A Trail of Broken Promises to Nowhere

North Carolina's North Shore Road, a controversial 26-mile road through the most remote part of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, was finally killed a couple of years ago. But like so many things involving federal spending, the story doesn't end there. The federal government is now set to pay $52 million dollars to Swain County, North Carolina because that road is never going to be finished.

Over the next ten years, the federal government would pay an additional $39.2 million as "hereafter appropriated by an act of Congress," according to a memorandum of agreement under review by Swain officials.

The first $4 million of that remaining money is included in President Barack Obama's budget proposal for 2011.

We can laugh at this seeming waste of money, but before it became the poster boy of pork-barrel spending, the Road to Nowhere was the story of heavy-handed moves and broken promises by the federal government against some of its poorest and most isolated citizens. When the federal government got through with all its plans in the 1930s and '40s for dams, parks, and forests in Swain County, it ended up owning 86% of the county's real estate -- and had relocated a good many of the residents in the process. As it evicted the last of those people, the government promised it would build a road so they could all visit their loved ones' graves. I am 100% for wise government spending, but I also believe that our government should always keep its word to its citizens. This is even truer when that government made those promises while kicking citizens out of their homes. The following story should be kept in mind whenever the government promises to do something in the future in return for a sacrifice by its citizens today.

The story of the promise to build the road began when the TVA built the Fontana Dam to provide electricity for aluminum maker Alcoa during WWII. In building the dam, it inundated both a small mining town and highway NC-288, which ran along the dammed up waterway to that town. Before construction started in 1942, the federal government agreed to both pay off Swain county's debt on improvements destroyed by the dam and to build a new road. Local citizens insisted upon this because the dam was cutting off access to more than twenty-eight cemeteries. The promised road was to be built along the north side of Fontana dam and on to the county seat of Bryson City, thirty miles away. I suspect that Bryson City was named because that may be where at least a plurality of the people being displaced had initially resettled. While all promises are taken seriously in Southern Appalachian culture, this one had particular resonance because of the great respect shown to the dead. To this day while driving along back roads in this region, I frequently come across a carefully maintained graveyard far away from other signs of human habitation. 

How did the federal government perform on its promise to one of the poorest counties in North Carolina? The $400,000 to pay off Swain County's debt was appropriated, but it never actually found its way to the county, which continued to service the debt for decades after the dam had destroyed the improvements. A scenic road some six miles in length, including a bridge and a 1,200-foot tunnel, were completed on the north side in 1969, almost thirty years after the promises was first made. The remaining 26 miles never got off the drawing board.  

In addition, the broken promise came on top of behavior that local residents already considered high-handed. Fontana dam wasn't the only wholesale eviction in Swain County during FDR's administration. Congress had authorized the acquisition of land to form Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 1926, but there was no key nucleus of federally owned land, or even major tracts held by a philanthropist (as there had been with the nearby Pisgah National Forest, formed in part around the the holdings of George Washington Vanderbilt II, builder of the Biltmore estate and founder of the first school of forestry in the United States). Money had to be found and purchases made on a piecemeal basis. That was done mostly in the early to mid-1930s through the use of eminent domain in cooperation with the states involved. The park infrastructure was built by New Deal programs. 

In the process, many subsistence farmers, miners, trappers, and loggers had to be forcibly evicted. Of the several counties in North Carolina and Tennessee that include parts of the National Park, Swain County was the most impacted in terms of the percentage of land taken by the federal government. Many of those twenty-eight cemeteries cut off by the Fontana dam had been owned by people displaced when the National Park was formed.

During this period, mountains on the North Carolina Tennessee border were isolated to a degree it is hard to imagine today. Not only weren't most of the residents of the area to be made into a National Park consulted ahead of time, but in some cases, they didn't learn about it until they were approached by a government representative sent to negotiate a price for their land. Additionally, land use restrictions were imposed against other local people who had been in these mountains unmolested by the government for generations. Upon being told that the new parks and national forest lands would be for the people, it was not uncommon for a local resident to wonder, wasn't he part of the people? If so, why were he and his fellows now being told they couldn't continue to hunt, fish, trap, and log on those lands, as they had always done? The image of the fresh-faced northern college boy telling the wizened farmer in overalls I'm from the federal government and I'm here to buy your farm whether you want to sell it or not became ingrained in a local culture where zoning laws are frowned upon by many to this day.

