Decades in the Making, the Uproar Over Great Smoky Mountains National Park's North Shore Road Almost Settled

While the thought of building a road along the North Shore of Fontana Lake is dead, you can still hike there, passing the rusting skeletons of cars that once traveled to the area. Photos by Danny Bernstein.

In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, every trail has a history. That’s what makes hiking here so fascinating. But no trail is as historic or as controversial as the Lake Shore Trail, which skirts Fontana Lake in North Carolina. The issue surrounding it is currently the longest-running open item on the park's agenda, but there’s hope it will be resolved soon.

A Little History

The first white settlers to the area now traversed by the trail, Moses and Patience Proctor, arrived on Hazel Creek in the early 1830s from Cades Cove; maybe Cades Cove was too crowded for them even then. The Proctors built a cabin on what is now Proctor Cemetery, close to where they now lie under a new, modern gravestone.

By the turn of the 20th Century, logging companies were well-established in the southern Appalachians. Ritter Lumber Company arrived in 1902 and started making preparations to log the Hazel Creek watershed around the town of Proctor. They built a railroad to bring timber down from high up the cove. Proctor prospered and had electricity by 1907. At its height, Proctor had more than a thousand residents, with pool halls, barber shops, cafes and a movie theater.

Ritter's loggers clear-cut the woods as quickly as they could; there was no attempt to manage the forest in a sustainable manner. By 1928 the area had been stripped of all valuable lumber and Ritter moved out and on to the Pacific Northwest, taking many workers went with them.

Today the Calhoun House is the only building left standing in Proctor. It's a prim, white-frame house with a broad covered-porch running the length of the front. Granville Calhoun bought the house just as Ritter Lumber was leaving. Mr. Calhoun was a larger-than-life entrepreneur who took in visitors for fishing and walking. A room off to the side with no access to the main house was meant for tourists, a visiting preacher, or a teacher. The kitchen has the standard pre-war cabinets, which may look familiar to anyone who has lived in an inner-city apartment. For many years, the Calhoun House was used as a ranger station. Visitors can still walk through the house.

TVA Comes To The Area

When World War II was declared, demand for electricity to produce aluminum exploded. Alcoa, Inc., had already bought land along the Little Tennessee River and it transferred that acreage to the Tennessee Valley Authority for the Fontana Project in exchange for future electric power.

When TVA built Fontana Dam to create electricity, the resulting impoundment flooded NC 288, the only road into the area, along with five communities. Residents had to move out of their homes, though many residents stayed in the area to work on Fontana Dam and lived in cabins now part of Fontana Village, a family resort. TVA then turned over the land to enlarge Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Part of NC 288 is now the Lake Shore Trail. Part of the past remains in the form of several old car bodies that lie just off the trail. A tree has grown through one of them. Car buffs suggest that two cars were Fords built in the mid-1930s. Another with the starter button on the floor was probably a Plymouth, a low-end car in those days. These cars might not have been running very well ten years later. With gas and tire rationing, men off to war and many women not able to drive, families left their cars behind when they moved out.

The North Shore Road Issue

In 1943, the federal government promised to build a road on the North Shore of Fontana Lake to go from Fontana Lake to Bryson City after World War II if Congress appropriated the money. For many years, this promise lay dormant; meantime, a new, modern highway, NC 28, was constructed outside the park. From Fontana Lake, less than a mile of road was built. From the eastern boundary of the park in Bryson City, the National Park Service built about six miles ending in a tunnel on the “Road to Nowhere.” In 1971, acid-bearing rock was hit and the park stopped construction.

For years after TVA flooded NC 288, there was no practical way for descendants to take care of the graves left behind. It took until 1976 for the former residents to have a reunion outside of Bryson City. In the late 1970s, Boyd Evison, the superintendent at the time, issued a press release asking cemetery visitors to not leave plastic flowers or other non-biodegradable containers because there was no way to dispose of them. This was the kind of decree that give “outsiders” and the federal government a bad name. According to knowledgeable locals, “that’s what started the whole cemetery issue.”

