News Headlines

1920s

Forney Creek Township wants a road leading from Bryson City to Deals Gap on the Tennessee state line. It is the height of the timber boom, and the road would improve access to Knoxville. The community took out bonds totaling $400,000 to pay for the road.

1934

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is officially created.

1940

Forney Creek Township has yet to pay a single cent on the road bonds it took out nearly 20 years prior. With interest, the amount now came to $694,000. The county assumes the outstanding debt. It refinances the bond for $1.3 million, which also includes money for a new school.

1941

President Roosevelt authorizes federal funding to build Fontana Dam on the Little Tennessee River. The hydropower is needed by Alcoa, which is producing sheets of aluminum for wartime airplanes. Tennessee Valley Authority begins land acquisition.

1942

The federal government wrestles with what to do about 216 families living in a 44,000-acre territory that will be cut off when the lake floods the only road in or out of the area. With a war on, the government doesn’t have the money or time to build a new road above the high water mark. But leaving the people isolated on the far side of the lake isn’t an option either.

1943

The 44,000 acres is added to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the people evacuated, along with those in the direct path of rising water. An agreement is signed between Swain County commissioners, the Governor of North Carolina, Tennessee Valley Authority and the Department of Interior that promises to build a new road — provided Congress appropriates the funds — along the north shore. Road is to be part of an “Around the Park” road network, to commence as soon after WWII as Congress appropriates funds.

1946

Six landowners who didn’t want to give up their land in the North Shore area lose a lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority. They wanted to keep their land, since the government was supposedly rebuilding the road, and saw no need for it to be ceded to the park service.

They won twice in lower courts, but it was appealed to the Supreme Court, which denied the families’ claim.

1947-48

Park service builds 0.9 mile of the promised road on the Fontana Dam side.

1959

State of North Carolina constructs a road from Bryson City to the national park boundary, laying the groundwork for the park to pick up construction.

1960

Congressman Roy A. Taylor secured $8 million for construction of the North Shore Road. Park service commences road construction where the state left off.

1962

National Park Service issues a report stating “it appears to be in the public interest to seriously reconsider the plan” to build the road.

1964

National Park Service proposes a trans-mountain road from Bryson City to Townsend, Tenn., in lieu of completing a road along the lake shore.

1966

A public hearing is held in Bryson City that pits advocates of Wilderness Area designation for the park with locals who want their road.

1968

Construction on the road stops after seven miles. The park service has used up the $8 million and is out of money. The prospects for more money seem slim due to environmental opposition.

1974

Contingency from Swain County makes a trip to Raleigh to visit N.C. Attorney General Robert Morgan. They ask Morgan for the state’s help suing the federal government to resolve the 1943 Agreement. They learn they have no grounds for a lawsuit, due to a hold harmless clause in the agreement.

1975

Swain County finally pays off the Forney Creek Road debt from the 1920s for a road that’s long since been flooded by the creation of Lake Fontana.

1975

North Carolina Gov. James Holshouser attempts to craft a compromise to provide a cash settlement for Swain County in lieu of the road. At a later meeting in Washington, D.C., a Swain County attorney offers a starting figure of $25 million, but the National Park Service representative refuses to even negotiate and ends the meeting.

1977

A public hearing is held in Bryson City, again on the issue of wilderness designation for the park.

1978

Secretary of the Department of the Interior Cecil Andrus visits Swain County at the request of local leaders clamoring to get the score settled. They hire a bus and pile in with Andrus on a tour of the county, from Calf Pen Gap overlooking the lake to lunch at the Deep Creek pavilion in the park. After returning to Washington, Andrus appoints an ad hoc committee “to look into the controversies surrounding the agreement and recommend possible solutions.”

Nov. 28, 1980

Andrus writes a letter to the Swain County commissioners agreeing to help them secure a financial settlement of $9.5 million. The sum is based on the value of the road in 1940 at $1.3 million and compounded annually at 5 percent. His letter states: “Over the years others have proposed alternative solutions to resolving the conditions of the agreement but none have been successful. In as such as this controversy has existed for 37 years, it is now time to resolve this controversy.”

