On Belle’s first trip home to the mountains, I took her to see where Mamaw was born near Bryson City. We spent the whole day exploring Swain County. While we rode around, I shared the stories Mamaw used to tell me about her family. Those stories acted as our navigation – and eventually led us to the Road to Nowhere.
Pulling into the parking lot for the popular tourist spot, I explained to Belle that Mamaw’s family once lived far beyond the tunnel. The Cochrans and Woodys were early settlers of Deep Creek, Judson, Forney Creek, and all the places between. They farmed the land, fished the creeks, raised their families, and were buried back in the hills beyond the dead-end.
Mamaw’s family set roots in the deep hollers of Swain County and clung to them for nearly a century. Unfortunately, it was hard to hold onto much of anything after the Great Depression hit. And once the Tennessee Valley Authority arrived in the area, the fate of Swain County’s little communities was sealed.
Established in 1933 as part of the New Deal, the TVA’s goal was to control flooding and bring electricity to those living near the Tennessee River by creating a series of dams and lakes. The program was successful, and even better, the jobs created by the agency helped bring an end to the Great Depression in Western North Carolina.
Of course, there’s always a price to be paid for progress. What did it cost the folks of Swain County? Everything.
In 1943, the US government decided to create Fontana Lake and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So they made a deal with North Carolina, Swain County, and the Department of Interior. They devised a plan for the TVA to pay Swain County to flood Highway 288 and purchase 44,000 acres for the Great Smokies. In return, the DOI would build a 30-mile road along North Shore to give the people access to old family cemeteries where generations of ancestors remained.
The result? Many of Mamaw’s family were forced off of their land for “fair” compensation. My great-great-grandparents were pulled from their final resting places and moved to less desirable cemeteries. My great-great-great-grandmother was left behind on the North Shore – separated from her children in a grave only accessible by boat. Farms, and in Judson’s case, whole communities ended up at the bottom of Fontana Lake.
After the completion of Fontana Dam, the DOI set out to build the promised Lakeview Drive. After 20 years, the construction only included one tunnel and a six-mile stretch of road. The DOI deemed the highway too expensive to complete, and they abandoned the project a decade later.
Today, visitors flock to the spot, charmed by the story of the Road to Nowhere. I wasn’t charmed the day I took Belle up to the opening of the tunnel. I was heartbroken. I mourned for my Papaw and Mamaw Cochran, who could never go home for Decoration Day. I was saddened for Mamaw, who never saw her great-grandmother’s grave. I felt a sense of loss for myself and my children, knowing deep in the woods beyond the tunnel lays a history stolen from my family.
The federal government finally paid Swain County for the road that was never completed – but the money will be used for other things. The tunnel will continue to stand as a crude monument, and visitors will continue to arrive in droves. Meanwhile, the old families of Swain County will be left longing for a road that leads home.