The Gospel According to Jerry: The birth of Asheville’s industrial riverfront

Jerry Sternberg
Jerry Sternberg

BY JERRY STERNBERG

We have to know where we’ve been before we can know where we’re going.

City Council is considering rezoning the Asheville riverfront, starting with what they call the River Arts District, but it’s their obvious intention to rezone the entire stretch of riverfront from the northern city limits at the Woodfin line near Broadway to the city’s eastern border along the Swannanoa River.

I’ve offered to give City Council, the members of the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission and Chamber of Commerce executives a tour of the district from my historical perspective, but as of this writing they haven’t taken me up on it. I’ve therefore decided to write a series of articles giving my readers a virtual tour of the riverfront as it has evolved over time.

The district’s current zoning is mixed-use, except for large undesirable land uses called LULUs, such as asphalt plants and livestock pens.

In 1936, when I was 5 years old, my daddy took me to his workplace, which was in an old building at the Lyman Street railroad crossing, and began teaching me the rudiments of the hide, fur and scrap metal business.

I’ve spent most of my working career in the River District, operating numerous businesses and owning several properties. At the very least, this ought to qualify me as the “Ole Man of the River.”

In the early 19th century, I can only imagine that the land along the river was vacant bottomland used primarily for farming. It must have been an idyllic setting, quiet and pastoral.

The invention of steam power brought the Industrial Revolution, creating new industries such as railroads and heavy machinery. This changed the landscape of most of the world, and Asheville was no exception.

Whenever planners cast their eyes on the River District, they must recognize that there are two huge elephants in the room that must be dealt with: the river itself and the railroad, neither of which much lends itself to moderation or change.

When the railroad was constructed, it naturally followed the riverbed, because this was the cheapest and easiest way to build in our rugged mountain terrain. As the railroad snaked its way up from Tennessee through Hot Springs and Woodfin to Asheville, and beyond to South Carolina and eastward, this modern transportation mode replaced the horse and wagon, changing the whole character of the region, adding light and heavy industry — and bringing many new visitors and residents to enjoy our mountain climate.

Almost all of this new activity grew up along the flat land on the riverbanks that had access to the railroad. The newly developed steam generators that powered these industrial plants demanded huge amounts of coal and water, supplied by the river and the railroad. They also needed a convenient dumping place for wastewater, and the river suited their purpose.

The Steam Age dictated the architecture of the industrial community. The buildings were long, narrow rectangles, often two or more stories, with very low ceilings to accommodate the line shafts that ran the length of the building. The line shaft was a steel rod with numerous pulleys; keeping the ceiling low reduced the amount of expensive leather belting needed to connect the line shaft to the machinery on the building’s floor. At one end, the shaft was connected to the steam-driven flywheel; the whole assemblage thus transmitted power to the machines.

The coal-fired steam generator (affectionately called the “Jenny”) required smokestacks 100 feet or more in height. They generously distributed the acrid smoke for all to smell and breathe, coating every structure in the surrounding area with a gray, dingy soot. The manufacturers were quite proud of those smokestacks, displaying them prominently on their literature and stationery in all their phallic splendor.

These burgeoning industries also required rail sidings to deliver the coal and raw materials to the factories and take away the finished products. Thus they became the community’s lifeline. The upside of all this was the thousands of jobs they provided for local labor, particularly indigent farmers who moved to the city because the farm economy could no longer sustain them. This inflow of industry spurred a vibrant new business community that provided services to the mills and their workers, and Asheville prospered.

Up till then, leather had primarily been used for shoes, clothing, reins and saddles. The Steam Age, however, demanded enormous amounts of leather belting, creating the need for new and bigger tanneries to process the hides into leather.

My grandfather S Sternberg (short for Siegfried) had been a cattle trader in Germany. He arrived in the port of Houston around 1900 and made his way to Asheville, where he established a large hide-processing plant. In later years, my father and I followed him into the business. The green hides, freshly skinned from the carcass, were purchased from farmers and meatpackers and cured in brine. After that they were shipped to the newly built tanneries, such as Hans Rees on Riverside Drive and Joe Silverstein’s Transylvania Tannery in Brevard.

For many years, life revolved around steam and the kingdom of coal, but change was a-comin’, and I’ll tell you about it in the next installment.

Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at gospeljerry@aol.com.

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7 thoughts on “The Gospel According to Jerry: The birth of Asheville’s industrial riverfront

  1. John Penley

    I remember that back in the 50s my grandfather took me to the river to see the tobacco auctions. He was a country preacher and some members of his numerous churches would be there selling tobacco. As a kid I thought it was really interesting and I loved the smell of raw tobacco which filled the warehouse. My dad was also close to the Plemmons family who ran a truckstop on the river for years and I spent a lot of time there as well. I grew up spending a lot of time on the river as well and Iam really enjoying this first installment on the history looking forward to more. People may be interested in this letter just published in the ACT where I make a suggestion on housing for Vets and others as part of the River Arts plan…http://www.citizen-times.com/story/opinion/readers/2016/11/18/letter-city-must-do-better-veterans/94077194/

    • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

      I loved the smell of burley in those warehouses.

      • John R Penley

        Yeah man that smell was so overpowering in a good way I can still remember it now and this article made me smell it again. By the way the Plemmons truckstop had a strong smell as well but not a good one. I guess my childhood memories of the River businesses all bring back odor memories.

        • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

          And then there was the rendering plant. One of my memories is jogging down by the river and hopping the train as it passed so I could get to the other side and keep going. There was a really great building supply place there at the bridge – Westall (I think)?

  2. luther blissett

    Great opener, and looking forward to the next installments.

    I hope City Council takes Jerry up on his offer. If you go to Portland (which as many visitors observe, is a much bigger Asheville in some ways) you still see the industrial landscape assert itself as you approach the river and the railroad lines, but it’s old industry mixed with new industry in old buildings, along with commercial/retail development.

  3. Phil Williams

    Great article! I caught the tail end of the old days down Riverside Drive, Meadow Rd, Lyman St, Craven St, etc…I remember when this and Biltmore Village were still very much alive industrial and commercial areas, and a lot of old businesses, warehouses, yards, etc were still in operation. My Papaw Singleton was a carpenter/mason/electrician and used to collect up old copper wiring and plumbing from jobs and take it to the Shulimson Brothers scrap yard between the Southern RR roundhouse and the old one-lane bridge over the RR before you got to Southern Concrete, Victoria Rd, etc. We’d sometimes get 60-80 bucks for a load of scrap metal – then ride over into Biltmore for a burger and coffee at Bell’s Hamburgers. I reckon there was a lot of pollution, etc from some of those old places, but they kept a lot of people employed and food on many tables.

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