Don’t mess with Texas. People from the Lone Star state like to say it, and it must be true because it rhymes.
There are other places in the world with well-earned reputations of a grittiness that surpasses ordinary folks like you and me.
You ever get into a land war in Asia? I rest my case.
But while some talk a good game, other folks are about that life without catchy slogans or festive T-shirts.
You don’t mess with Texas? That’s great. But 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.
What is the story behind the Road to Nowhere?
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 you can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, and the eggs the TVA cracked included family farms, cemeteries and even whole communities up and down the multi-state river system.
In the name of progress, people were pushed from their homes – with “fair” compensation – and 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.
What happened to the Road to Nowhere?
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 – which proved to be the problem – 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.
When was the Road to Nowhere project abandoned?
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.
In 1962, efforts were made to get the NPS to seriously reconsider the plan. The construction was on the 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.
Environmental issues were the impetus, as it was determined that mild acid leaching from the exposed rock would be damaging to nearby streams, plants and fish.
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.
The Road to Nowhere lawsuits that followed
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.
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.
Were Swain County residents ever compensated?
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 their 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.
How do I get to the Road to Nowhere?
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.
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 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.