It’s easy to tell when you’ve reached the Road to Nowhere.
Even before you roll over the (crumbling) asphalt of Lakeview Drive near Bryson City, North Carolina, there’s a billboard at the mouth of the 6.5-mile road that stretches into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
WELCOME TO THE ROAD TO NO-WHERE, the red-white-and-blue billboard declares. A BROKEN PROMISE 1943-? And in smaller letters, “No more wilderness.”
Nearby, a man stacks logs from harvested trees on a trailer parked on land adjacent to the sign. He says his sons are the seventh generation of his family to live in the area. He denies the sign is his and while he gives his name and an email address for a possible later interview for this article, he doesn’t respond to the subsequent email.
Bad feelings can be found in the area, and they’re bad feelings that spring from a World War II-era promise from the federal government that even though hundreds of people would be displaced by construction of Fontana Dam (and Fontana Lake) and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Lakeview Drive would be built and would stretch 30 miles from Bryson City to Fontana so people who had lost their homes could still visit family cemeteries where their loved ones were buried.
But only 6.5 miles were completed, hence the “broken promise” cited on the sign. During the summer months, the National Park Service ferries longtime residents across Fontana Lake to visit family cemeteries.
But there’s something else in this place: tourism that draws people to Bryson City, a town of about 1,500 people just west of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Bryson City’s downtown is thriving and the Road to Nowhere deserves some credit. At least the Swain County Tourism Development Authority seems to think so: Outside the building where the authority’s organization, Explore Bryson City, is located, there are directional signs pointing the way toward the town’s library, scenic railway, and the Road to Nowhere.
The Road to Nowhere is a curiosity and point of interest in its little corner of the Smokies. Its 6.5-mile stretch of paved road winds through tree-covered hills and ends in a quarter-mile-long tunnel. The spot draws bears, fishermen, and people who ride horses or walk through the tunnel, shouting words and phrases that echo back at them.
On the other side of the much-graffitied tunnel, the land reverts to the way it was before the “broken promises” of generations before: miles of woods with winding walking trails.
Equally as interesting as its history is the road’s present-day existence as a tourism draw sufficient to merit an upgrade to the decades-old road. About a month after my visit to the Road to Nowhere, Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials announced that the road would be closed from August 14 to November 14, 2023, for reconstruction, funded by the Great American Outdoors Act.
The Road to Nowhere still won’t lead to anywhere, but visitors will have safe travel along it.
History of Confusion and Contention
“It attracts people all year long,” said Selena Hyde, marketing assistant for the Explore Bryson City organization.
Bryson City and the surrounding area draw people for the neighboring national park and “the small-town charm,” Hyde said. “It’s a good fishing place.” Bryson City’s population has grown in recent years, she said, because “It’s quiet … and it’s not a big city.”
She said people in the area remember the history of the Road to Nowhere “vividly and bringing it up can get them riled up sometimes.”
On the warm mid-July day when I visited, the Road to Nowhere drew a steady stream of visitors. To drive along the road, which is barely two lanes wide, takes you back several decades. Trees line the way and, in one case, past the vehicle barricades in the walking-only area, a tree even blocks the way.
The tunnel, which is dark in its middle stretch, is a popular place for graffiti artists, who thoroughly tag the walls, and horses, who mark the road through the tunnel in a different way.
In his 2001 book, “Fontana: A Pocket History of Appalachia,” Lance Holland recounts the lore and history of the area. Holland is the owner of Appalachian Mercantile, a downtown Bryson City shop, and has been an Appalachian guide.
On the wall behind Holland’s counter are photos, some of them autographed, of Hollywood films made in the area, particularly the 1993 film “The Fugitive.”
In his book, Holland notes that during the purchase of tens of thousands of acres of land for use by the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Fontana Dam and the National Park Service, many people felt it was the “patriotic” thing to do to cooperate with the government. The road and the promise that residents would still be able to visit family cemeteries was also looked on favorably.
Holland writes that construction on the balance of the road stopped after road work exposed pyrite. When the ground was dug up, the mineral was exposed to rainfall and that resulted in harmful chemicals running into area streams and rivers and killing fish. That discovery “gave those opposed to the road leverage,” Holland wrote.
The road and the government’s unpaid debt was a point of contention until around 2000, when the federal government proposed $16 million for completion of the road. But that never happened.
Despite the presence of the recently-painted “broken promises” sign, the matter was settled for many in 2010, when the Interior Department paid $52 million to Swain County – entrusted to the state of North Carolina – in compensation for never completing the 30-mile road.
Additional funding – but not intended to complete the road – will be coming, however.
Road to Get an Upgrade
The news release announcing improvements to Lakeview Drive – the release does not refer to the stretch as the Road to Nowhere – says the road will be closed to all public access, including hikers, bikers, horses, and vehicles, which have been allowed along six miles of the road leading up to the tunnel. Barricades keep traffic out of the tunnel even when the road is open.
During the reconstruction work, hikers and visitors will not be able to access the trails on the other side of the bridge or a couple of specifically cited campsites. Other campsites will be open but reachable only via trails and trailheads accessible from other locations than Lakeview Drive.
The Federal Highway Administration awarded a $15.7-million construction contract to Bryant’s Land and Development Industries of Burnsville, North Carolina, to perform the “complete reconstruction of the 6.5-mile road, replacement of all guardrails, construction of ADA accessible parking spaces, new road signs, drainage repair, and other miscellaneous work.”
As the park service news release notes, that even while reconstruction of the road is ongoing, cemeteries accessible via the road would be open on October 8 “for anyone planning a Decoration Day or cemetery visit.”
Citing the temporary closure for the reconstruction of the road, Bryson City officials who tout the area’s back-to-nature attractions, have their own name for the Road to Nowhere, as used on their promotional websites: “A Road to Someplace Special.”
Keith Roysdon has written for Daily Yonder about Buc-ee’s, “Cocaine Bear,” and rural tourism that draws from infamous history. Roysdon is a Knoxville, Tennessee, freelance writer and was a newspaper reporter in Indiana. His fourth co-authored true crime book, “Cold Case Muncie,” was published by the History Press in August.