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NC 288, Fontana Dam, and the Road to Nowhere

NC 288, Fontana Dam, and The Road To Nowhere

Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 7-29-2012

>Abandoned Automobile on NC Hwy 288

Abandoned Automobile on NC Hwy 288 - Joe Kegley

The original intention of this brief article was a story specific to the abandoned cars on the Lakeshore Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But the storyline needed to be expanded to explain why the vehicles are on the trail in the first place thus ... NC 288, Fontana Dam, and The Road To Nowhere. More on that later, let's get back to the rusty remains.

Five or six of these decaying antiques are easily viewed just off the Lakeshore Trail. Depending on your perspective, the Lakeshore Trail starts just across Fontana Dam and ends near Bryson City (approximately 35 miles long). But you don't need to hike that distance to see the rusty vehicles. The abandoned automobiles are located on a section of the Lakeshore Trail close to Fontana Dam.

To locate the remains of these 1920's/1930's automobiles, drive over the dam then take an immediate right and follow the road to its terminus. Here you will park at the trailhead and hike approximately 1.3 miles on the Lakeshore Trail to view the first remains of a crumbling vehicle on the right. Not far up the trail you will find another neglected shell of an automobile. Hike another 1/2 mile and several more automobiles will be discovered on the right.

So why are the broken down remains of old cars found on the Lakeshore Trail? That particular section of the Lakeshore Trail used to be a part of old NC 288, a highway traversing between Bryson City and Deals Gap. Most of Hwy 288 was flooded after the completion of Fontana Dam in the early 1940s, but a few sections remained above water. Many of the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park originated from existing roads, railroad tracks, and logging manways constructed before the formation of the park.

>Abandoned Car on old NC 288 (Lakeshore Trail)

Abandoned Car on old NC 288 (Lakeshore Trail) - Joe Kegley

More Automobile Parts from the Lakeshore Trail

More Automobile Parts from the Lakeshore Trail - Joe Kegley

Another Abandoned Car on the Lakeshore Trail

Another Abandoned Car on the Lakeshore Trail- Joe Kegley

From my research I gather highway NC 288 was constructed sometime between 1924 and 1930 and didn't last very long after 1944 when Fontana Lake began filling. The highway, and the consequence of the dam upon the highway, has been political fodder since 1943. The issue was finally resolved in 2010.

The dissension between Swain County and the Federal Government originated in what is known as the "1943 Agreement". The Tennessee Valley Authority, the state of North Carolina, the National Park Service, and Swain County entered an agreement for construction of a replacement road for old NC 288. The new road would follow the north shore of Fontana Lake. The Federal Government was to start appropriating funds for the new road once World War II was over. The next sixty years would see various starts and stops on the new North Shore Road in addition to proposed alternatives.

The two images below show a normally submerged section of old NC 288. The old bridge over Lands Creek is exposed when TVA draws down the water during the winter in anticipation of late winter and early spring precipitation. Note the normal waterline above the bridge in both images. During most of the year this old bridge is underwater.

To get to the old NC 288 Bridge over Lands Creek (winter time only), park at the boat ramp at Old 288 River Park in Bryson City. The boat ramp is at the terminus of the only section of NC 288 still paved. The bridge is about a 1/2 mile walk up the shoreline.

>NC 288 Bridge over Lands Creek

NC 288 Bridge over Lands Creek during the winter drawdown of Fontana Lake (note the waterline above the bridge) - Joe Kegley

>NC 288 Bridge over Lands Creek seen from across the Tuckasegee river

NC 288 Bridge over Lands Creek seen from across the Tuckasegee river - Joe Kegley

The frustration of some of the Swain County population in getting the Federal Government to honor its end of the 1943 Agreement (constructing a replacement for NC 288) is clearly demonstrated by the image below. The locals have dubbed the incomplete road ... "The Road To Nowhere". Though Swain County settled the matter for cash in 2010 instead of a road, many are still disappointed. There was hope that the road would have provided access to some of the old cemeteries in the park, in addition to boasting tourism in the Bryson City area.

The sign is located on private property just off of Fontana Road in Bryson City, not far from the national park entrance where Fontana Road becomes Lakeview Drive. Lakeview Drive is the eastern section of what was to become the "North Shore Road". Approximately 6 miles (and a tunnel) were built before the replacement for NC 288 was halted around 1970 due to environmental concerns.

>Road to Nowhere Sign

Road to Nowhere Sign - Joe Kegley

Below is the tunnel that was constructed on Lakeview Drive (a portion of the North Shore Road that was to replace NC 288). As noted above, not long after the completion of the tunnel. construction was stopped on the North Shore Road due to environmental issues. You can't drive through the tunnel as it is currently for pedestrian traffic only and I must admit it feels like a long walk and a bit spooky in the middle. The tunnel provides access to various trails in this section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There's a parking lot a few hundred yards away from the eastern side of the tunnel entrance.

