The saga of the Road to Nowhere began in 1943 and continues on today in the small, artsy, outdoor-adventure town of Bryson City, NC. Bordering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the road itself really does lead…nowhere. It’s a common hot topic among the city residents and a great story to tell historians, roadies and national park enthusiasts. It really is intriguing.
The initial story takes place in 1942, during World War II. To assist in the war effort, Swain and Graham County NC residents agreed to sacrifice their ancestral family land for the sake of their patriotic causes; generating more power to produce electricity for building aluminum planes and also an atomic bomb in nearby Oak Ridge, TN. The bomb was to be used to help end the war. While it indeed served its purpose, a new kind of battle was started between local residents, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the US Government.
It was decided that the hydroelectric power dam would be built to flood 11,000 acres of North Carolina land. An additional 67,800 acres were also accumulated by TVA for related purposes. The power generated from this dam would be used in Oak Ridge as specified above. Because these 200 now displaced families (1500-6000 people, stats vary) sacrificed their land, some more willingly than others: the government promised to build a road through the new national park to provide access to the more than 28 family cemeteries that would now only be accessible by water… and a very long walk.
In 1943, the government paid approximately $400,000 to the State of North Carolina, which Swain County owed in outstanding bonds. Because the government was protected by an agreement clause stating the payment would be delayed until enough money was accumulated for construction, they delayed in building the road. The delay continued until 1969 when a short 7 mile scenic drive was built into the park and ends with a tunnel…that also leads nowhere.
The road was basically meant to connect Tennessee and North Carolina through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It would run along the north shore of Fontana Lake and be called “North Shore Road”. As time moved forward, construction cost estimates sky rocketed to a projected $752 million dollars and environmentalists began to express grave concern for the disruption of several native species in the park. A 525 page research document study was conducted on the environmental and economic impacts from road construction.
Across 70 years, controversy has mounted from all sides; government, naturalists, town residents and families with little access to the only thing that tied them to their ancestors- the cemeteries. Karen Wilmont, Director of Tourism in Bryson City shares a story or two, “A friend of mine’s grandmother was one of the ladies unwilling to move out and she was literally picked up in her rocking chair and carried out the door.” David Monteith shared his story with WRAL’s “Road Warrior” in 2007. “My daddy’s grocery store was at Forney’s Creek. That’s gone. That’s underwater. That’s part of my heritage, but it’s gone.”
The battle continued all the way until last fall, 2010 when a Bryson City attorney, L.D. “Luke” Hyde and his counterparts were able to construct a new contract for a cash settlement of $52 million in lieu of road completion. Annual payments would be held in trust with Swain Country receiving interest on the growing principle. It took 70 years to reach an agreement; can you imagine?
In the end, the Road to Nowhere stays the way it is; unfinished. Some think the plan was agreeable, others do not. The road itself is befitting of its name. It curves softly and quietly uphill through the mountains with scenic views of Lake Fontana peeking out from the vast green wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains. As you can imagine, except for a few hard core hikers and an interested roadie or two, virtually no one is there. The lazy leaves crunch beneath the car, between tire and asphalt- even in the summer- because there’s just no traffic. Who drives to nowhere?
It IS neat though, and scenic. And just a little eerie, especially the dark cool tunnel sitting alone at the end of the road with its vines swaying in the constant light wind. Hikers walking by joke about sacrifice benches and the like. No doubt, the stories that follow that road are as vast and different as the viewpoints surrounding the controversy itself.
I loved this road. Not just because it was a scenic road or because the asphalt is smooth and quiet. I loved it because it just goes to prove my point YET AGAIN… despite what many think…the road really does matter. Too often we forget that roads connect people, hire workers, and deliver our goods. We drive on them every day and yet think little about them. This road is the perfect example of how our passions are so often connected to the pavements on which we drive.
There is much of the this story that isn’t included here. A short trip to Western NC or even just a cruise down the information superhighway will provide you with loads of details about the road sometimes called “The Road of Broken Promises”. Special thanks to the Bryson City Visitors Center, WRAL’s “Road Warrior”, NC attractions website, and the many participants on either side of the debate surrounding this special road. What a pleasure it’s been chatting with you, reading your stories online, and watching your videos. Thanks for sharing about your road. It’s a road story I won’t soon forget.
- Layne Rider