaries, seeking to finish him off once and for all.
In the meantime, back in the river basin, prodigious changes were brewing.
Queen River continued to vent her outrage, possibly because of her mistreatment by the populace, and in 1916 she threw her biggest tantrum ever. Swelling up to a mile wide in places, she flooded the first floor of the train station and the Glen Rock Hotel on Depot Street.
Her beautiful Indian cousin, Princess Swannanoa, who’d also suffered many indignities, vented her wrath by flooding the entire village where Baron George Vanderbilt’s serfs lived. Legend has it that some of the local gentry were observed punting in flat-bottomed boats on Biltmore Village Lake.
Devastated, many manufacturers and other businesses began to seek alternate locations where they wouldn’t be at the mercy of Queen River’s whims. This, in turn, led them to look more favorably on the upstart princes, who promised to free them from the river’s retribution.
Instead of the awkward and inefficient steam genny, with its relentless demand for river water, and the cumbersome and unreliable drive wheel, leather belting and line shafts, manufacturers could simply plug their machines into the new electrical web.
And thanks to the wizards’ second invention, the internal combustion engine, huge chariots called trucks could now transport great quantities of goods, so producers no longer needed to be subservient to the railroads.
This newfound freedom sparked a dynamic outmigration from the river basin. And though the kingdom’s great seers, known as planners, continued to consult their crystal balls and predict the future, their divination devices were still clouded with coal smoke: They never saw the insurgency coming.
Nonetheless, the empire was changing, and as the old industries moved out, they were replaced by newer ones that chose to locate in the surrounding farmlands.
The soothsayers had missed their call again.
Next time: “The Dominion in Flux.”
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.