Through the Mountains:
The French Broad River and Time

Cup your hands tightly together and tilt them toward the floor. Imagine the seam where they meet as a river and the lifelines on your palms as tributaries. If someone slowly poured water into your hands, it would run out over the tips of your little fingers like a tiny waterfall. You have just created your own watershed. Geographers define watersheds as basins surrounded by mountains and ridges drained by streams that coalesce in a single river. Social scientists think of watersheds differently, as turning points in one’s life or in human history. Through the Mountains: The French Broad River and Time presents the inseparable integration of the evolution of place and people in the watershed of the French Broad River, which swings northeast around the Great Smoky Mountains, the most heavily visited national park in America.

A watershed’s terrain, its rivers, and its climate shape its flora and fauna. Though present in the French Broad watershed for about five milliseconds of the earth’s history, our influence on the course of its waters and weather is far greater in the short run of millennia than its sculpting of us. The impact of our past and future deeds along the French Broad, though varying in specific details, are in aggregate no different from the effects of human habitation along any or all of America’s rivers.

Every major watershed—from the Kennebec across the country to the Sacramento—has been fashioned by periods of geologic upheaval and subsidence; colonization and settlement by paleo-people arriving from Eurasia; invasion of European immigrants driven west in flight from ravages of the Little Ice Age and in pursuit of religious freedom or dominating wealth; eviction of native Indians; internecine warfare; unfettered industrialized exploitation of natural resources and resulting rampant pollution; of economic depression and pandemic, and, of late, environmental awareness and pockets of restoration. Thus, the story of the French Broad is the large story of all of America’s great rivers, but small enough to tell.

Rising in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina and passing through Asheville, the French Broad River swings wide to the north around the Great Smokies before breaking out of the mountains near Newport, Tennessee, bound for Knoxville. There it joins the Holston to form the Tennessee. Four smaller rivers feed the French Broad: Swannanoa, Pigeon, Nolichucky, and Little Pigeon. The Pigeon, marks the northern boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Its smaller sibling, the Little Pigeon, carved the valley occupied by the tourist meccas of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg. The Nolichucky drains North Carolina’s rugged mineral district above Spruce Pine. The shortest is the Swannanoa, but in many ways it cradles some of the watershed’s oldest prehistoric Indian sites. The French Broad watershed is the heart of Western North Carolina and the epicenter of tourism in East Tennessee. More than 1 million people make their homes in the French Broad watershed and nearly 16 million visit annually.

Remember the game: “Rock, Paper, Scissors”? Your parents or grandparents may have played it with you. Paper wraps rock. Scissors cut paper. Rock breaks scissors. Which of the three is most powerful? Now consider this: water or rock? Those clear drops falling from the sky that dampen our gardens feel so benign—except when delivered in deluges that flood our farms and cities, laying waste to much we have built in a river’s path. Rock, on the other hand, appears totally enduring. So utterly permanent the Blue Ridge Mountains seem—but they are not.

More than 335 million years ago, the continents of North America and Africa began grinding together to form a new super continent called Pangea. Many geomorphologists believe that shortly thereafter in geologic time—300 to 260 million years ago—today’s Appalachians began to rise and that the French Broad began to flow, making it one of a handful of the world’s oldest rivers. However, three decades of research by Robert D. Hatcher Jr., recipient of the prestigious Penrose Medal from the Geological Society of America for his analysis of Appalachian tectonics, suggests that the mountains we see today and the river that cuts through them are probably only about 10 million years old. Further, he believes that this is at least the third, and perhaps even the seventh, mountain range to occupy this space on the North American continental plate.

As the formation of Pangea and other movements of continental plates caused mountains to rise in the zone occupied by the southern Appalachians, rains fell. Peaks froze and ice pried boulders from their slopes. Continuous cycles of freeze and fracture reduced them to gravels and sands washed into ancient oceans, among them the ancient Atlantic, filling the gap as Pangea was rifting apart. As sediments piled layer atop layer, they sank deeper and deeper. Each layer increased pressure on the ones beneath solidifying them into sandstones and shales. When these were subject to intense pressure and heat deep in the earth’s crust, they were welded into gneiss, schist, and other metamorphic rocks. Highly resistant to weathering, these formations underlie the Asheville Basin with its abundance of low hills and steep ridges. In warm oceans—like those surrounding the Florida Keys—calcium carbonate precipitated and settled as fine grey mud that became the deeply weathered limestone and dolostone that underlie the gentle valleys of the lower French Broad watershed in East Tennessee.