>Lakeview Drive Tunnel

Lakeview Drive Tunnel - Joe Kegley

Timeline for the Road To Nowhere

The following is my attempt at a timeline of the events leading up to the conclusion of The Road To Nowhere.

1907 - Aluminum Company of America is formed (ALCOA) from the Pittsburgh Reduction Company. The process of aluminum reduction involves great amounts of electricity. It's cheaper to ship the raw product to areas with abundant hydroelectric potential than to send the electricity long distances to where the ore is obtained.

1910 - ALCOA starts acquiring properties along the Little Tennessee River (both Tennessee and North Carolina) and its tributaries with the intention of developing hydroelectric power.

1913 - ALCOA opens a smelter in north Maryville TN, later to be incorporated into a town named Alcoa.

1919 - Cheoah Dam is completed on the Little Tennessee River in North Carolina, the first of ALCOA's hydroelectric dams that would provide electricity for its smelter in Alcoa, TN.

1924 to 1926? - Forney Creek Road District of Swain County issues bonds to support the construction of NC 288 on the north shore of the river.

1933 - The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is created by Act of Congress to develop the regions resources. TVA objectives included flood control, creating navigable waterways, and creating power.

1934 - Federal legislation is passed establishing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

1940 - ALOCA applies for a permit to construct Fontana Dam.

1941 - ALCOA and TVA reach an agreement in which ALCOA transfers all the land acquired for the Fontana Dam project to TVA in exchange for dependable power.

1941 - United States is bombed by Japan and enters World War II. ALCOA's aluminum production becomes a strategic element critical to winning the war. The push for Fontana Dam is further ramped up because ALCOA needs the electricity to increase aluminum production.

1942 - TVA starts construction on Fontana Dam which will flood NC 288. NC 288 is a highway that will eventually be paid for by the Swain County taxpayers.

1943 - TVA, the state of North Carolina, the National Park Service, and Swain County enter an agreement for construction of a replacement road for old NC 288. Land acquired by TVA between the north shore of the lake and the current park boundary will be added to the park at a future date.

1944 - In November, with construction complete, the Fontana reservoir begins filling. Most of NC 288 will become a memory.

1947 - Work begins on the western section of the new North Shore Road near Fontana Dam. One mile is completed.

1948 - TVA transfers approximately 44,000 acres of land on the north shore of Fontana Lake to the Department of the Interior who will give it to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

1959 - The state of North Carolina fulfills its obligation to create a road from Bryson City to the park boundary. The intention is that this road will connect to the east side of the proposed North Shore Road.

1963 thru 1970 - the park service constructs 6 miles of the proposed North Shore road from the 1943 agreement on the east side near Bryson City, including a 1,200 ft tunnel.

1965 - An amendment is proposed to the 1943 agreement substituting a mountain road to be constructed from Bryson City NC to Townsend TN.

1968 - As an alternative to the North Shore Road, Governor Dan Moore of North Carolina proposes extending the Blue Ridge Parkway to Deep Creek near Bryson City.

1971 - Construction of the road is halted because of environmental concerns. Anakeesta rock was unearthed during construction of the tunnel and roadway which when exposed to air or water creates sulfuric acid. The cost to construct the road balloons because of the environmental issues.

1971 thru 1991 - Various attempts by politicians are made to resolve the 1943 agreement dispute.

1980 - The Secretary of Interior signs a decision sheet supporting a $9.5 million cash settlement for Swain County in lieu of completing the North Shore Road.

1987 - The U.S. House of Representatives passes the Smokies Wilderness bill which would designate most of the park as a wilderness area. The bill includes a $9.5 million payment to Swain County to settle the North Shore Road dilemma.

2000 - US Representative Charles Taylor and US Senator Jesse Helms win approval for $16 million dollars toward the construction of the North Shore Road.

2003 - Swain County commissioners initiate a resolution for a cash settlement of $52 million instead of completing the North Shore Road.

2006 - Governor Mike Easley writes to the Department of Interior urging a cash settlement.

2010 - Congressman Heath Shuler helps broker a deal between the US Department of Interior and Swain County with the Federal Government agreeing to pay Swain County $52 million in lieu of building the replacement road for NC 288.

>Fontana Dam

Upstream of Fontana Dam - Joe Kegley

Location and Points of Interest

Fontana Dam (Google interactive map)

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NC 288, Fontana Dam, and the Road to Nowhere

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