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 built in 1941, on land given over to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) by the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA).
All began in the 1930s and 1940s, when the federal government and the TVA took over 67,800 acres of public and private land in Graham and Swain Counties to build Fontana Dam itself, creating Fontana Lake and part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The United States’ entry into 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 readymade customer in the U.S. War Department, the aluminum company stood to benefit from all that hydroelectric power coming in.
The people that did not 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 locals who lived and worked there were moved off.
In compensation for the land, which had been owned by many families for generations, the government promised to reimburse Swain County for the loss of flooded Highway 288, which had provided access to the area. Another assurance to assuage those being displaced was the construction of a road approximately 30 miles long that would follow the northern shore of the lake and help substitute for the highway allowing the former residents access to their ancestral lands and cemeteries.
Begun in the 1940s, this road, initially planned to run from Bryson City to Deals Gap along a route north of the river and called Lakeview Drive, was to be cut through the newly created Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Eventually people were moved, the water rose, and by the 1970s, 30 years after the original agreement was made, only a small portion of the road was built, extended about six miles by 1969.
This small section, still there today, ends abruptly at a small tunnel in the park, in the middle of nowhere.
Apparently, the road was never finished due to environmental concerns.
Someone, for example, noticed that snowflakes melted unusually quickly on the newly exposed rock, as well as a strong smell of sulfur. The rock had the potential to turn runoff acidic, threatening wildlife in nearby streams. And so the only solution was to stop construction.
Although Congressman Charles Taylor and Senator Jesse Helms obtained $16 million in federal funding for the North Shore Road Project in October 2000, the road was never completed, partly also because of the projected costs of construction. It remains a sensitive issue for area residents, who continue to view the “Road to Nowhere” as a broken promise.
And thus the road sat unfinished for decades, and finally, the U.S. Department of Interior agreed to pay a consolation prize of $52 million to Swain County in lieu of building the road.
As of 2016 only $12 million had been paid, and the county filed a lawsuit for the remainder of the promised money. In 2018, the last payment was made in the settlement, and the funds are held by the state of North Carolina and Swain County receives interest on the settlement money.
As for the road itself, it will remain as it is now, going nowhere, and It’s no wonder one landowner has maintained a now-iconic sign:
“Welcome to the Road to Nowhere—a broken promise! 1943 – ? →”
Author’s notes: from Bryson City, follow Everett Street/Fontana Road north out of town, and stay on 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 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. “Nowhere” is on the other side, along with some beautiful trails and views.
Despite the difficult social and political issues surrounding the road, it offers some of the least-crowded beautiful views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The drive provides views of Fontana Lake and the Tuckasegee River as well as encounters with woodlands and many small streams. Several hiking trails, like the approximately 44-mile Lakeshore Trail, lead from the road to some of the highlights of the park, including its highest peak, Clingman’s Dome, reached by Noland Creek Trail.
Images from web – Google Research