Patience is also a way of life in these mountains. The citizens were willing to wait a while for their road. Unfortunately, by the time the federal government had started to make good on the promise, the philosophy of what a National Park should be was changing. In addition to making it easier for people to visit the traditional family plot, the promised road would also permit -- indeed, even encourage -- greater vehicle access to the most remote areas of Great Smoky Mountain National Park. In 1942, allowing more people to visit National Parks was seen as a good thing. Indeed, one reason given for the creation of both Great Smoky Mountain and Shenandoah National Parks was to encourage more people to visit the National Park system by placing some nearer to the nation's population centers. By the 1960s, Great Smoky Mountain was already among the most visited in the nation, and the mission of national parks was shifting in favor of wilderness preservation over increased accessibility to tourists. Today, eight to ten million people visit the park each a year, but most of that traffic is centered around U.S. Highway 441, which cuts through the middle of the park and the areas adjacent to I-40, which in turn skirts the park's northern boundary. Partially cut off by Fontana dam and the lake that formed behind it, the southern area of the park became the preserve of serious hikers, wilderness aficionados, and naturalists. 

In the 1970s, environmental impact statements were coming into being, and environmental groups were starting to lobby intensely against the federal government building anything in areas deemed to be wilderness. With some 13% of its 13,000 or so residents below the poverty line and most of its property tax base now owned by Uncle Sam, Swain County had little money in its budget for a lawyer to go to Washington to lobby on its behalf. This remained the case until in 2000, U.S. Representative Charles Taylor and Senator Jesse Helms secured $16 million in federal funding towards the construction of what was then called the North Shore Road Project to make good on that 1942 promise. 

The combined lobbying by environmental groups and fiscal conservatives finally killed the road for good a handful of years later. At the time, many conservatives applauded that move on fiscal grounds. But how many who cheered and tore down Charles Taylor for supporting such ridiculous pork for his district also knew of those sixty years of broken promises by the federal government?  

While this long-overdue settlement is currently being discussed in terms of financial stimulus, readers should keep this image in mind as to what the broken promise means to many of those who call Swain County home.
On weekends throughout the summer, the Park Service still ferries groups of Swain County residents across Fontana Lake to visit their old family cemeteries for Decoration Days and family reunions.

Imagine having to ask the federal government for a lift for the last sixty years every single time you wanted to pay homage to grandpa's grave near the old homestead. When I moved into these mountains, I was often surprised at how virulently anti-government some of my new neighbors could be. When I learn about events like the Road to Nowhere, I am surprised that the feeling isn't more widespread. It's a textbook example of how hard it can be for the little guys to ever collect on a promise made by the federal government. 

The odds are that the citizens of Swain County would probably still be waiting for the government to make good on the Road to Nowhere if one of their own hadn't replaced Charles Taylor in 2006. Congressman Heath Shuler was born in Bryson City, and he campaigned on being against the road, but only on the condition that there be a settlement on the old promise. Thus Shuler kept several divergent groups happy. It's at least ten times cheaper than building 26 miles of mountain road today, it keeps the environmentalists happy, and it will fund other economic development ideas for the citizens of Swain County. It isn't often that a congressman gets to make good on a campaign promise to be fiscally conservative in a deal that ends up sending $52 million in federal money to his hometown.
North Carolina's North Shore Road, a controversial 26-mile road through the most remote part of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, was finally killed a couple of years ago. But like so many things involving federal spending, the story doesn't end there. The federal government is now set to pay $52 million dollars to Swain County, North Carolina because that road is never going to be finished.

Over the next ten years, the federal government would pay an additional $39.2 million as "hereafter appropriated by an act of Congress," according to a memorandum of agreement under review by Swain officials.

The first $4 million of that remaining money is included in President Barack Obama's budget proposal for 2011.

We can laugh at this seeming waste of money, but before it became the poster boy of pork-barrel spending, the Road to Nowhere was the story of heavy-handed moves and broken promises by the federal government against some of its poorest and most isolated citizens. When the federal government got through with all its plans in the 1930s and '40s for dams, parks, and forests in Swain County, it ended up owning 86% of the county's real estate -- and had relocated a good many of the residents in the process. As it evicted the last of those people, the government promised it would build a road so they could all visit their loved ones' graves. I am 100% for wise government spending, but I also believe that our government should always keep its word to its citizens. This is even truer when that government made those promises while kicking citizens out of their homes. The following story should be kept in mind whenever the government promises to do something in the future in return for a sacrifice by its citizens today.

The story of the promise to build the road began when the TVA built the Fontana Dam to provide electricity for aluminum maker Alcoa during WWII. In building the dam, it inundated both a small mining town and highway NC-288, which ran along the dammed up waterway to that town. Before construction started in 1942, the federal government agreed to both pay off Swain county's debt on improvements destroyed by the dam and to build a new road. Local citizens insisted upon this because the dam was cutting off access to more than twenty-eight cemeteries. The promised road was to be built along the north side of Fontana dam and on to the county seat of Bryson City, thirty miles away. I suspect that Bryson City was named because that may be where at least a plurality of the people being displaced had initially resettled. While all promises are taken seriously in Southern Appalachian culture, this one had particular resonance because of the great respect shown to the dead. To this day while driving along back roads in this region, I frequently come across a carefully maintained graveyard far away from other signs of human habitation. 