1980

Congressman Lamar Gudger, D-Asheville, introduces a bill for a cash settlement of $11.1 million. The bill passes the House but never makes it to the Senate.

1983

A group of Swain County residents files a lawsuit in federal court against all the signatories of the ’43 Agreement asking for road to be built or the lake to be lowered. Known as the Helen Vance lawsuit, it is struck down, appealed, and struck down again. The families appealed a third time to the Supreme Court, but the Court refused to hear the case.

1984

A hearing on dueling Senate bills is held in Bryson City. One bill would give Swain County a cash settlement of $9.5 million in lieu of the road. The other bill would build the road and give Swain $9.5 million to boot. County Commissioner Chairman James Coggins makes the following statement at the hearing: “We are weary of making agreements that are never honored by the federal government. It is my sincere desire that Congress will at last pass our long waited for settlement of the 1943 Agreement.”

1987

Another hearing on the dueling Senate bills is held. County Commissioner Chairman James Coggins recycles the same speech as three years prior.

1991

Senator Terry Sanford proposes a cash settlement of $16 million to Swain County. His bill also calls for designating 90 percent of park as wilderness.

1991

Sen. Jesse Helms introduces legislation calling for construction of the road as well as cash payments to Swain County. The bill fails, as do efforts in 1993, 1995, and 1996.

1996

Study puts cost of completing a road at between $136 and $150 million.

Summer, 2000

Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County is formed to advance the cause of a cash settlement. Ten people gather in the living room at Claude Douthit’s house. The group has 284 dues-paying members today.

2000

Congressman Charles Taylor slips in $16 million for road construction during the conference committee of the federal budget.

2002

The park service launches a lengthy and comprehensive environmental analysis of road construction, weighing it against a cash settlement. It would ultimately take five years and burn through $10 million of the money Taylor secured for road building.

Jan., 2003

Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County hire Crisp, Hughes and Evans accounting firm to come up with a figure for the monetary settlement. They arrive at $52 million, based on the cost of the road when it was flooded, with interest and adjusted for inflation.

Feb., 2003

Swain County commissioners vote 4-1 in favor of a cash settlement of $52 million. Bryson City aldermen adopt the same resolution.

2003

North Carolina Governor Mike Easley, representing one of the original signatories to the ’43 Agreement, signs on in favor of a cash settlement.

March, 2007

A coalition of Senators and Congressmen from North Carolina and Tennessee sign a letter calling for a cash payoff to Swain County in lieu of building the road.

April, 2007

National Park Service announces its long-awaited decision in the lengthy environmental assessment. It comes down in favor of a cash settlement.

Dec., 2007

Congressman Heath Shuler from Western North Carolina, with the help of Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee, secure $6 million as a down payment on a cash settlement as part of the 2008 fiscal year budget. The funds have not yet been remitted to Swain County, however.

2008

In preparation for a cash settlement, the N.C. General Assembly authorizes a trust fund that will safeguard the money on behalf of Swain County. The state will give the county the interest off the account annually, but the principal can’t be touched unless approved by two-thirds of voters in a countywide referendum.

2008

Park reneges on dollar amount of $52 million and lowballs Swain County in negotiations. Advocates of a cash settlement feel double-crossed. Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson digs in on his position that $52 million is too much, while Swain leaders refuse to accept anything less. Negotiations remain in a stalemate.

2009

Great Smoky Mountains National Park celebrates 75th anniversary. Swain County approaches its 67th year with an unsettled contract from the federal government.

Swain County residents with family buried in cemeteries in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park claim the park service is dragging its feet repairing a washed out bridge used to visit the old graves.

A bridge spanning the mouth of Hazel Creek in the North Shore area of the Park came apart last summer. It will cost upwards of $500,000 to replace it, according to the U.S. Park Service. The Park is requesting federal money to build back the bridge, but it will have to compete against dozens of other national parks for a limited pot of funds.

