The Mountain Lily: A French Broad River steamboat

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The Mountain Lilly, Hendersonville, N.C.." (P649), Jody Barber Photographic Collection, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, UNC Asheville

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Talk about up-leveling your float trip. While floating the French Broad River in a tube or in a kayak is familiar territory, we recently discovered that a much bigger barge  – the Mountain Lily steamboat – used to traverse the iconic waterway. 

Here’s what we found out about the steamboat, which began service in 1881 and ended it just a few years later in 1885

  • Col. S.V. Pickens, of Hendersonville, owned the boat and the French Broad Steamboat Company, which he incorporated before the Civil War. In 1876, he received $25,000 from Congress for river improvements to help with the project, though members were skeptical (one Ohio senator noted his disapproval by saying that “A catfish couldn’t even navigate the French Broad.”)  
  • Its 17-mile route connected Brevard, Hendersonville + Asheville via the Oklawaha and French Broad Rivers, and Pickens hoped it would transport goods + people up the river, as there weren’t many good roads connecting the areas at that time. It never completed the full route.
  • It was designed by Confederate ironclad architect John Luke Porter, and was 90 feet long, with two decks, side wheel paddles, twin 12-horsepower steam engines, and staterooms for 100 passengers. It was painted white, with green trim. A model of it is housed at the Henderson County Heritage Museum.
  • Because the river isn’t exactly ideal for large boats it’s too shallow + narrow – it was dredged + cleared before the first voyage, and several jetties were constructed along the route to manipulate the depth + flow of the water.

Although 100 people were on the maiden voyage in 1881 (along with a brass band) and most of Brevard took an unofficial holiday to check out the launch, the steamboat never made a profit, despite Col. Pickens’ best efforts. It was mostly used for parties and only went short distances.

In 1885, a flash flood detached the Mountain Lily from its dock at Banner Farm Road in Mills River. It floated downstream and got stuck in the mud near present-day Haywood Road. From there, it was broken up and sold for salvage. Part of the wood from the boat was used to build the Horse Shoe Baptist Church, and the steamboat’s bell supposedly went into the church belfry.

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