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

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

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, forming one side of Pack Square—suddenly becomes a mountain road. As it dizzily traverses the side of the mountain, the road enters a gap spanned by a lonely, primeval bridge. Something about the patina of the stone and the flora growing around the bridge, make it appear to be a natural part of the landscape, as if it’s always been there. In truth, it has been here for a little more than a hundred years, enough time for the bridge to settle into the landscape and become ensconced in legend and lore. You have arrived at Helen’s Bridge.

Helen’s Bridge, October 2012, by Lewis O. Powell IV. All rights reserved.

The temperature here seems chillier; perhaps it’s the geography or perhaps it’s the wandering spirit of Helen; it’s hard to tell. While many are drawn to the bridge’s stark beauty it is 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 losing her daughter in a fire, the distraught Helen hung herself from the bridge. Some versions associate Helen with the nearby estate of Zealandia, where she was supposed to have been a mistress to one of the estate’s owners, and after becoming pregnant, hung herself in anguish. Researchers have found nothing to document the existence of an actual Helen, although 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 trying to summon Helen by visiting the bridge at night and calling her name three times. It is reported that she 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 dead batteries. 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 a week, she returned and asked Helen to leave her car alone. The lock problem has not reoccurred.

The bridge is immortalized in Thomas Wolfe’s 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel, when the main character, Eugene Gant walks with his girlfriend up Beaucatcher Mountain:

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 attempted to draw a thin veil over his hometown by renaming it Altamont, it was clear to the Ashevillians that he was depicting them in his novel. 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 build his 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 politics. 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 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 tore 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 tunneling 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 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.

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 ideal for parking. The top of the bridge is still closed off and Zealandia is 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.

Helen’s Bridge, October 2012, by Lewis O. Powell IV. All rights reserved.

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 & Bettu 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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