Dale Ditmanson, superintendent of the Smokies, came to the Swain County commissioners meeting last week, where he got an earful from a few angry Swain County residents who want the bridge repaired immediately.

David Monteith, a county commissioner, said the bridge provided a vital link for those wanting to visit cemeteries where loved ones are still buried in the Park. To reach the cemeteries in the North Shore backcountry, people generally take a ferry across Lake Fontana and walk the rest of the way on old roads, or are driven the remaining distance by park rangers.

In the summer when lake levels are up, the bridge is submerged and the ferry motors up the mouth of Hazel Creek to let people out. But when lake levels drop the rest of the year, the bridge becomes the only way to span the mouth of Hazel Creek. Without the bridge, people have to hike up and around on a narrow trail for more than a mile to reach the same cemeteries.

“Right now, the way it stands between late September and late March, it makes it totally impossible for the handicap and elderly to go up Hazel Creek,” Monteith said. “If you are on a cane, you can’t get there.”

Monteith said it also puts a crimp on visitation from hikers, backpackers and fishermen who visit the backcountry.

“That’s major money coming into Swain County,” Monteith said.

Monteith accused Ditmanson of not wanting the bridge built back. Monteith said the Park has inflated what it would actually cost to build the bridge. The higher price tag is going to keep it from being built back, Monteith said.

Monteith consulted the contractor that built the original bridge for an opinion on what it would cost today. The figure he came up with was $100,000 — not $500,000.

Monteith is a leader in the movement to build the North Shore Road, a group that has historically been at odds with the Park.

Monteith offered to write Ditmanson a check for $100,000 if he would go build the bridge back. Ditmanson wouldn’t accept it, which Monteith said shows that the Park doesn’t really want the bridge built back.

“You are trying to block us out,” Monteith said.

Monteith cited what he feels is a pattern of negligence by the Park Service toward the Swain County portion of the Park.

“This is part of us. It feels like they take everything away from Swain County,” Monteith said. “We are losing everything about the Park on this side of the mountain.”

For example, trashcans in the North Shore backcountry have been removed because rangers didn’t want to come empty them.

Monteith said the bridge could have been saved if the Park acted faster. But Park Spokesperson Bob Miller said the Park did not know the integrity of the bridge was compromised until it was too late.

“The first we heard that there was a problem with the bridge is the folks at Fontana Marina called us and said the bridge was floating in the lake,” Miller said.

The Park hired a crew of underwater divers to go in and inspect the submerged bridge and supports. They hoped they could simply tow the wooden bridge back in place and bolt it back, that perhaps the clips attaching the bridge to the beams were all that had rusted out. But it turns out the beams themselves were too corroded, Miller said.

 

Getting the money

Even if the Park’s request is granted, the money won’t come through until 2011 at the earliest, or 2015 more realistically.

The Park Service is typically working on a five-year time line. So projects that get money today were actually approved five years ago.

Here’s how the process works. Once a year, every park puts together a list of repairs it needs for roads, bridges and facilities. The Department of Interior looks at all the lists and decides which ones get money.

At first, the Park simply turns in a rough estimate of what the work would cost for the Hazel Creek bridge. The Smokies guessed about $500,000. If it makes the government’s short list, then the Park will engage an engineer to do a more sophisticated estimate, Miller said.

“Initially you put in a broad conceptual design and rough estimate,” Miller said. “There is no point to spend money on refining a design until you know that it is even in the pecking order.”

Typically, there’s about $90 million is the pot for road work to be shared under the Department of Interior. The requests that come in are many times that amount, usually a giant laundry list of every project every park would like to see.

“Requesting things you know will never be funded gives the Park Service some idea of how big the road needs are,” Miller said. “If you only request the top three you know will be funded it looks like ‘Oh, you got everything.’”

 

The pecking order

The Hazel Creek bridge could have a hard time competing for limited national park funds. Technically, it isn’t considered a road used by the public. Rather it’s classified as an “administrative” road used by park personnel only.

“It’s going to be hard for that project to compete very well,” Miller said.

