Environmental Integrity

The River Arts District in Asheville, North Carolina - Part One

Who killed the French Broad River?

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TITLE: The River Arts District in Asheville, North Carolina – Part One

AUTHOR: Christo Bubenick

SOURCE: Parks and Recreation Department, City of Asheville


Who killed the French Broad River?

The joining of the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers roughly marks the eastern boundary of Cherokee homelands in western North Carolina that included towns and villages, complete with defensive palisades, hunting grounds, and plazas for ball play along the riverbanks. Different sections of the river had their own names to reflect contrasting moods and natural elements.

ᏙᎩᏯᏍᏗ (Togiyasdi, “the place where they race”) was the name given to the confluence of the two rivers in modern-day Asheville. Many of the trails the Cherokee established along waterways and through forests for travel, food gathering, recreation, and commerce eventually turned into stagecoach trails like the Buncombe Turnpike, then railroads, and eventually modern roads and greenways.

When white settlers first arrived in the Appalachians, they devised their own names for natural landmarks such as rivers and mountains. New mountaineers saw the French Broad River, with headwaters near Rosman in Transylvania County, flow north through Henderson, Buncombe, and Madison counties and west into Tennessee towards the Mississippi River and France’s colonized territory.

Factories began appearing along the river when the railroad arrived in the 1880s, transforming Asheville from a livestock town into the region’s economic center. For the next several decades, the riverfront district would operate as one of the area’s primary industrial areas due to its proximity to the railway. Electric streetcars connected the bustling riverfront with Pack Square, Aston Park, and other areas of the growing city.

The riverfront was also home to some of the city’s earliest parks. Completed in 1892, Carrier’s Field (near today’s Carrier Park) hosted horse races, baseball games, bicycle races, and other sporting events for guests of the Hotel Belmont. Asheville Electric Company opened Riverside Park in 1904, a popular spot on the river near Pearson Bridge with a horse track, lake, ballfield, casino, and amusement rides that operated until the Flood of 1916 destroyed it.

The severity of the Flood of 1916 brought development along Asheville’s riverfront to a halt. Proximity to the river played an important role in both the city’s formation and the growth of its urban core that favored the valley’s flat terrain for rail transportation. However, the community had already begun expanding farther from the river with the arrival of personal automobiles leading to new business and residential centers.

By the 1950s, Asheville’s rapid population growth turned the French Broad into an open cesspool in the form of floating sewage, garbage disposal, industrial and chemical runoff, and landfill seepage. Residents and businesses left the riverfront behind to auto graveyards, junkyards, abandoned buildings, and rundown factories that straight-piped waste directly into the river. Pollution was so bad that it was considered a “dead river,” and several native fish and aquatic species became extinct.