That stretch of US25E through Dutch Bottoms, the one that’s under water most of the time because of Douglas Lake, is one of my favorite old roads. I may have a new favorite — a highway with a similar story. It’s North Carolina State Route 288, and the unpaved track skirted near the bottom of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, following the route of the Tuskasegee River and then the Little Tennessee River from Bryson City to Deals Gap, where it ended at US129.
It did, that is, until the Tennessee Valley Authority built Fontana Dam, completely inundating the towns of Fontana, Bushnell, Forney, Wayside and more along with most of NC288 between 1942 and 1944. Fontana Dam won the right to be because of the Aluminum Company of America, better known as ALCOA, in the town of the same name just a few miles down the river in Tennessee, needed extra power to make extra aluminum during World War II. ALCOA had been angling for a dam on the LTR since the 1930s and had already built a couple others in the area, but Fontana was to be a big one. Concerned about flood control, TVA took over planning for the dam but couldn’t get funding — until the war. Then, same as Douglas up on the French Broad, Congress found the money.
Fontana is nearly 500 feet high, the tallest dam in the eastern United States — at the time of construction, it was the fourth tallest in the world. At less than half the height of the world’s tallest dam, the 1,001-foot Jingping-I in China, Fontana has since dropped considerably down the list. But it’s still an impressive structure, if you like that sort of thing.
Welch Cove, the village built to house the workers who came to build the dam, later became Fontana Village, a little resort just south of the dam. I visited there once, for a 4-H conference, but it’s also well known in my family as the site of my parents’ honeymoon in 1954.
Back to the 1940s. The reservoir filled, displacing more than 1,000 families and separating quite a few more from old family cemeteries, many of which had to be moved to higher ground on the north side of the lake. The US Forest Service took possession of several thousand acres of land on the south side, while the National Park Service took the remaining 44,000 acres from the Great Smoky Mountain Park’s southern boundary to the north shore. And there began the decades long tale of the Road to Nowhere.
The park service promised to build a road along the north shore to make up for the loss of NC288. But by 1972, only 10 miles of the new road and a tunnel had been built, and funding and environmental problems had stalled any further progress.
A one-mile section of the road started the project from the dam, but it was nearly a decade later before any more was built — a paltry three miles built by the state of North Carolina in 1958 outside the park at Bryson City. Two years later, the park service got 2.3 miles along inside the park when a landslide pointed out some serious problems. Four more miles were built in 1970, ending at the tunnel, and that was it. Cue the lawsuits and the locals dubbing the stretch the Road to Nowhere.
Actually, more lawsuits. The first three decades had been full of court action. Finally, in 2000, the North Shore Road Project got $16 million toward building the road, but it went to studies and more studies, all pointing to the unfeasibility of construction (a point disputed by many locals who desperately wanted the road built). Finally, ten years after that, the park service paid Swain County, North Carolina, $52 million for not building the road. Residents of Bryson City now have to take US19/74 south, then the meandering NC28 way south of the lake to get to the dam. Or they can walk the 35 miles of Lakeshore Trail past the tunnel. And the park service ferries the former residents of Fontana, Bushnell, Forney, Wayside and the others across the lake in the summer to visit the graves of their families.
What a story, right? I’ve overlaid a 1938 map of the area, pre-dam, to a Google map from 2014, fading the old map out so you can get a look at the change. There’s the expanded area of the lake, following the dark blue ribbon of the LTR and the Tuckasegee. And all along the north side of the river is the dashed line of NC288, frequently falling over the lake’s blue from the current map beneath the old one. An old logging and mining rail line ran right there too, all along the river then up past Eagle Creek and onto Pinnacle Ridge — now also beneath the waters of Fontana Lake.
NC288 was never paved, so there’s not much concrete reminder of the road’s location, unlike US25E at Dutch Bottoms. There are a few bridges that break the surface of the lake from time to time, particularly on the eastern end of the lake where the old river channel is fairly close to the north shore. Following along on Google’s satellite maps shows the route there, now traveled in low water by ATVs. But there’s little trace of it elsewhere, other than abandoned vehicles, rusting to the color of the fall leaves beside the former road.
If you know where to look, though, there’s more to see — piles of stones on the edge of the lake that mark the site of a home, a church, a store, a submerged railroad tunnel, whispers of the road through the trees, and the ghosts of the mountain families who had to move.
Once you get west of the dam, North Carolina State Route 28 takes over the old NC288 route. And it’s paved, all the way to US129. Well, except maybe for a piece of road now called Cheoah Overlook Road that I suspect may have been 288. It butts into US129 about 50 feet from the Tennessee state line, which is a little more like that 1938 map than the spot where 28 comes in.
Definitely going here some day. This is one place I’ve just got to see.