The Smokies saw that disadvantage play out following the floods of 2004, which washed out another bridge in the North Shore area. The Park applied to a pot of emergency money for flood repairs, but was turned down since it was considered “public” use. At the time, Congressman Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, was serving over the subcommittee that controls park service funding and pulled strings to get the repair funded after all. Taylor has since been voted out and replaced with Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, who doesn’t have direct sway over the Park budget.

Swain County Manager Kevin King wrote a letter to the Smokies asking for the bridge to be fixed. The letter cites the hardship on the elderly and handicapped trying to visit their family graves.

Miller said he isn’t sure if the local demands, or the issue of cemetery access, will influence the chances for funding.

“It might help to tip the balance or give it a better ranking, but it’s hard to tell,” Miller said.

Miller said the Park is not happy about the bridge washing out either, as it allowed the park rangers better access to the area as well.

But the Hazel Creek bridge replacement isn’t even at the top of the Park’s own list. The list includes items used by far more people or far more urgent, such as restrooms for visitors or saving historic structures in immediate danger of falling down.

Graves in the park

When Fontana Lake was constructed during WWII, some communities were submerged by the rising lake while others were merely rendered inaccessible.

The only road in and out of a 44,000 acre area where about 2,000 people lived got flooded, effectively cutting them off. So the area was evacuated and made part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Those who were evacuated not only left behind homes and farms, but family cemeteries.

Many elected to have their loved ones remain where they were rather than dug up and relocated. The next of kin for each grave had to sign a contract with the Tennessee Valley Authority stating their preference: to leave the grave or move it.

Those who elected to leave the grave where it was were warned upfront that visitation to the cemeteries wasn’t going to be easy.

“It will be necessary to walk a considerable distance until a road is constructed in the vicinity of the cemetery, which is proposed to be completed after the war has ended,” the TVA contract stated.

Although families were given fair warning access would be difficult, they were also given hope that a road into the area would be built back one day. Those with family members buried on the North Shore have hung on to that hope, but it has been 65 years now and no road is in sight.

 

Road or cash

When Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson came to the Swain commissioners meeting last week, road supporters didn’t pass up the chance to demand the long-promised road. County Commissioner David Monteith, a spokesperson for the pro-road group, suggested tapping the public works stimulus package being debated in Congress for money to build the North Shore Road.

But Ditmanson leveled with the audience.

“The road will never be built,” he said.

A cash settlement in lieu of the road is now the county’s best hope of being compensated for the broken promise to build the road. But negotiations over the amount of the settlement appear to be stalled.

Supporters of a cash settlement floated the figure of $52 million, a long-standing amount used repeatedly over the past decade when discussing a cash settlement. It is based on the value of the old road through the area that was flooded when the lake was created, adjusted for interest and inflation.

The Park Service itself adopted the figure, but now that rubber is meeting the road it appears a figure cannot be agreed on. Swain County leaders have said they will not settle for anything less.

By Jennifer Garlesky & Julia Merchant • Staff Writers

Two Swain County employees will join representatives from the Department of Interior, the State of North Carolina and the Tennessee Valley Authority to negotiate a new contract that will replace the 1943 North Shore Road agreement.

By Rep. Heath Shuler

After more than 60 years of contentious debate that has divided our community, we are finally nearing a fair and conclusive solution to the issue of the North Shore Road. This solution will provide a fair monetary settlement to the people of Swain County that will be used to improve our schools and economy well into the years ahead.

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

With a potential end to the North Shore Road saga looming, supporters of constructing the 30-mile road through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park are confronting their fear of what a wilderness designation would mean for the park and Swain County.

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

After 64 years, it looks like the battle over the North Shore Road in Swain County may have finally reached a resolution.

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Supporters of a 30-mile road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that would fulfill a decades-old promise were thrilled last month when the Swain County commissioners agreed to hold the first-ever public hearing on the issue.

Just when the fate of the Road to Nowhere through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park seemed sealed, road supporters are rallying their troops for one final hurrah.

The National Park Service has finally chosen sides in the long-standing debate over whether to build a 30-mile road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park backcountry outside Bryson City.

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