The Road to Nowhere in the Smoky Mountains has become an unlikely tourist attraction
They say you shouldn’t mess with Texas. But there are other places in the world with well-earned reputations of grittiness that surpass ordinary folks like you and me. But while some talk a good game, other folks are all about that life without catchy slogans or festive T-shirts. With this in mind, don’t mess with the people of Bryson City, North Carolina, or you may catch hands … eventually. Like elephants, the hard-boiled people of Bryson City do not forget, and they’re willing to play the long game. They’re like patient loan sharks, willing to break legs 60 to 70 years later to get what’s owed to them.
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The Road to Nowhere in the Smoky Mountains
Our story starts in the early 1940s. The federal government is nearing the end of a massive public works program known as the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA helped pull the region out of the Great Depression. And it provided jobs and power to the region through its massive series of dams and lakes. In fact, the lake system prevented massive flooding in the region and created a series of tourist-friendly water recreation throughout the region.
It was a massively successful program and one that carries the legacy of a handful of dark secrets. But in the name of progress, people were pushed from family farms and even entire communities. In return, they received ‘fair’ compensation. And so, the entire face of the region changed. In 1943, the TVA wanted to create Fontana Lake and the dam of the same name. The federal government entered into a three-pronged agreement with the state, Swain County and the Department of the Interior.
The 3-step plan was simple. First, the TVA would pay $400K to the county for compensation for flooding Highway 288 and buy 44,000 acres and transfer the land to the National Park Service to be added to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Step two came with the caveat that the residents of the land would have to be relocated. As much as I like the park, it’s worth noting that we were getting pretty good at moving people out of those mountains through the years. Finally, step three was, that the DOI would, contingent upon the appropriation of all necessary funds, build a 30-mile-long replacement road along the North side of Fontana Lake to provide families access to cemeteries that would be cut off by the lake.
The government abandons the plan
More than thirty years would pass before the project would be abandoned completely. After the dam was finished, through the 1950s and the 1960s, the DOI made slow “progress” on a scenic mountain highway that takes you into the park. It’s beautiful. And majestic. And it’s six miles long. That’s right, in 20 years, the DOI managed to build six miles of road and a tunnel at a cost of roughly $4 million. Officially, it’s known as Lakeview Drive, but locally it’s the Road to Nowhere – A Broken Promise, which is so catty and passive-aggressive that they built a sign to commemorate it (pictured above).
In 1962, efforts were made to get the NPS to seriously reconsider the plan. It was said the construction was on unstable rock, and the road would be expensive and potentially damaging to the area’s landscape. By 1971, construction stopped following the construction of the tunnel and the Noland Creek Bridge. The people of Bryson City knew better, though. The federal government didn’t want to continue to pay massive dollars for a road that would be comparatively lightly used.
In 1983, a group of Swain County citizens sued to try and force the federal government to fulfill its promise. But the government found a loophole big enough to drive one of Bryson City’s historic trains through it. The covenant signed back in 1943 held that the DOI was bound to build the road only if the funds were appropriated. If the DOI didn’t request the appropriation and congress never pushed the issue, so the promise was unbroken and the Road to Nowhere would remain unfinished.
North Carolina reaches a settlement
Now, it had been 40 years and the people of Bryson City had been beaten in court. Did they make a dam fuss, or gather up a bunch of tea and throw it in Fontana Lake? No. Did they make a bunch of puns about finishing the dam road? Maybe. I would have. What the people of Bryson City did was continue to play the long game. They bided their time and waited until they got their man on the inside.
That man, North Carolina Representative Charles H. Taylor – Chuckie T. to his friends – in 2001 slipped a $16 million appropriation into a Federal Highway Administration. Nearly 60 years after this whole dam business started, the people of Bryson City had the law on their side. Over the next decade, the government presented a range of options to resolve the DOI’s obligation and, in 2010, an agreement was signed to give Swain County $52 million. In the meantime, on weekends throughout the summer, the National Park Service continued to ferry Swain County residents across Fontana Lake to visit the old family cemeteries for Decoration Days and family reunions.
Great, you might say. All’s well that ends well. The people of Bryson City were finally paid, and they still get to have family reunions in cemeteries like everyone does, and everything is perfectly normal. Well, kinda.
The federal government, not surprisingly, didn’t just make it rain. By 2016, Swain County only received $12.8 million and sued to get the rest. However, that suit also failed. And they paid the final installment in June of 2018 – to the state treasurer’s office, where Swain County gets access to the interest.
The road will likely never be completed
Despite the settlement, there are currently no plans to complete the Road to Nowhere. The cost to finish the road – estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars – would be much larger than the 52 million dollar settlement paid to Swain County.
However, The Road to Nowhere remains a popular attraction for visitors to Bryson City with access to hiking trails, including the 33.5-mile Lakeshore Trail, and beautiful views along the way. It’s a beautiful drive and a living example of the futile nature of even the best-laid plans.
How to find the Road to Nowhere
If using a GPS, simply navigate to Lakeview Drive, NC. To get to the Road to Nowhere from downtown Bryson City, head northwest Everett Street toward Island Street. Everett Road will turn into Fontana Road after a half-mile. Follow Everett Road until it becomes Lakeview Drive East after 2.5 miles. Follow Lakeview Drive for about 3.5 miles until it ends at a parking lot. From the parking lot, walk the paved road through the tunnel.
Also, take a flashlight if you are afraid of the dark. There are no lights in the tunnel. Unfortunately, the area has also seen an excess of debris and trash in recent years. If you can, bring a trash bag and some gloves and help keep the area clean when you leave. The Lakeshore trailhead is located on the other side of the tunnel where the pavement ends.
Have you visited the Road to Nowhere in Bryson City, NC? Let us know about your experience in the comments below.