The southern boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is marked by Fontana Lake, and the area along its north shore, Hazel Creek, is one of the most remote and isolated parts of the park. Accessible only by boat or a long hike, this region is also one of the largest stretches of roadless land in the eastern United States. But it wasn’t always this way.
Underneath Fontana Lake lies the lost town of Proctor, North Carolina, a once-booming lumber town on Hazel Creek, a tributary of the Little Tennessee River. Proctor, along with the other communities of Hazel Creek, was flooded when the Fontana Dam was created in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack to power a nearby aluminum plant—The Aluminum Company of America in Alcoa, TN—for the war effort. The lake formed by the dam displaced the local residents from their homes and most of the town was submerged by the rising water. The floodwaters also washed out Highway 288, the only major road leading in or out of Hazel Creek.
The town of Proctor was named after the first European settlers of Hazel Creek, Moses and Patience Proctor. In the early 20th century it was a thriving company town that grew up around the local lumber industry—and by the 1930s had declined with it too. Today, little is left of the former boomtown except for the remains of the old Ritter Lumber Mill, a single house that is now used by the National Park Service, and the cemeteries located above the water level. Soon after the dam was built, Proctor and the rest of Hazel Creek became part of the newly established Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and what remained of the village was razed. Today, the former site of Proctor is a serene backcountry campsite in the national park.
Yet back in 1943, the displaced townspeople were promised something different. As a consolation, the federal government agreed to build a road to the north shore of the new lake, providing access to the parts of Hazel Creek that remained above the water level, such as the local cemeteries. Only seven miles of the road was ever built, however. The unfinished road remains in place to this day, now known as the Road to Nowhere.
The only time group transportation is available is during the annual Decoration Days event hosted by the Park Service; visitors are shuttled via pontoon boat to decorate the graves at four cemeteries and share a meal together. Otherwise, the Hazel Creek area of the Great Smokies can now only be reached by boat or by hiking around 10 miles from the nearest road.
Once across the lake, visitors and former residents can hike up the country trails, through what little remains of Proctor and the surrounding ghost towns to explore the overgrown cemeteries of the north shore.
Know Before You Go
There are five backcountry campsites in the Hazel Creek area of the national park, located about 30 miles from Bryson City. They can be accessed by boat across Fontana Lake (about a 20-minute ride) or by a roughly 10-mile hike. The town of Proctor was located between Backcountry Campsite 86 and the Ritter Lumber Mill ruins. There are also trails leading to several cemeteries around Hazel Creek.