My friends up north are very familiar with the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a controversial (and now dead) project in Southeast Alaska. Closer to home, Western North Carolina has its very own “Road to Nowhere,” near Bryson City. That road was intended to replace a stretch of pavement which is now submerged by Fontana Lake. Old Highway 288, also known as North Shore Road, was built in the 1920s to connect Bryson City to the village of Fontana. When Fontana Dam was built in 1945, North Shore Road–and the communities of Fontana, Judson, Forney, and Bushnell–were all buried under hundreds of feet of water.
The new road was promised to Bryson City in what is known locally as the “1943 Agreement” between the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the National Park Service, the state of North Carolina, and Swain County. The agreement for the road was made in part to restore access to some family cemeteries (the ones that weren’t flooded) and to connect Bryson City to the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A variety of factors delayed the project’s start, and it eventually ran into both political and environmental challenges. Construction stalled in the 1970s after just seven miles–including a 1200 foot tunnel–and the project was abandoned in the early 2000s.
In some communities, the end of the road would have been the end of the story…but not in Bryson City. As the town saw it, the feds had made a commitment, so the town set off on a quest to hold them to it. That effort, which started in the 1980s, was maybe more ambitious than building a wilderness road. It took a lot of work from town and state officials–including Congressman Heath Shuler, a former NFL player and Bryson City native–to eventually negotiate a $52M settlement. Some folks would have preferred a new road, of course, but the flip side is that Bryson City is now funding a variety of projects with the interest from that settlement.
Curious about the road during a recent visit, I took a drive to the end and headed off on the short hike through the tunnel. People describe the tunnel as eerie and full of shadows…but that description seems like it would fit most abandoned tunnels. What is different, though, is that this particular tunnel empties out onto a beautiful trail system along the lake and up into the park.
From the western exit of the tunnel, it’s about ten miles of hiking to reach the Appalachian Trail–so the path theoretically doesn’t end until it reaches Maine, some 1,998 miles away. In short (sort of), this Road to Nowhere could actually take you somewhere.
Without knowing the history, this is a somewhat unremarkable destination for the park…but the history is such a part of this place. Commitments matter here, and a road that quits is now an enduring symbol of perseverance.
In the end, I enjoyed my little outing, which of course came with a promising history lesson. And as any outdoor person knows, the road to discovery doesn’t end with the pavement. Often that’s just a cliche–but in Bryson City, it’s actually a place.