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Cherokee hopes to broker tourist train deal with Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

The principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will met with the owner of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad this week to discuss the possibility of expanding the scenic tourist railway to Cherokee.

Chief Michell Hicks publicly broached the idea at a joint meeting of Cherokee tribal council and the Jackson County commissioners on last week. Hicks said little more beyond expressing an interest in bringing the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad to Cherokee.

“I just see opportunity there,” Hicks said.

Tribal leaders have discussed the possibility for a couple of months but specifics of the project are unknown. Al Harper, owner of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, is visiting Western North Carolina this week and will met with Hicks for the first time on the issue.

Harper said he is looking forward to talking about a possible expansion into Cherokee.

But, before the project moves full-speed head, there is one major hitch.

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“One of the issues is the fact that they don’t have any tracks,” Harper said.

The only railroad tracks in use in the seven western counties belong to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad or the Norfolk Southern Corporation and were built in the 1870s and 1880s.

The Norfolk Southern Corporation, which carries commercial and industrial freight on its rail lines, does not have any tracks leading to Cherokee either — thus it’s not an option for the tribe to latch onto existing tracks.

The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad currently runs out of Bryson City in the direction of Cherokee, but veers off to Whittier. There’s at least six or seven miles of new track that would be needed.

“That is a mighty expensive proposition,” Harper said, adding that there maybe some funding available for the construction.

The cost of building tracks isn’t known. Estimates for simply rehabilitating existing tracks falls in the range of about $500,000 per mile, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Because of the tribe is a sovereign nation overseen by the federal government, the project would receive oversight from a myriad of agencies including NCDOT, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Despite the obstacles, both physical and monetary, Hicks is confident the expansion could still work and be worthwhile.

“It’s not an easy endeavor,” Hicks said, “but it could be done.”

During his three-day visit to WNC, Harper will also speak with Jackson County leaders. The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad was once headquartered at a depot in Dillsboro, but in 2005 Harper decided to move the company’s main hub to its Bryson City depot.

People in Jackson County, and Dillsboro specifically, have lamented the loss of the train, which used to bring thousands of tourists into the tiny town each year, ever since.

“We have definitely sorely missed the railroad in Jackson County,” said Jack Debnam, chair of the Jackson County Commissioners.

Leaders in Dillsboro and Jackson County have expressed a desire to see the train return to Dillsboro more often than its current four times a week — a number that will drop off after the summer.

Harper previously has asked the county for financial assistance to restore train service out of Dillsboro, but talks stalled last year.

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