The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Misty clouds, rising from the dark green faces of the Great Smoky Mountains during the morning, appeared like smoke tendrils. The twelve-car train, wearing the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s tuscan red and Rio Grande gold livery and pulled by an EMD GP-9 diesel locomotive, vibrated and clanged its bell atop the gravel-imbedded rails next to the gray, wooden Bryson City depot, as it prepared for its imminent, 44-mile, round-trip departure to Nantahala Gorge. Passengers, many of whom had dislodged from buses, inundated the tiny portico waiting area, lulled into a North Carolina mood by a guitar-strumming trio. I would make the journey in the MacNeill Club Car, number 536, today, attached to generator car 6118 and trailed by Silver Meteor dining car 8015. That journey, inextricably tired to these western North Carolina mountains, could trace its origins to the mid-1800s.
Although the ruggedly beautiful area had been rich in natural resources, such as timber, fertile soil, and minerals, the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains, peeking at 6,000 feet, had rendered it isolated and inaccessible, with a rough, wagon-plied route its only connection with the rest of the state. After considerable efforts to persuade the state legislature of North Carolina to rectify this deficiency, it had agreed to subsidize the construction of track between Salisbury and Asheville in 1855, to be used by the Western North Carolina Railroad.
A smooth development period, spanning six years, had been thwarted in 1861 by the Civil War, at which time some 70 miles of rail had yet to be laid, but momentum had ultimately been regained 16 years later, when convict labor had been employed for the first time. Five hundred tracklayers had been subdivided into 150-men camps, each of which had been led by a captain, a foreman, and several guards.
An erroneous route survey, revealing that existing topography had been unsuitable for track, had required another decade to properly determine, and had been exacerbated by crude, hand tool usage and primitive rock removal methods, the rocks themselves expanded by fire-created heat and cracked after drenchings with cold water.
The rails, following Indian trails and cow paths, entailed an 891.5-foot elevation gain with an average two-percent grade, and passed through five tunnels, and the precarious route had hardly been forged with safety. Indeed, on March 11, 1879, the Swannanoa Tunnel, which had been being bored from both ends, had collapsed and instantly crushed 21 workers.
Murphy, already the eastern terminus of the Marietta and North Georgia Railroad, served the same purpose in 1891 when the tracks for the Western North Carolina’s Murphy Branch had been laid, albeit six years later than planned, and traffic interchange between the two had been facilitated when the former had changed its gauge from narrow to standard. The 111 miles from Asheville had, for the first time, been connected by rail.
Despite the delays incurred by its construction, its crude method, topographical obstacles, rough roadbed, and lack of ballast had often caused derailments, a condition partially alleviated with the addition of culverts and abutments.
Rapidly becoming the lifeline to the communities lining it, it carried supplies, agricultural products, and timber, and connected with other, existing shortline railroads, such as the Alarka Valley, the Appalachian, the Carolina and Tennessee Southern, the B&B, the Smoky Mountain, the Ritter Lumber Company, the Sunburst, and the Tuckasegee Southeastern, but it had always been plagued by steep grades, sharp curves, low-capacity locomotives, and inferior maintenance.
Three years after its completion, the Southern Railway took control of it, and, in 1907, it had been reorganized as the “Murphy Division,” with Bryson City serving as its headquarters. Its local businesses and industries, manufacturing pulpwood and pallets and selling propane, had heavily relied on rail transport to support their activities, routinely requiring feed, cross ties, lumber, and sand.
Improved road access, however, gradually replaced the need for the rails. In 1937, for instance, two daily trains had departed Murphy—a freight service at 0600 and a passenger run at 0800—but by 1944, only a single passenger train had plied the line, leaving Murphy at 0715 for Asheville and returning at 1415. Aside from offering increased western North Carolina access, road development had been necessitated by the opening of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Diminishing timber resources, coupled with the completion of the nearby Fontana Dam, had finally resulted in the permanent discontinuation of passenger services on July 16, 1948. Thirty-two years later, in 1980, 2,239 freight car loads had plied the rails, yet by 1987, the number had dwindled to 817. During the last three years, by which time the railroad had been acquired by Norfolk Southern, regularly scheduled service, of no more than five cars, had only been maintained between Waynesville and Andrews, with stops in Murphy only sporadically made.
