The Wreckage From a Famous Movie That’s Hidden in the Smoky Mountains

the wreckage

Guests who wish to tour the crash site can book the Tuckasegee River Excursion through the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City (photo courtesy of Vicky Somma/Flickr | Creative Commons)

The Fugitive train wreck: Discovering the movie crash site in the Smokies

Déjà vu is the common feeling that you’ve already experienced something even as it is happening. Could it be memories from a past life? Or is it that you’ve watched a movie 145 times on TBS and you’ve unknowingly wandered onto the exact location where it was filmed? When we arrived in Bryson City, home to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad which was doing its version of the Polar Express, I had an uncanny feeling that I’d been there before. The crossing was pushing several buttons, there was something about it that seemed so familiar. I mentioned the strange feeling to some of the people we were traveling with and they quickly had the answer. This is where the Harrison Ford – Tommy Lee Jones classic “The Fugitive” was filmed. 

Watch the scene (VIDEO)

There’s a scene when Ford’s innocent and surprisingly attractive jail escapee/surgeon has survived his escape from an epic train versus bus crash and stolen an ambulance. You can view that scene in the clip below, courtesy of Warner Brothers. In the scene, as authorities are closing in, he runs through warning lights and railroad cross-arms to get away. I’ve probably watched that scene a thousand times. But I never realized the spot was in the heart of Bryson City. Or more specifically, in Dillsboro, North Carolina, along the tracks for the Great Smoky Mountain Railway.

In fact, it turns out that major portions of Western North Carolina substituted for rural Illinois in the movie because – as you know – the states are very visually similar. For example, the dam where Tommy Lee Jones and his crew of quick-witted U.S. Marshals chase is the Cheoah Dam on U.S. 129 in Robbinsville. Also, the hospital where Ford cleans himself up was Harris Regional Hospital. It is located in Sylva, North Carolina. 

But the most well-known scene from the movie – except for Ford’s enunciation of Provasic while confronting the nefarious and double-dealing Dr. Charles Nichols in a swanky Chicago hotel ballroom – is the train vs. bus crash. 

a tourist views the wreckage from the train
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad asked the film crew to leave the remnants behind for tourists (photo courtesy of Vicky Somma/Flickr | Creative Commons)

Why did they crash a real train?

The scene was almost entirely done with practical effects. It was the early 90s, CGI wasn’t ready for that business. This was specifically evidenced by the scene when a not-on-location Ford leaps from the bus as the train makes impact. But how did they do the scene? Did they crash a train? The answer is, sort of. They got a bus and put it on a spur they built just for that purpose. They set up about a kajillion cameras because they only had one shot at it. And they rammed a big hollowed-out dummy train into that bus, using another train to push it from behind. Just for fun they loaded some PVC pipes with explosives and buried them under the tracks. In other words, every 5-year-old playing with Hot Wheels dreams come to life.  

a train that reads Illinois southern
The remnants of “The Fugitive” crash site remain on private land owned by The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and are viewable on the Tuckasegee River Excursion (photo courtesy of Vicky Somma/Flickr | Creative Commons)

Why was the wreckage behind?

Afterward, the railway asked the film crew to leave the remnants behind, figuring it would be a cool tourist attraction. And the film crew obliged. The train is there. The bus is there. I’m half surprised Tommy Lee Jones isn’t out there talking about outhouses and henhouses to anyone who passes by. 

How to find the wreckage site

The wreckage remains on private land owned by the GSMRR and is viewable on the Tuckasegee River Excursion. But be forewarned. The train does not stop and for the viewing of the rusting remnants. At the time of this writing, prices for the excursion range from $63 to $119. The GSMR website says the excursion is only available on select dates so booking in advance is highly recommended.

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Vicky Somma for her excellent photos of the crash site.

Did you know “The Fugitive” was filmed largely in North Carolina? Have you seen the site of the train crash? Let us know in the comments below.

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