Beyond the Banks: Plying the French Broad

Terry Ruscin /

The French Broad Steamship Company began with the notion of a paddleboat intended to carry passengers and freight on a stretch of the French Broad River. The plan would open the Broad as an important line for commerce where rails did not connect centers of trade.

The vessel was the brainchild of Col. Sidney Vance Pickens (1836–1919) of Hendersonville, an entrepreneur and veteran of the Civil War. The scheme would link Brevard, Hendersonville and Asheville by water.

Pickens was president of the company and R.W. Allen (1818–1905) served as secretary and treasurer. Corporate records (September 25, 1880) list Squire Jonathan Williams (1847–1911) and Albert Cannon (1845–1924) as additional partners.

Pickens married Cornelia Sarah Davis (1847–1928) and settled in Hendersonville where he practiced law, operated a mule-drawn trolley and promoted tourism.

With his cousin, congressman Robert Brank Vance (1828–1899), Pickens pulled political strings in Raleigh. The cousins secured an appropriation to improve the proposed route for a steamboat, initiating a dredging project by the United States Army Corps of Engineers to clear the channel between Brevard and Hendersonville. The projected cost: $44,000. The Corps blasted shoals, removed reefs, constructed jetties and deepened sections of the riverbed.

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Kiosks help us tell the story

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"The French Broad River is the third oldest river in the world."

Blue Ridge Heritage National Heritage Area