The group created a cemetery association and threatened to sue the park over transportation to the cemeteries, and free transportation started across Fontana Lake. It’s supposedly for descendants and friends, but anyone can get on the boat; you don’t need a connection with the graves. When the descendants and friends get off the boat at Proctor, they don’t even have to walk the short distance to the cemetery. They are transported by buses and vans to the cemetery site.

The North Shore Road issue was revived again in 2001 when former Congressman Charles Taylor, a Republican from western North Carolina, obtained $16 million for further construction of the North Shore Road. This set off a process that looked into the environmental impact of a 35-mile road. The National Park Service held public input forums in various locations around the Smokies and accepted comments from anyone in the U.S. on various ways to resolve the 1943 agreement. Thousands of pages were generated, reviewed, and discussed. Descendants of the original settlers were the only ones who wanted a road in the park. Almost all comments were against the road and for a financial settlement with Swain County, where Fontana Dam is located, one of the four parties to the original agreement.

In December 2007, the Department of the Interior made a decision that officially called for a yet-to-be-specified multi-million-dollar monetary settlement to Swain County instead of a road through one of the most pristine and untouched areas in the East. Though the park is now protected and the North Shore Road will never be built, Congress still has to approve the funds to settle the 1943 agreement.

Congressman Heath Shuler successfully obtained $13 million for Swain County as a down payment on an eventual North Shore Road settlement in a House vote this past Wednesday. The funds for the initial North Shore Road payment were contained in a provision attached to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2010. This is one step closer to settling this decades-long issue. The details can be found in http://shuler.house.gov/2009/12/northshore-settlement.shtml

Hiking the North Shore Road History

The classic “Road to Nowhere” backpack is on the 35-mile Lake Shore Trail. It goes from Fontana Dam to Lake Shore Road outside of Bryson City. It’s a low-altitude hike, suitable for any time of the year. For a one-day hike (11.7 miles, 3,000 ft.), you can also start at Fontana Dam and walk north on the Appalachian Trail, take Lost Cove Trail and go right and down on Lake Shore Trail, where you’ll see the old cars.

Danny Bernstein, a hike leader and outdoor writer, is the author of Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Heritage. Her website is www.hikertohiker.com.

Comments

How will a settlement with Swain County benefit those who had to leave to another county? Why can I go to Pearl Harbor and get a free boat ride out to the Arizona any day of the week, or go to Arlington and be ridden around on a golf cart; yet I don't have the same opportunity to visit the graves of my relatives buried on the North Shore? Fact 1: it was illegal for TVA to condemn land above the 'flood pool', yet they did. In 1934, FDR said no more land would be taken from Swain County, yet it was. And today, you cannot drive from one end of Swain County to another without traveling through another county. It is not just about 'preserving' a pristine area. It's also about people. This was not wilderness, over 600 families lived along the north shore and over a dozen communities with businesses, schools, churches, and forest and mining industries.......

The proposed total settlement for Swain County is $52M. The interest from that should be ~$2-3M/yr, which could provide plush free boat rides across the lake to the cemetery at Proctor and other graveyards not flooded by the lake, as well as substantial upkeep on the cemeteries. The alternative of building the road would cost ~$600M and be very destructive, much more than normal roads as the tunnel drilling hit acidic rock.

My only complaint is that it appears that the settlement will be channeled through the NPS budget, not the TVA budget, so "North SHore Road Settlement" is a $4M line item in this year's NPS budget.

The AP article is at several places, including:
LA Times

The Charlotte Observer article is here.

The

It is interesting to note that when the residents of the northshore could not pay their debt for the construction of NC288, Swain county took over the debt, and was saddled with it for decades and even TVA chipped in to help finally pay it off.

This places the agreement squarely with the county, in the sense of the county as a political entity, not with the "people of the county" personally, and certainly not with the northshore residents who lost their "ownership" of the road issue when the county took over responsibility for the NC288 debt.

Even so, when visiting the northshore, I will always treat any former resident of this land I might meet with the deference due a host and consider myself a guest.