Taken together, the ancestors of today’s Appalachian Mountains and the valleys between them have moved some 2,000 miles northwest from their point of origin in the mid-Atlantic. They are moving still, but at a speed far slower than fingernails grow. The little tremblors that every few years rattle the china in our kitchen cabinets are tiny earthquakes. Each reminds us that the mountains that give us such a comforting sense of permanence are as dynamic in their own way as the seasons of flora and fauna, us among them, that inhabit them.

As the mountains and the river were driven westward, the earth wobbled back and forth on its axis. In the atmosphere, huge zones of high and low pressure battled, as they do today, for control of climate and weather. Storms in the mountains feed floods that soon drain away. Cataracts recline into riffles where I cast my flies for trout. I marvel, though, at massive rounded boulders, some the size of compact cars, which I must surmount to reach the next pool upstream. What arctic force cleaved them from the peaks? How did the seemingly gentle flows of, say, the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River above Gatlinburg tumble them, smooth their jagged edges, and deposit them in my way? What power that current must once have wielded. With such violence it must have raged.

As climate warmed and the crumbling front of the most recent glacial advance retreated northward, the first humans—Paleo Indians—entered the watershed. They and successive cultures, the ancestors of the Cherokee, sustained themselves for nearly 14,000 years. First were nomad hunters who thrust their spears into mastodons. They burned forest to promote tender fresh green browse for elk, deer, and turkeys. They evolved into farmers who cleared plots and planted corn, squash, and beans. In less than a micro-second of geologic time, Indians were all but driven out, replaced roughly 300 years ago by European immigrants whose industriousness in the form of roads, farms, factories, and cities shaped the watershed of the French Broad that we live in and work in today.

Still, with its surrounding ridges, the French Broad basin remains a natural sanctuary. Plants common to boreal Canada thrive on the mountain’s spine while isolated subtropical species of lichens have taken root on lower south-facing slopes. Brook trout, the state freshwater fish of North Carolina, are descendants of Arctic char, which sought refuge in mountain streams as lowland flows were heated by the warming climate that melted continental glaciers. Finding shelter in the mountains as well were those few hundred Cherokee who escaped infamous eviction on the Trail of Tears. Seeking freedom to raise their families as they pleased on lands they could afford, Scots-Irish put down their roots in isolated mountain coves. Legendary for their independence, they preserved ballads like Barbary Allen and their proclivity for distilling spirits of high octane. Mountain moonshine fueled hot cars that delivered booze to flat-landers who voted dry but drank wet. Thus was born NASCAR, America’s leading spectator sport.

Next time you fly from Atlanta to Asheville, look out the window and marvel at the broad level valley that runs from Rosman to Hendersonville and picture occasional clusters of tiny daub and wattle huts, homes of the watershed’s Indian farmers. As you circle to land, you may well spy Biltmore House, the largest private residence in America, and once the center of George Vanderbilt’s estate of 125,000 acres. Should you be driving toward Sevierville from I-40, when you cross the bridge over the French Broad imagine de Soto and his conquistadors camped five miles upriver in 1540, having just become the first Europeans to traverse the Blue Ridge. If you listen carefully on your way to Dollywood, you might hear the clang of Isaac Love’s hammer pounding bars of glowing pig iron into axes and ploughs at his works known now as Pigeon Forge.

Through the Mountains: The French Broad River and Time tells the story of how the waters of the French Broad and the landscape through which they flow came to sustain us, as they have people for millennia. In her landmark environmental history, The French Broad, Wilma Dykeman asks the question: What has the river been to the people living in the watershed?4 To this I add: The river and its tributaries have nurtured humans for thousands of years. What issues must we resolve today to ensure they will continue to do so? That is the question that the narrative of the watershed’s geologic and climatological history, the story of the first people to inhabit it, and nearly 500 years of our varied stewardship of it leads me to address in “The Planner’s Paradox,” the final chapter of this book. And this is the conundrum faced by all who live along America’s rivers, and perhaps a metaphor for the currents each of us navigates in our own personal lives.



John E. Ross  •  PO Box 938  •  Middleburg VA 20118  •  540.326.4611  •