The history of Asheville’s River Arts District

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Postcard of the French Broad River railroad courtesy of Hunter Library, Western Carolina University

Today, we’re following the sands of time back to the original heyday of the River Arts District. Before this mile and a half section of Asheville became a mecca for artists, outdoor recreation, and craft beer, it was our city’s first industrial hub. And before that, it comprised a town of around 500 people. Ready to go back to the 1880s? The train is leaving now.

It all begins with the railroad line…

The Western North Carolina railroad began its expansion into Asheville circa 1879, thanks to the labor of railway workers (many of whom were incarcerated African-Americans). Once the railway became operational in 1880, it connected Asheville —  through a daunting chain of mountains — to cities across the country, including New York, St. Louis, New Orleans, Jacksonville, and Savannah.

The train service beckoned thousands of newcomers to Asheville, and by 1900, our city’s population rose to 10,000. Naturally, hotels, housing, and other forms of commerce followed this growth, and it wasn’t long before the district became a flourishing industrial hub. 

The Asheville Cotton Mill building. | Photo courtesy of Buncombe County Library Special Collections

Then came the factories…

The Cotton Mill building, built in 1888, was one of the first major structures to set up shop. The two-story brick factory produced denim + flannel and at its peak employed more than 300 people. According to the Asheville Citizen-Times, by June 1889, the mill was producing 15,000 yards of plaid each day. A network of housing and streets dubbed “Chicken Hill” eventually came to surround the mill site. Some say that name derived from the nearby chicken hatchery, others think it referred to all the country folk running around the area. 

Other early factories + buildings to join the party included National Biscuit Company (1907), Armour Meat Packing Plant (1910), and the Farmer’s Federated Ag Co-op (1916).

And then one time in 1916, it rained for three days straight… 

The 1916 Flood is considered WNC’s biggest natural disaster in recorded history. It wreaked havoc on the railroads, as well as Biltmore Village, the banks of the Swannanoa River, and much of the WNC region. At its peak, the French Broad River swelled “17 feet above flood stage” and the flood annihilated several bridges, homes + businesses, along with a North Asheville power station. It took several months for the railway to rebuild in Asheville and the riverside region was never quite the same. 

In Asheville proper, Mountain Xpress estimates the property damage at $1 million (about $23 million in today’s dollars). And WNC Magazine estimates the financial damages to the region at $22 million (or half a billion dollars today)

In her 1955 book The French Broad author Wilma Dykeman put it this way: “1916 stands as the year of the river’s chief and unforgettable rampage…Those who felt its power then remember something of the wild force that the combined elements of mountains and water can create in this special situation. And they remember its dark beauty too.” 

​​Stay tuned for part two of this history series, in which we explore the aftershocks of the flood + Great Depression, as well as the RAD’s artistic renaissance and modern-day evolution.