Maintenance costs, already high because of the 34 bridges connecting Dillsboro with Murphy and the excessive track curvature, had escalated without a commensurate increase in revenue, and in 1984, the Champion Paper Mill, long dependent on the line for its business, had converted its traditional pulpwood product to woodchips, packaged in a cube whose size had precluded its rail transport through the Dillsboro and Rhodo tunnels. Costs to either lower their roadbeds or increase their ceiling heights had been prohibitive, particularly for use by only a single company. As a result, the papermill had been forced to truck its products to Canton and Norfolk Southern, unable to stem its losses, had been forced to abandon the 67 miles of track between Dillsboro and Murphy in 1988.
Although several prospective operators had explored both passenger and freight uses for it, none had been financially self-sustainable, and on July 18 of that year, the North Carolina Department of Transportation had forcibly purchased the track for 0,000 for the intended introduction of a passenger excursion train operated by the newly-established Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
Its initial equipment, two GP-9 locomotives from Burlington Northern and Union Pacific, along with several converted, open coaches, had been joined by a 1942 Baldwin steam engine originally built for the US Army and two more GP-7 diesels from Chicago and North Western by 1995.
Its present fleet, comprised of open cars, coaches, “Crown” coaches, club cars, dining cars, and cabooses, had been acquired from several railroads and extensively refurbished. Track modifications, whose 80- and 85-pound ratings stipulated 25-mph maximum speeds, have entailed heavier rail and track side lubricator installations on sharp curves, the reinforcement of many trestles, and the redecking of the bridge crossing the Tuckasegee River at Dillsboro.
In 1996, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad purchased the Dillsboro-Andrews section of track from the state of North Carolina, while the state itself continued to own the remainder of it, from Andrews to Murphy.
Acquired three years later, on December 23, 1999, by American Heritage Railways, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad became one of three excursion trains owned by the new company, which operates similar ventures in Colorado and Texas.
Bryson City, origin of my own Nantahala Gorge excursion, is a mountainside community of 1,400 located on the Tuckasegee River and named after Colonel Thadeus Dillard Bryson. Incorporated in 1887, it had been laid out in accordance with the ancient trails and roads of the Cherokee, who had originally referred to it as “Big Bear Springs,” and today serves as a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains and is the hub for the railroad. Because of its proximity to the Fontana Dam, it had temporarily burgeoned during its construction period.
The current railroad depot, built during the 1890s, is the only one remaining from the Southern Railway’s operation of the line, although its freight storage portion had since been removed and replaced by an open portico. A one-and-a-half mile long rail yard, of four tracks, had facilitated the town’s many industries, including the Carolina Wood Turning Company, the Carolina Building Supply, the Southern Concrete Company, and a petroleum dealer, while a turntable, a water tank, and a coal chute had been instrumental in the then-present use of steam locomotives. Bryson City is located at mile marker 63 on the track running from Asheville to Murphy.
My train’s complement had included the 1955-manufactured diesel engine, a generator car, the MacNeill club car, the Silver Meteor dining car, the Dixie Flyer dining car, the Conductor’s Café, the Bryson City coach, the Wildwater open car, the Cherokee coach, the Fontana open car, the Crescent Limited coach, and a caboose.
A car coupling-created lurch preceded the train’s initial movement at 1030, as it slowly glided over Everet street-imbedded track, soon mirrored by the stationary, red and gold Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s chain of coaches cradled by the freight yard, before it plunged through dense, almost tunnel-like foliage at increasing, although still-gentle speeds.
Re-emerging from the dense forest, whose tall, thin trees stood like sentinels guarding the single track, the chain of cars inched away from Bryson City, paralleling the north bank of the Tuckasegee River. The original roadbed, curing to the right at mile 64.5, had been replaced by the present route in 1944 because of dam construction-created flooding.
Traversing a steel truss bridge, which had been constructed in 1898 and spanned 426 feet, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad crossed the Nantahala River, and thence arced into a 12.1-degree curve, commencing an almost-imperceptible climb up a 1.3-percent grade, before reaching its summit by means of a horseshoe curve to the left. The Alarka Creek, a blue sheen amidst the blur of deep forest green, flashed through the left windows.
The train’s gentle rock, lulling me into relaxed serenity, prompted closer internal inspection of the MacNeill club car in which I rode. The line’s newest addition, it had been built in the 1940s and had previously been designated the “Powhatan Arrow,” operating Norfolk and Western’s service of the same name on its Premier line until 1982, at which time it had been transferred to the merged Norfolk-Southern’s Steam Program. Although it had been refurbished in 1993, it had been subsequently damaged the following year in a collision in Lynchburg, Virginia.
