The Gospel According to Jerry: the ballad of Old King Coal

Jerry Sternberg


Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles offering a virtual tour of the riverfront as it has evolved over time. The first, “The Birth of Asheville’s Industrial Riverfront,” can be found here

The trains came, following the French Broad River, and King Coal rode in on the black, fire-breathing steeds as their steel hoofs skipped along the iron rails. The steam whistle’s shrill clarion announced them, echoing through the hills as they carried huge quantities of energy and goods to our remote mountain area.

Bells ringing, they arrived at the rail yards, the clanking of the drawheads shattering the peace as the trains stopped and started, the cars jerking back and forth.

King Coal powered a rapidly expanding industrial empire that depended on steam to drive the flywheels, belts and drive shafts that ran the machinery. Here, raw materials delivered mostly by trains became finished products that were hauled throughout the country and to ports to be sold to the world.

New industries were springing up in this riverside kingdom. To the north were furniture factories and a huge casket factory that must have bedded the deceased for miles around. Moving south, you could see where the Earl of Chesterfield had constructed an imposing feed mill adjacent to the Asheville Cotton Mill, which also built a mill village to house its multitude of serfs. There were machine shops of every description, lumber and coal yards and, of course, the massive Hans Rees Tannery. There was the yellow Farmers Federation building on Roberts Street, on the east side of the tracks near the Dave Steel Co. Wholesalers and distribution companies lined Depot Street en route to the passenger train station with its handsome cupola, across from the Glen Rock Hotel.

Turning east, the tracks passed through Biltmore Village (where Vanderbilt had created another passenger station) and on to the Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries and the many small industries that were developing in the Koon Development industrial park.

On the way out of town, the trains delivered and picked up goods at other furniture factories and the Beacon Manufacturing Co., which made blankets.

The subjects of our mountain kingdom were grateful, for these industries provided jobs and wages for thousands who’d struggled as hardscrabble farmers, miners and lumbermen.

Besides sparking the kingdom’s industrialization, King Coal also revolutionized home heating and cooking. Coal was much cheaper and more reliable than the now dethroned King Wood.

The coal came in lumps about the size of a baseball that were shoveled into the furnace. It burned hot and lasted longer than wooden logs. People could bank the fires and keep their homes warm throughout the night, and much larger apartment, hotel and commercial buildings could be built with central heating. The furnace heated water, and hot water or steam was circulated through the building, feeding cast-iron radiators. The downside was that the coal left a residue called ash that had to be removed from the furnaces and heaters, and disposing of it was a very messy process.

Eventually an incredible new invention came along that mechanized the firing of industrial furnaces. The “coal stoker” consisted of a large hopper and an auger, or “worm,” that delivered the coal to the fire. To facilitate this process, the coal had to be ground down to thumb-sized pieces.

The private sector, however, depended on the young boy in the house to lug heavy buckets of those pellets to fill the hopper and to remove the heavy, solidified ash, known as “clinkers.” When said small boy, who really hated this job, forgot to fill the stoker and the supply ran out, huge volumes of acrid smoke would back up into the hopper and, in a matter of moments, fill the entire house. This would totally displease the father who, since the woodshed had been replaced, would now take said small boy to the coal bin for a proper thrashing.

Meanwhile, the trains also brought multitudes of people to the area: tourists, entrepreneurs, merchants and workers both skilled and unskilled, providing the labor that made this revolution function. But the trains also enabled the kingdom’s subjects to visit faraway realms in a matter of hours or, at most, a few days. An overnight journey would transport them to the mighty empire of New Yawk City, where they could go sightseeing and merchants could buy goods that the trains would promptly deliver to their store in our village.

King Coal ruled with absolute authority, and the seers, oracles and soothsayers who made up the kingdom’s Planning and Zoning Department looked into their crystal balls to regulate the sovereign’s territory. The ball, though, was clouded with coal smoke, so they planned for a future based on coal’s total dominance and the herd of trusty steam steeds that delivered the fuel and the people and hauled all the goods.

Queen River was King Coal’s consort. Absolutely gorgeous and normally quite gentle, she supplied great quantities of clean water to help these factories function. She even supplied a small amount of energy through dam impoundments.

Unfortunately, the king’s subjects didn’t appreciate her pristine purity, and they slowly poisoned her with regular and not always subtle doses of all sorts of industrial and human waste. So Queen River struck back, demonstrating not only her breathtaking beauty but her wicked and vengeful temperament, punishing the subjects and ravaging the kingdom with devastating floods. This should not have been surprising, however: After all, she was a “French broad” (yeah, yeah, yeah.)

Next time: Pretenders threaten the throne.

Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

3 thoughts on “The Gospel According to Jerry: the ballad of Old King Coal

  1. Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

    “When said small boy, who really hated this job, forgot to fill the stoker and the supply ran out, huge volumes of acrid smoke would back up into the hopper and, in a matter of moments, fill the entire house. This would totally displease the father who, since the woodshed had been replaced, would now take said small boy to the coal bin for a proper thrashing.”

    Sounds like Jerry is speaking from experience.

  2. Phil Williams

    Lots of folks still burned coal when I was a kid – Mamaw and Papaw Singleton had a “Warm Morning” coal heater in their living room – and most towns still had one or more coal yards. The one in Canton also carried lumber, ice and rock salt – we used run down there to get the makings for homemade ice cream! Once in a while down here in the Sandhills, I get a whiff of bituminous smoke – not sure from where but it is often distinct and takes me right back to frosty mornings in Haywood County! Thanks for the memories!

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.