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All aboard! Bryson City celebrates railroad history and firefighter pride this weekend with Railfest and Fireman’s Day

By Michael Beadle

Take to the rails through Western North Carolina, and you’re bound to hear some history.

In the late 19th century, tracks were being laid from Asheville to Murphy by a group of convicts working on a portion of the railroad at the mouth of a tunnel at the Tuckasegee River. When a barge carrying these prisoners tipped over, 19 convicts weighed down by their iron shackles drowned. Today, when the tunnel drips, folks like to say it’s the tears of those convicts — just one part of the long history of railroads in Western North Carolina.

This weekend, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad celebrates that railroad legacy with Railfest, a weekend of events based in Bryson City that will include special train excursions, more than 80 arts and crafts booths, food vendors, motor car and equipment displays, railroad worksongs, and demonstrations. The activities will run from noon to 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 16, with a dinner train from Dillsboro at 7:30 p.m.; and then 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 17, with a special train excursion from Bryson City to Andrews.

This year’s Railfest features a train car from Michigan — Flagg Coal Company #75 — that will offer 25-minute train rides ($15 for adults and $8 for children) as well as demonstrations from the Buckingham Lining-Bar Gang, one of the last groups that set rails down by hand. A Nantahala Gorge train ride will take off from Bryson City’s depot at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 16, for a four-and-a-half hour excursion that includes a section through the Nantahala Gorge and over a bridge 100 feet above Lake Fontana. (Tickets are $38 for adults and $18 for children.) A Photo Special ride from Bryson City to Andrews will leave at 9 a.m. for a day-long excursion that includes photo opportunities and a box lunch. (Tickets for that ride are $89 for adults and $46 for children.)

“We’ll be running excursions throughout the day,” said Connie Southard, marketing and communications coordinator for Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.

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Southard grew up in Swain County and can remember watching the freight trains passing by her house and stories about those who worked on the rails.

If that’s not enough, this year’s Railfest has added a new component to the festivities — the Bryson City Fire Department’s annual fundraiser known as Fireman’s Day. Held on Saturday, Sept. 16, in conjunction with Railfest, Fireman’s Day will a 5K race at 9:15 a.m. (registration runs from 8:30 to 9 a.m.), fire truck rides all day, a $6 barbecue dinner from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., bingo, a fire truck parade, and the not-to-be-missed “Miss Flame” beauty contest. Several male firefighters from Bryson City’s finest will dress as ladies and parade around with buckets. The one who collects the most donations in his bucket wins the coveted title. The Miss Flame contest begins at 2:15 p.m.

This will be the 25th year for the annual Fireman’s Day, an event normally held over Labor Day weekend but moved this year to accommodate larger crowds. All events will be held at and around the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad depot.

Cylena Hughes, wife of Bryson City Fire Department Chief Joey Hughes and an organizer for the event for 10 years, said she’s enjoyed being able to help the fire department, which in turn helps support the community. Much of the equipment and nearly all of the vehicles for the fire department have been purchased with proceeds from the Fireman’s Day fundraiser. Next month, firefighters from the Bryson City Fire Department will be going into local schools to educate students about fire prevention, Hughes said.

For more information about Railfest or Fireman’s Day, call the Swain County Chamber of Commerce at 828.488.3681.

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