No longer needed after the Steam Program had been discontinued in February of 1995, it had been auctioned and acquired by the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, renamed in honor of Malcolm and Jean MacNeill for their years of service and dedication, and for their vision of an economically viable western North Carolina scenic railway. It had been inaugurated into this service in mid-1999 on the very Nantahala Gorge run I had currently made after meticulous restoration.
Opulently decorated, it had featured a serving area; single, swivelable, tan-upholstered, opposed easy chairs separated by round tables on one side, and pairs separated by rectangular ones on the other; wood-grained wall paneling; brass lamps above the tables; and thick, red carpeting. Fruit salad, blueberry muffins, and coffee had been served shortly after departure.
The sun, finally managing to tear the billowing white, gray, and silver cloud deck open, revealed patches of blue. The pine green, glass-reflective surface of Fontana Lake, once a fertile valley, flicked through the dense foliage before opening up to a full water body, at mile 72.2. Its very creation had dictated the current railroad’s route.
The Murphy Branch track, having been 8.5 miles longer, but with gentler grades, had followed the north bank of the Tuckasegee River to Bushnell, the small community located at the converging point of the Little Tennessee River and the junction of the Carolina and Tennessee Southern Railway Company’s track. But World War II-necessitated demand for increased electrical power to facilitate production of vital war materials had sparked the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Fontana Dam Project and the Murphy Branch’s track rerouting.
Fontana, a town 1.5 miles from the construction site, had been nucleic to its successful completion and the Carolina and Tennessee Southern’s track, extended 2.84 miles along the Little Tennessee River, had formed the temporary lifeline to it, facilitating material and machinery transport. A timber trestle had been built over Eagle Creek. A four-track rail yard, long enough to support 100 cars on each of its spurs, along with a machine shop, a carpenter shop, a warehouse, and storage areas, had formed the base of the project, and cement-filled boxcars had run from Bryson City to the dam, conveying 8,000 cubic yards of concrete and 15,000 tons of sand and gravel per day.
The war had carried two stipulations: the dam had to be completed within a two-year period and steel could not be allocated for it, requiring relocated or reconstructed bridges and enormous amounts of fill to substitute for otherwise needed trestles.
Three different rivers had formed the bottom of the newly-created Fontana Lake when the resultant reservoir had flooded 24 miles of former Murphy Branch track from Bryson City to Weser, and the dam, at 480 feet, had been the highest in the eastern United States and the fourth-largest in the world when it had been completed in 1944.
The old line, discontinued by the Southern Railway between mileposts 64.5 and 88.2 on September 25 of the previous year, had been replaced by the new one on July 30, 1944.
Eating away the steel girder, concrete stanchion-supported Fontana Lake Bridge, the present Great Smoky Mountains Railroad crossed the evergreen-reflected water.
At milepost 76, orchard remnants, location of the former Southern Railway president’s summerhouse, moved by. Following the azure of Fontana Lake, the diesel locomotive negotiated the 14.2-degree curve to the right at mile 77.8, the relocated line’s sharpest, which could only be safely traversed at five mph.
The Nantahala River, a fluid life force exploding into small fumes of white anger with every rock and boulder obstacle thrown in its path, paralleled the 12-car link.
Lunch, served in the Silver Meteor dining car attached to the MacNeill club car, had included grilled vegetables, portobello mushrooms, and creamy goat cheese on a hero, served with seasoned potato wedges and a side of lettuce and tomato. The two-axle, lightweight car, built in 1940 for Seaboard Airline Railway and restored by the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in 1994, had featured a forward galley; twelve, four-place, black lacquer tables with upholstered, floral motif-sporting chairs; small, brass lamps; and gray, geometric textured carpeting which had adorned the bottom half of its sidewalls.
The Conductor’s Café, a snack car constructed in 1949 and an alternative eating venue, had been operated as a dormitory on the Atlantic Coast Line Railway and had also seen brief service with Amtrak before being converted to its present configuration in 1997.
