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


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.

Read the rest here.


A steam engine pulling a coal car in the Asheville railyard roundhouse in 1942.

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Kiosks help us tell the story

RiverLink and MountainTrue have developed informational kiosks for each river access point along the French Broad River Paddle Trail with a grant from the North Carolina Recreational Trails Program. Each kiosk focuses on historical and natural features of the river, as well as paddle trail information including maps and boater resources. These kiosks aid users and […]

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

Blue Ridge Heritage National Heritage Area