Road to Nowhere: The dam road that was never completed in Bryson City

The Road to Nowhere in Bryson City, North Carolina

The tunnel on the Road to Nowhere in Bryson City, N.C. (photo by Kim McGrew/Shutterstock)

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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 to get what’s coming to them. They’re like patient loan sharks, willing to break legs 60 to 70 years later to get what’s owed to them.

Let’s go back to 1943

Our story starts in 1943. 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. It provided jobs and power to the region through its massive series of dams and lakes. 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 the 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. 

The 3-step plan 

The plan was simple. The TVA would pay $400K to the county for compensation for flooding Highway 288. The TVA would buy 44,000 acres and transfer the land to the National Park Service to be added to the Great Smoky Mountain 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. 

Read more: Meet the Caughrons: The last family to have actually lived in Cades Cove

Step three – which proved to be the problem – was that the DOI would, contingent upon 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. 

This project, abandoned nearly 30 years after the dam was finished, became known as the Road to Nowhere, and it’s been pissing the people of Bryson City off for nearly 80 years.

The project wasn’t abandoned right away. Through the ’50s and the ’60s 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. 

Fast forward to 1962

In 1962, efforts were made to get the NPS to seriously reconsider the plan. 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 excuse used was that mild acid leaching from 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 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.

Read more: The must-see for hiking and train enthusiasts: An overview of Bryson City 

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 good and roundly beaten in court. 

Did they make a dam fuss? No.

Did they 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. And I still might. 

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. 

The actual road that goes to nowhere
The actual road that goes to nowhere (image via Google maps)

All’s well that ends well. Kinda. 

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 payable no later than Dec. 31, 2020. 

In the meantime on weekends throughout the summer, the National Park Service still ferries groups of 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 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. That suit failed, 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 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. 

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