Plying the last mile of relocated track, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad passed Weser Creek Falls and the Nantahala Outdoor Center before crossing the Appalachian Trail at milepost 80, now cradled by steep mountains which formed Nantahala Gorge and impeded all but the high, afternoon sun’s rays from penetrating it. The track, paralleling the river, had been laid close to the mountain’s side with the aid of nothing more than picks and shovels and seemed to bore through cool air and nature’s dense, perennially-green, vegetation-created tunnel.
The caves beyond the coaches’ right windows had once been used by hunters and settlers and had been instrumental during the Cherokee’s exile to Oklahoma in its Trail of Tears period.
Maneuvering through the line’s sharpest curve, of 17 degrees, at milepost 83.2, the train approached Talc Mountain, approaching Nantahala, once the last location of a water tank, a coal chute, and a sand tower for replenishing steam engines, thus necessitating sufficient provision for the 56-mile round-trip to Murphy and back. Today, it had served as my own journey’s terminus.
Diesel locomotive 1751, disconnecting from its 11-car chain, passed it on the Stanley track to its right before reconnecting in front of the caboose and reinitiating motion, now in the opposite direction, after a barely perceptible lurch, destined for the Nantahala Outdoor Center and a one-hour interlude.
Gently lurching and rattling, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad retraced its path, boring through the forest green walls which reeked not of soot or coal, but instead of dense vegetation.
Amid the rushing of the river, where the tracks briefly doubled, it inched into the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Immediately above the green canopy, tiny specks of blue had rendered the otherwise white and silver cloud blanket an afternoon mosaic. The center itself, starting point for rafting excursions and permanently suffused with the heavy scent of pine, had been comprised of several wooden, rustic cabins housing gift ships and restaurants.
After having been pelted by a fierce, but quick rain shower during its one-hour rest, the diesel locomotive, once again signaling imminent departure with its whistle, released its brakes at 1400 and reinitiated momentum, each car induced into coupling-snagged motion like a chain in mimicked reaction.
The Nantahala River, now paralleling the train on the right side and a reflection of the mountain-covered vegetation, appeared a crystal green mirror. The gentle blue of the sky crested the towering trees.
Traveling in a northwesterly direction, the long chain of cars thread its way through the dense forest toward the almost-blue peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains ahead, their wheels screeching in protest as they adhered to the track’s curvatures.
The cork on the champagne bottle had been popped and cheese and crackers had, in the meantime, been served in the MacNeill club car.
Fontana Lake, draped by green-carpeted hills and dotted with houseboats, once again glided by, now visible through the long, rectangular windows on the left side, as if they had served as large television screens depicting a world from which one had been temporarily disconnected in the self-contained coach.
Following the dense, green mountain valley-cradled tracks, the train once again traversed the steel truss bridge and inched past the railroad yard, crossing Evert Street in Bryson City and snagging its brakes for a final time abreast of the gray depot.
Climbing down from the MacNeill club car, I stepped back on to the gravel and caught glimpse of the last car. Behind it lay a track comprised of light rails laid by convicts through mountainous, river-abundant terrain, having requiring restricted bridges, small tunnels, tight curves, and varying grades. Behind it lay a story of the Murphy Branch, which had provided the lifeline to the Great Smoky Mountains’ isolated communities, facilitating their growth and development, and connecting town to town. And behind it lay the ultimate connection—the one from soul to soul.
Opening the door, I stepped into the Bryson City depot.
A graduate of Long Island University-C.W. Post Campus with a summa-cum-laude BA Degree in Comparative Languages and Journalism, I have subsequently earned the Continuing Community Education Teaching Certificate from the Nassau Association for Continuing Community Education (NACCE) at Molloy College, the Travel Career Development Certificate from the Institute of Certified Travel Agents (ICTA) at LIU, and the AAS Degree in Aerospace Technology at the State University of New York – College of Technology at Farmingdale. Having amassed almost three decades in the airline industry, I managed the New York-JFK and Washington-Dulles stations at Austrian Airlines, created the North American Station Training Program, served as an Aviation Advisor to Farmingdale State University of New York, and devised and taught the Airline Management Certificate Program at the Long Island Educational Opportunity Center. A freelance author, I have written some 70 books of the short story, novel, nonfiction, essay, poetry, article, log, curriculum, training manual, and textbook genre in English, German, and Spanish, having principally focused on aviation and travel, and I have been published in book, magazine, newsletter, and electronic Web site form. I am a writer for Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in New York. I have made some 350 lifetime trips by air, sea, rail, and road.
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