Introduction

New Here?

Article 1

Seelys Castle, An Asheville Wonder

Article 2

Buying Seelys Castle

Article 3

A Mans Castle Is His Home

Article 4

Furnishing The Great Room

Article 5

The Library

Article 6

Warm Parties in the Cold Castle

Article 7

Miss Beaulah Young

Article 8

Generals, Guards, and Guests

Article 9

Annual Parties

Article 10

Charlotte Street Jam

Article 11

Asheville Sprawl

Article 12

Education Frustration

Article 13

Martin Nesbitt

Article 14

Graffiti

Article 15

Gospel Langren Hotel

Article 16

Fighting City Hall

Article 17

Rebutting Riverlink

Article 18

Confessions of a Recovering Racist

Article 19

Sin City

Article 20

Moonshine Memories

Article 21

Shot Heard Round Buncome County

Article 22

Long Arm of the Law

Article 23

Luck of the Draw

Article 24

Birth of Ashevilles Riverfront

Article 25

Ballad of King Coal

Article 26

Hard Times and Cheap Thrills

Article 27

Cataclysmic Change

Article 28

Honor Flight

Buy The Book

Charitable Donation




Article 27

Cataclysmic Change

As the trains laboriously churned though the economic canyon of the 1930s, hardly anyone could see the fiscal peaks above.

The kingdom was broke, and the only new infrastructure installed in the river basin was an unregulated dump on Riverside Drive where the realm disposed of garbage, industrial waste and other rubbish. Extending north from what’s now Hill Street almost to the Pearson Bridge, it was terribly smelly, with loose trash blowing everywhere. It’s hard to conceive that a community could possibly assault the river so destructively.

In all fairness, garbage was a serious and growing problem, and this was a cheap and practical solution. In retrospect, this looks like a scandalous act, but in hindsight it’s all too easy to condemn actions taken more than three-quarters of a century ago. Back then, we had no substantive knowledge or sense of environmental consequences, and getting rid of these waste products was critical to our day-to-day survival.

In those days, many communities burned their garbage in open pits, creating offensive smoke and odor and causing unbelievable air pollution. Big kingdoms like New York loaded trash on barges and dumped millions of tons of it in the ocean.

Across Riverside Drive from the dump were a bunch of low-lying structures known as the “pest houses.” Most of you probably don’t know they existed and have no idea what they were for. Pest houses were built to incarcerate people in the community who’d contracted serious contagious diseases. Often forcibly removed from their homes, these poor folks were confined to the squalid, spartan buildings and apparently treated like lepers.

I remember, as a boy, going there once with my father, a generous and caring man who was delivering clothes or food to these wretches. I wasn’t allowed to leave the car, but I cannot get the image out of my head of these depressing shacks where people were apparently pretty much left to die.

At the time, this was seen as a practical way to prevent the epidemics and plagues that had devastated entire populations for centuries. Even so, treating these people as criminals to be punished was inhumane and unforgivable.

Meanwhile, the annual fall pilgrimage to worship at the temples of the evil Tobacco Prince continued, and the auction priests’ haunting chants would resonate through the valley. The pungent odor of the herb, mingled with the smell of money, permeated these houses of Mammon-like idolatry.

Little did the parishioners know that Prince Tobacco’s mistress, Nicotine, was carrying on simultaneous torrid affairs with the malevolent knight Sir Can and the heinous Gen. Carcino (names have been changed to protect the guilty, who would lay waste to millions of lives over the ensuing decades).

And then it happened: On Dec. 7 in the year of our Lord 1941, a quiet Sunday afternoon, a truly earthshattering event took place that triggered cataclysmic changes to dominions large and small throughout our world — including the river kingdom.

As the members of our little realm rested after church and Sunday dinner and worked on preparations for Christmas, word was announced on the amazing, relatively new medium called “radio” that the dastardly emperor of the faraway kingdom of Japan had attacked the western fleet of our great American empire in a place almost no one had ever heard of: Pearl Harbor, on a remote Hawaiian island. The attack struck a serious blow at our vast armada, killing and wounding thousands of American seamen and other military personnel.

Soon after, America declared war not only on Japan but also on two other powerful kingdoms, Germany and Italy, that had been threatening the whole continent known as “Europe.” Immediately, millions of men volunteered or were drafted, becoming warriors in this enormous conflagration.

The changes were swift and emotionally devastating. The fear, the demographic shifts triggered by all the men going off to war, and the urgency of supplying our brave soldiers with food, equipment and armaments stressed our quiet little kingdom beyond imagination.

The scene at the depot was a depressing beehive as these raw recruits, many no more than young boys, had their last meal with their families at the Atlantic Quick Lunch and then walked across the street to board a train.

The engines stood spewing their smoke and steam like impatient stallions, stomping their hooves, waiting for these vibrant and excited young men to kiss their loved ones goodbye and embark for hells unknown — in many cases, never to return.


Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at gospeljerry@aol.com.

Click on a picture below to enlarge.