The Road to Nowhere – Bryson City, North Carolina - Atlas Obscura
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Bryson City, North Carolina

The Road to Nowhere

This road in the Great Smoky Mountains was supposed to assuage a displaced community, but ended up a $58 million dead end. 

The Fontana Dam, rising high above the Little Tennessee River in western North Carolina, is the tallest dam in the eastern United States. It was a long and winding road to build the dam, and what was lost during the journey can be seen in the “Road to Nowhere.”

Fontana Dam was built in 1941, on land given over to the Tennessee Valley Authority by the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA). Entering World War II meant a huge spike in the demand for aluminum for aircraft, ships, and munitions, so a deal was struck for the TVA to build the dam with ALCOA as the primary consumer. With a ready-made customer in the War Department, the aluminum company stood to benefit from all that hydroelectric power coming in.

Who didn’t benefit were the flooded-out communities along the banks of the rising water.

Where there had previously been small towns, villages and homesteads along the north side of the river, there was now Fontana Lake, and people who lived and worked there were either bought out or moved off.

Part of the dam deal, to assuage those being displaced, was to build a road from Bryson City to Deals Gap along a route north of the river. It was intended to not only allow people to make the journey but to provide ongoing access to their ancestral lands and cemeteries. The road was to be cut through the newly created Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

The people were moved, the water rose, and by the 1970s — thirty years after the original agreement was made — only a small portion of the road was built. This small section, still there today, is about seven miles long and ends abruptly at a quarter-mile tunnel in the middle of the park, in the middle of nowhere. With no road, a consolation prize of $58 million was agreed to be paid to Swain County.

As of today only $12 million has been paid, and the county has filed a lawsuit for the remainder of the promised money. It’s no wonder one landowner has maintained his now-iconic sign:

“Welcome to the Road to Nowhere – A broken Promise! 1943 - ? →”

Know Before You Go

From Bryson City, follow Everett Street/Fontana Road north out of town, and follow Fontana Road until you come to the entrance to Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

Once in the Park, the road becomes Lakeview Drive East. Follow the winding road for about 6 miles until you cross a bridge over Nolands Creek, and there is a parking area next to a barricade. From there it’s a short walk to the tunnel, which is about a quarter mile long - longer than it looks from the outside. It's dark in there, so bring a flashlight

“Nowhere” is on the other side, along with some beautiful trails and views. The abandoned site of Proctor is about a 10 mile hike from here - follow NPS trail maps for all trails and connections inside the park.