Déjà vu – the common feeling that you’ve already experienced something even as it is happening – is thought to be many things.
Is it a glitch in the matrix?
Could it be memories from a past life?
Perhaps it is a message from the great beyond?
Or is it that you’ve watched a movie 145 times on TBS and you’ve unknowingly wandered onto the exact location it was filmed?
For me, it is decidedly the latter.
When we rolled into Bryson City, North Carolina I knew two things: First, it was home to legendary Tennessee Vol quarterback Heath Shuler – and his brother Benji. Second, it’s home to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad which was doing its version of the Polar Express.
We arrived in Bryson City, checked into the hotel and went downtown to find something to eat. As we approached the aforementioned railway, 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 dang 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” had been filmed.
Where is the train wreck from The Fugitive?
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.
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 located in the heart of Bryson City.
Was The Fugitive filmed in North Carolina?
It turns out, in fact, that major portions of Western North Carolina substituted for rural Illinois in the movie because – as you know – the states are very visually similar.
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.
Some of the scenes at the dam are composites. For instance, there’s no tunnel in reality but in the movie, Ford uses the drainage system in the tunnel to get into the dam.
“We’ve got a gopher,” Jones says.
Still, several shots of the dam and the river made it into the movie.
Also, the hospital where Ford cleans up, gets a shave, some clothes and a sandwich before stealing the ambulance was Harris Regional Hospital. And it is located in Sylva, North Carolina.
Did they actually crash a train in The Fugitive?
Probably 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.
The movie was filmed in Dillsboro, North Carolina, along the tracks for the Great Smoky Mountain Railway.
And the scene was almost entirely done with practical effects. It was the early 90s, CGI wasn’t ready for that business. Specifically evidenced by the scene when a clearly not-actually-there Ford leaps from the bus as the train makes impact.
Why North Carolina?
Well, according to legend, several other train lines asked did not want to be associated with a gigantic crash. Hindsight is 20/20 but they missed the marketing boat on that one. It’s not as bad as M&Ms passing on “ET: The Extra Terrestrial”, but it’s close.
But how did they do the scene? Did they actually crash the 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’ dream come to life.
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 hen houses to anyone who passes by.
How do I get to The Fugitive train crash 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 $56 to $126. The GSMRR website says the excursion is only available from Jun 9 through Dec. 31. There are also several Sunday-only Tuckasegee excursions available for booking on the website.
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.