A bit of a travelog for this month’s Finish Line.
During a recent visit, I discovered an interesting account of a major project near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that resulted in the disappearance of multiple small towns, the relocation of 1,300 families whose homes were sacrificed, and eight decades before a final resolution was achieved.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, Swain County, North Carolina, lost the majority of its private land to the U.S. government for the creation of Fontana Lake and a portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
This all began when the Tennessee Valley Authority built a dam then to serve the electricity demands of the people of North Carolina and Tennessee.
The dam, at 480 feet, is the tallest in the Eastern United States and, at the time of its construction, was the fourth tallest dam in the world.
Today the dam impounds the 29-mile-long Fontana Lake along the southwestern boundary of the nation’s most visited national park. Three major rivers and a network of smaller streams that meander through the world’s oldest mountain ranges feed the massive lake.
The Appalachian Trail crosses the top of the dam and visitors can walk, bike or drive across it and enjoy great views of the lake above the dam and the river below.
Building the reservoir required the purchase of more than 68 thousand acres of land including some five thousand acres which were forested and had to be cleared. In addition to that 1,300 families, a thousand graves and more than 60 miles of roads had to be relocated.
To accommodate the project’s 5,000 workers, the Fontana Village was developed just south of the dam and today is a summer resort that retains some of the original buildings.
The dam was completed at a cost of more that $70 million (more than $1 billion in today’s dollars) and saw two generating units placed into operation just in time to provide critical energy for aluminum production in the closing months of World War II.
The roads to the communities that were acquired were also lost leaving no access to cemeteries where the loved ones of the relocated people were buried, so the park service began the development of a new road that would have followed the north shore of the lake for 30 miles through the park, thus providing access to the region of the many small towns that had existed.
However, environmental concerns and funding issues completely halted the road’s progress greatly frustrating the local residents and businesses and lawsuits ensued.
A short eight mile trip out of the picturesque mountain town of Bryson City, North Carolina, will take you to the end of the road, unofficially named by the locals as The Road to Nowhere!
From there it is but a short walk to an abandoned 1200-foot tunnel constructed as part of the project by the Civilian Conservation Corps – the most popular of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that, at its peak, employed some 300,000 individuals.
In 2018, as part of the ultimate resolution of this 80 year dispute, the citizen’s of Swain County received the final payment of a $52 million settlement from the US government in lieu of completing the road.
And, on weekends throughout the summer, the Park Service continues to ferry groups of residents across Fontana Lake to their old family cemeteries for Decoration Days and family reunions.
In all of the ways government acts to provide for the needs of our ever expanding population, that massive tunnel stands as a graphic reminder of profound consequences that sometimes occur in achieving the desired results.