More than thirty years ago, just short of my father’s seventieth birthday, I taped a long interview with him to explore his memories of his early life in Asheville. Toward the end of our talk, I asked him about the house his parents had bought in the still relatively new suburb of West Asheville in 1923, when he was nine years old. “They had been looking and looking and looking,” he recalled, and had managed to save maybe $1400 to use as a down payment.
And [they] found this house on Brownwood Avenue, and it was very reasonably priced. The price of it was $4200. And . . . all of the framing and much of the other lumber in it was . . . reclaimed from the flood in 1916.
There were houses by the dozens went down French Broad River and crashed into that bridge down there. And piles and piles of lumber. And a lot of it, all the framing, in fact, was lumber that came out of lumber yards and houses as a result of the flood. If you go up in the attic and look, you’ll see mud and stuff all over the rafters where they had reclaimed it and put it up. But the house was alright; it was a fairly good house. Had five rooms.
The 1916 Asheville flood, following closely upon a major one of 1910, left the central business district, located high on a hill, mostly undamaged. But it devastated much of the
city’s infrastructure that lay close to the banks of the Swannanoa and the French Broad: power stations, the tracks and depot of the Western North Carolina Railroad, lavish Riverside Park (and the nearby “carbarn” of the street railway), and large numbers of homes and businesses.
The muddy rafters in the attic of my grandfather’s house that have in stayed my mind all these years come from near what will be the midpoint of our story.
My grandfather–raised on a farm down the mountain–had been driving streetcars in Asheville for 25 years by then, and the city was in the midst of the biggest boom it had yet seen (or was to see for another half-century).
The ridge of the Brownwood Avenue house seems, then, a good point from which to look out over the rest of the story (both earlier and later).
David C. Bailey, Joseph M. Canfield, and Harold E. Cox, Trolleys in the Land of the Sky (2000); Pack Memorial Public Library photographic collection; David E. Whisnant interview with John Keenan Whisnant, 1 April 1984.