RiverLink Mourns the Passing of Founder Karen Cragnolin

Dear RiverLink Family,

We are saddened to share that our visionary founder, Karen Cragnolin, passed away this past weekend after a long illness.

Karen was a leading advocate for a revitalized French Broad River beginning in the 1980s, following decades of neglect that had turned the banks of the French Broad over to auto graveyards, landfills, and other polluting industries. The booming factories of the 1920s and ‘30s had closed, leaving abandoned industrial buildings all along Asheville’s urban river corridor. The river seemed inaccessible to residents and visitors alike; views from the bridges passing over the French Broad were blighted by discarded tires, rusting vehicles and an animal rendering plant.

Karen had a vision of what a thriving river district could be – and she joined with others who shared that vision, including author Wilma Dykeman; neighbor and co-visionary Jean Webb; and civic leaders at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, who sought to encourage tourists coming to explore the Biltmore Estate to ‘stay one more day. A river movement was born. Read Karen’s first-hand historical account of this transformation here.

Karen & the “French Broad” – courtesy of Justin Young
Editorial cartoon – courtesy of David Cohen

“I met Karen nearly ten years ago while working here in Asheville for EPA,” says RiverLink Board Chair, Anne Keller. “Our hearts are heavy at this news. She was an amazing person who changed the trajectory of riverside development in Asheville and championed our great, ancient river—for the benefit of the entire community. RiverLink’s Board and staff look forward to continuing her work to improve our river and impact the people who live in its watershed.”

RiverLink will honor her life and accomplishments later this year. We are also entering the Greenway Phase of a new river park named in Karen’s honor along Amboy Road, where the Edaco Auto Salvage yard once operated—on a parcel acquired and remediated under her visionary leadership. Additional information will be forthcoming as plans are confirmed. 

We are forever grateful for Karen’s bold vision, commitment and action and will carry her legacy forward for current and future generations to enjoy a vibrant and thriving French Broad River watershed.

With tremendous gratitude,

RiverLink Staff & Board