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April 24, 2016

Last weekend I led a retreat for First Presbyterian Church of Spartanburg. The event was held at Montreat Conference Center near Black Mountain, North Carolina. As I made my journey through the spring-dappled mountains, my route at first paralleled and then crossed the French Broad River several times. I recalled another such trip.

Several years ago, Clare and I were driving from our home in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to Nashville, Tennessee. A massive rock slide near the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee changed our plans.  Interstate Highway 40, which follows the Pigeon River through the heart of the Smoky Mountains, was closed to traffic. We had to make a choice between the high road and the low road. We could take Interstate 85 south through Atlanta and then Interstate 75 north through Chattanooga, a route we had taken previously in the winter to avoid snow in the mountains.  Or we could travel backroads from Asheville to Newport, merging into Interstate 40 beyond the rock slide. We choose the latter, the road less taken. Driving along old US highways 70 and 25, we followed the French Broad River through the Smokies.

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 features. 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 through the rocks taking a twisted route.

I have seen the French Broad at many places along its circuitous course. Near the entrance in Pisgah National Forest just outside of Brevard, the Davidson River spills over boulders and through a sycamore grove to join the French Broad. To stand at the confluence of the two rivers is like witnessing a turbulent marriage.

I spent two hours one summer afternoon at a stretch along the river known as Long Shoals.   I retrieved a beach chair from my pickup truck and sat watching the river and writing in my journal. I saw anglers wading in the wide, rocky river fly-casting for trout, a great blue heron stabbing into the shallows, and a belted kingfisher swooping and chattering as she plucked fingerlings from the water. I think they all got their limit.

I have paused at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway to view the French Broad in the valley below. Sitting on the tailgate of my pickup, I watched a pair of red-tail hawks riding the updrafts, circling higher and higher, and then diving again in search of their prey near the meandering river.

I have admired the river in late winter from the Appalachian Trail above Hot Springs. The snow-covered mountains dropped dramatically to the river below. As I made my way down the steep path, ice formations along the river sparkled in the sun.

As Clare and I made our springtime drive toward Nashville, the winding river was our constant companion through the Blue Ridge. Hazy mountains provided a backdrop for the river flowing through lush green pasture land. The landscape was adorned with flowering trees. Redbud, wild cherry, and dogwoods trailed down the hillsides and bloomed along the river banks.

Further along in Madison County the mountains rise higher and steeper. Where the ancient watercourse has cut a deep gorge through the granite rocks, the river becomes wider and wilder. It is here that expert whitewater enthusiasts challenge the French Broad.

I have rafted several mountain rivers, the Nolichucky, the Nantahala, and the Chattooga among them. I have also taken an open canoe on tamer stretches of the New River and the Nolichucky. I paddled a section of the French Broad several years ago. The thing I remember most about that adventure was the beautiful orange wild flame azaleas all along the bank. I also remember the variety of birds, especially the flycatchers.

Clare and I approached the town of Hot Springs, North Carolina, located on the French Broad near the Tennessee state line.  The Appalachian Trail crosses the river on Bridge Street and climbs the steep mountains on either side. The town is a haven for backpackers, whitewater aficionados, retirees, tourists, and shoppers. Clare and I stopped for a cup of coffee. I picked up a pamphlet entitled The French Broad River Map and Guide published by River Link. It was chock full of good information.

The earliest known settlers of the French Broad region were Native Americans.  Indian 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. The Cherokee and their predecessors knew the area well. For thousands of years, these first inhabitants hunted the forested slopes of the French Broad River gorge, fished the rushing waters, and farmed the rich bottomland. Today, the remains of more than twenty archaeological sites stand as mute witness along its banks.

Visited in 1540 by Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, the river basin was later occupied by English-speaking settlers. In the 1780s, the first white settlers crossed the Blue Ridge and settled the valleys.

I met a fellow who lived most of his life on a spread beside the French Broad between Etowah and Horse Shoe in Henderson County. He said that the bottomland along the river was some of the best in North Carolina. “There’s just one thing,” he said. “That river has a mind of her own. When she floods she creates havoc for everybody.”

Flooding has been a perennial problem along the French Broad.

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 Mountain 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.

The maiden voyage was brief but successful. Loaded to capacity, the Mountain 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 Mountain 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 flash flood ripped the Mountain Lily from her moorings and deposited the wreck 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.

In the mid-1960s, the Tennessee Valley Authority developed a plan to build a series of dams in the French Broad River Valley in Transylvania County for flood control and recreational use. But local residents objected and the plan was scrapped.

Clare and I continued our journey following the river into Tennessee. At Douglas Lake we could clearly see that its power was an important source of energy for industry and for homes.  Over the years, the banks of the French Broad have been industrialized by cotton mills, riverside factories, even the doomed steamboat Mountain 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 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 its banks. 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, horned grebes, belted kingfisher, osprey, and wood duck. Bald eagles nest near the water. 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, meaning Long Man, and its tributaries were his chattering children.  English settlers named it the French Broad because the wide river flowed west toward the Mississippi Valley, territory 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!”

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