Thursday, December 31, 2015

Resting high on that mountain—Helen’s Bridge, Asheville

Helen's Bridge
Over College Street between
Windswept Drive and Beaucatcher Road
Asheville, North Carolina

N.B. This article is a revamp of my 2012 article. I have added additional material and pictures.

I know your life on earth was troubled
And only you could know the pain.
You weren't afraid to face the Devil
You were no stranger to the rain.
Go rest high on that mountain…

--“Go rest high on that mountain,” Vince Gill (1995)

The city drops away quickly as you drive up Beaucatcher Mountain from downtown Asheville. College Street—a main thoroughfare through the heart of downtown Asheville, forming one side of Pack Square next to the haunted Art Deco imminence of Asheville City Hall—suddenly becomes a mountain road as it dizzily traverses the side of the mountain. The road enters a gap in the mountain spanned by a lonely, primeval bridge. You have arrived at Helen’s Bridge.
 
Helen's Bridge, October 2012, by Lewis O. Powell IV. All rights reserved.
I’ve always visited this site in the morning and it’s always been a bit chilly. The temperature within the gap seems chillier; perhaps it’s the geography or perhaps it’s the wandering spirit of Helen, it’s hard to tell. There’s something about the patina of the stone and the flora growing around the bridge that makes it appear to be a natural part of the landscape, like it’s always been there. This bridge has been here for a little more than a hundred years, enough time for the bridge to settle into the landscape and be ensconced in legend and lore.

In the 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel, by one of Asheville’s greatest native sons Thomas Wolfe, the bridge is immortalized:
They turned from the railing, with recovered wind, and walked through the gap, under Philip Roseberry's great arched bridge….. As they went under the shadow of the bridge Eugene lifted his head and shouted. His voice bounded against the arch like a stone. They passed under and stood on the other side of the gap, looking from the road's edge down into the cove.
Though Wolfe drew a thin veil over his hometown by calling it Altamont, he is describing Asheville and its citizens, so much so that he is reported to have received death threats and did not return to the city for several years after the novel’s publication.

This rustic stone bridge was constructed as a carriageway for the Zealandia Estate in 1909. It was designed by R. S. Smith, who worked as an architect on the building of the nearby Biltmore Estate and was obviously fluent in the languages of Gothic, Tudor, and Elizabethan architecture.  In 1889, the same year that George Vanderbilt began construction on his magnificent manse that he would call Biltmore, John Evans Brown, who had spent his formative years in Asheville, began to create an estate here on Beaucatcher Mountain. Brown had left the city in 1849 to pursue his dreams of striking gold in the Golden West. When those dreams failed to pan out (pun intended), Brown set out for the green mountains of New Zealand where he found fortune in sheep and success as a politician. He returned to his hometown with fortune in hand in 1888 and began construction on his estate.
 
Helen's Bridge, December 2015, by Lewis O. Powell IV. All rights reserved.
Brown enjoyed his stately, mountainside view of Asheville for a few scant years before his death in 1895. The estate was purchased by Australian native Philip S. Henry in 1903 and this intellectual, art collector, and diplomat set about fashioning the estate into a showplace in this aristocratic resort community. Hiring architect R. S. Smith, Henry began to transform the lofty estate into a European-styled castle in the Tudor style. The carriageway with its notable bridge was constructed during this period. In 1924, Henry opened his estate for the public to see his art collection. Upon Henry’s death in 1933, the estate passed to his daughters and remained in the family until 1961.

When construction began on the nearby Interstate 240 corridor, plans originally called for slicing through part of Beaucatcher Mountain. Local preservationists quickly formed into the Beaucatcher Mountain Defense Association to argue for the mountain’s preservation and even more specifically for the protection of Zealandia. A tunnel through the mountain was proposed instead. Though the state department of transportation had torn down Philip Henry’s museum in 1976, the estate was named to the National Register of Historic Place in 1977 and was left alone. During the tunnel blasting supports were added to protect the bridge. In 1998 with the supports still in place and stones falling from the looming structure, the city considered demolishing the structure. Local history buffs and preservationists won the fight and the supports were carefully removed. The bridge was structurally quite sound and it has recently been bought by the city to use as part of a proposed greenway.
 
Helen's Bridge, December 2015, by Lewis O. Powell IV. All rights reserved.
While many are drawn to the bridge’s stark beauty it is perhaps the legend and lore that draws others. The legend speaks of a woman named Helen who lived near the bridge with her beloved daughter. After she lost her daughter in a fire the distraught Helen hung herself from the bridge. Some versions associate Helen with Zealandia where she was a mistress to one of the estate’s owners. After she became pregnant she hung herself in anguish. Researchers have found nothing to document the existence of an actual Helen. Author Alan Brown relates that some of the owners of Zealandia encountered the apparition of a woman on the stairs that they identified as Helen.

Teens have taken to summoning Helen by visiting the bridge at night and calling Helen’s name three times. It is reported that Helen will sometimes appear as a light or as an apparition. Others have reported that this ritual will sometimes cause car problems ranging from odd mechanical issues to a dead battery. Florida author Jamie Roush Pearce experienced problems with her car’s automatic locks after visiting the bridge and attempting to summon the sad spirit. Pearce briefly glimpsed a figure near her car and discovered the problem with the locks after leaving the site. After dealing with the issue for about a week, she returned and asked Helen to leave her car alone. The lock problem has not reoccurred.
 
Helen's Bridge, October 2012, by Lewis O. Powell IV. All rights reserved.
If you choose to visit Helen, be cautious as the area does have some traffic. There is a dirt turnout off Beaucatcher Road a few yards past the bridge, this location is ideal for parking. The top of the bridge is still closed off and Zealandia is a private, so please confine your ramblings to the public thoroughfare underneath the bridge. Summoning spirits is never encouraged, especially if you wish to avoid car problems and please be kind to Helen, she’s been through a lot and deserves a rest high on the mountain.

Sources
Bishir, Catherine W., Michael T. Southern, & Jennifer F. Martin. A Guide
     to the  Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC:
     University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Bordsen, John. “Find the most haunted place in these Carolina towns.”
     Dispatch-Argus. 31 October 2010.
Brendel, Susanne & Betty Betz. National Register of Historic Places nomination
     form for Zealandia. 12 January 1977.
Brown, Alan. Stories from the Haunted South. Jackson, MS: University
     Press of Mississippi, 2004.
Burgess, Joel. “City acquires historic bridge.” Asheville Citizen-Times.
     25 November 2009.
“Death of Col. J. Evans Brown.” Asheville Citizen-Times. 9 July 1895.
Interstate 240 (North Carolina). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed
     30 December 2015.
“Saving Helen’s Bridge.” Asheville Community News. 1999.
Pearce, Jamie Roush. Historic Haunts of the South. Jamie Roush Pearce,
     2013.
Tomlin, Robyn. “Zealandia Bridge Repairs Completed; Fixing historic
     bridge cost much less than originally forecast.” Asheville Citizen-Times.
     1 June 1999.
Warren, Joshua. Haunted Asheville. Johnson City, TN: Overmountain
     Press, 1996.

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