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The French Broad

July 5, 2010


Colonel Sidney Vance Pickens was a native of Hendersonville, North Carolina, and a Confederate veteran of the Civil War. In the shallow waters of the French Broad River, Colonel Pickens saw an opportunity to make his fortune. With political pull from Congressman Robert Vance, funding was obtained to dredge the river between Brevard and Hendersonville.

When the United States Army Corps of Engineers completed the work, Colonel Pickens announced his plan for building a steamship to ply the waters of the mountain river.

The Water Lily began service in 1881. The boat was 90 feet long, featured two paddlewheels, and could accommodate 100 passengers. It was a worthy rival to riverboats along the Mississippi River.

The maiden voyage was brief but successful. Loaded to capacity, the Water Lily was quite the rage. Pickens advertised that his steamboat operation, the highest in elevation in America, offered travelers a pleasant alternative to bumpy wagon rides along twisting mountain roads.

The capricious French Broad was unkind to the Water Lily and to Colonel Pickens. Dredging had made the river deep enough, but in many places it was still too narrow for the steamboat to navigate. Pickens apparently had not considered King’s Bridge near Mills River in Henderson County. The bridge was just too low for the boat. Alas, the elegant white and green steamboat was consigned to short sight-seeing trips, receptions, and parties.

After less than four years on the French Broad, a flashflood ripped the Water Lily from her moorings and wrecked her downstream on a sandbar.

The wooden planks from Pickens’ boat were salvaged and used to build Riverside Baptist Church in Horse Shoe, North Carolina. The steamboat’s bell hangs in the belfry.

The town of Hot Springs, North Carolina, is located on the French Broad River near the Tennessee state line.  The Appalachian Trail crosses the French Broad on Bridge Street and climbs the mountains on either side of the river. Hot Springs is a popular destination for whitewater rafting and kayaking enthusiasts. I have hiked the Appalachian Trail through Hot Springs, and I have paddled a stretch of the French Broad there.

On a recent trip to Nashville, Tennessee, Clare and I traveled back roads from Asheville to Newport. Driving along old US highways 70 and 25, we followed the French Broad River through the Smoky Mountains.

At its headwaters, the French Broad begins as a trickle in western North Carolina near the town of Rosman. Flowing for 210 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains, it joins the Holston River outside of Knoxville to create the Tennessee River. Along the way numerous tributaries, including the Pigeon and Nolichucky Rivers, flow into the French Broad.

The French Broad River has several fascinating distinctions. It is thought to be the third oldest river in the world. It is so old that it is practically devoid of fossils. Only the Nile in Africa and, ironically, the New River predate it. These are the only three rivers in the world that flow south to north. The New River begins in North Carolina on the other side of the Eastern Continental Divide. North Carolina has the distinction of having both the second and third oldest rivers in the world within its borders.

The French Broad is older than the surrounding mountains. When the land buckled and the Appalachian Chain formed, the river was already flowing. As the mountains rose, the river cut into them, winding through them.

The earliest known settlers of the French Broad Region were Native Americans.  Indians mounds have been found to date back as far as 500-200 A.D. Evidence of Cherokee habitation can be traced back to at least 1000 A.D.

Visited in 1540 by Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, the river basin was later occupied by English-speaking settlers.

Over the years, the banks of the French Broad have been industrialized by cotton mills, riverside factories, even the doomed steamboat Water Lily. As manufacturing  grew so did pollution.

In 1955, Wilma Dykman published her book The French Broad. Calling the river “Too thick to drink and too thin to plow,” Dykeman raised awareness of the river’s plight. With the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, The French Broad was restored to a clear mountain river.

Once polluted and nearly lifeless, the French Broad River has been rehabilitated. Now it supports a wide variety of fish, including largemouth bass, brown and rainbow trout, muskellunge, and catfish.

The French Broad is again thriving with wildlife. Large varieties of birds live along the river. Great blue herons are numerous. Green herons and little blue herons can be seen wading in the quiet waters searching for fish and crustaceans.

Other water birds include the black duck, pied-bill and horned grebes, belted kingfisher, osprey, and wood duck. Bald eagles nest along the river. Migratory woodland birds are commonly seen and heard in summer including vireos, warblers, flycatchers, and swallows.

The Cherokee gave the river its oldest known name, Agiqua. English settlers named it the French Broad because the wide river flowed west toward the Mississippi Valley claimed by French explorers and fur traders. The name also distinguishes it from its eastern cousin, the Broad River.

I asked a fellow from Hot Springs how the river got its name.

“We call her the French Broad because she is the finest broad anywhere in these parts!”

Kirk H. Neely
© July 2010    

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