How did the federal government perform on its promise to one of the poorest counties in North Carolina? The $400,000 to pay off Swain County's debt was appropriated, but it never actually found its way to the county, which continued to service the debt for decades after the dam had destroyed the improvements. A scenic road some six miles in length, including a bridge and a 1,200-foot tunnel, were completed on the north side in 1969, almost thirty years after the promises was first made. The remaining 26 miles never got off the drawing board.  

In addition, the broken promise came on top of behavior that local residents already considered high-handed. Fontana dam wasn't the only wholesale eviction in Swain County during FDR's administration. Congress had authorized the acquisition of land to form Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 1926, but there was no key nucleus of federally owned land, or even major tracts held by a philanthropist (as there had been with the nearby Pisgah National Forest, formed in part around the the holdings of George Washington Vanderbilt II, builder of the Biltmore estate and founder of the first school of forestry in the United States). Money had to be found and purchases made on a piecemeal basis. That was done mostly in the early to mid-1930s through the use of eminent domain in cooperation with the states involved. The park infrastructure was built by New Deal programs. 

In the process, many subsistence farmers, miners, trappers, and loggers had to be forcibly evicted. Of the several counties in North Carolina and Tennessee that include parts of the National Park, Swain County was the most impacted in terms of the percentage of land taken by the federal government. Many of those twenty-eight cemeteries cut off by the Fontana dam had been owned by people displaced when the National Park was formed.

During this period, mountains on the North Carolina Tennessee border were isolated to a degree it is hard to imagine today. Not only weren't most of the residents of the area to be made into a National Park consulted ahead of time, but in some cases, they didn't learn about it until they were approached by a government representative sent to negotiate a price for their land. Additionally, land use restrictions were imposed against other local people who had been in these mountains unmolested by the government for generations. Upon being told that the new parks and national forest lands would be for the people, it was not uncommon for a local resident to wonder, wasn't he part of the people? If so, why were he and his fellows now being told they couldn't continue to hunt, fish, trap, and log on those lands, as they had always done? The image of the fresh-faced northern college boy telling the wizened farmer in overalls I'm from the federal government and I'm here to buy your farm whether you want to sell it or not became ingrained in a local culture where zoning laws are frowned upon by many to this day.

Patience is also a way of life in these mountains. The citizens were willing to wait a while for their road. Unfortunately, by the time the federal government had started to make good on the promise, the philosophy of what a National Park should be was changing. In addition to making it easier for people to visit the traditional family plot, the promised road would also permit -- indeed, even encourage -- greater vehicle access to the most remote areas of Great Smoky Mountain National Park. In 1942, allowing more people to visit National Parks was seen as a good thing. Indeed, one reason given for the creation of both Great Smoky Mountain and Shenandoah National Parks was to encourage more people to visit the National Park system by placing some nearer to the nation's population centers. By the 1960s, Great Smoky Mountain was already among the most visited in the nation, and the mission of national parks was shifting in favor of wilderness preservation over increased accessibility to tourists. Today, eight to ten million people visit the park each a year, but most of that traffic is centered around U.S. Highway 441, which cuts through the middle of the park and the areas adjacent to I-40, which in turn skirts the park's northern boundary. Partially cut off by Fontana dam and the lake that formed behind it, the southern area of the park became the preserve of serious hikers, wilderness aficionados, and naturalists. 

In the 1970s, environmental impact statements were coming into being, and environmental groups were starting to lobby intensely against the federal government building anything in areas deemed to be wilderness. With some 13% of its 13,000 or so residents below the poverty line and most of its property tax base now owned by Uncle Sam, Swain County had little money in its budget for a lawyer to go to Washington to lobby on its behalf. This remained the case until in 2000, U.S. Representative Charles Taylor and Senator Jesse Helms secured $16 million in federal funding towards the construction of what was then called the North Shore Road Project to make good on that 1942 promise. 

The combined lobbying by environmental groups and fiscal conservatives finally killed the road for good a handful of years later. At the time, many conservatives applauded that move on fiscal grounds. But how many who cheered and tore down Charles Taylor for supporting such ridiculous pork for his district also knew of those sixty years of broken promises by the federal government?  

While this long-overdue settlement is currently being discussed in terms of financial stimulus, readers should keep this image in mind as to what the broken promise means to many of those who call Swain County home.
On weekends throughout the summer, the Park Service still ferries groups of Swain County residents across Fontana Lake to visit their old family cemeteries for Decoration Days and family reunions.

Imagine having to ask the federal government for a lift for the last sixty years every single time you wanted to pay homage to grandpa's grave near the old homestead. When I moved into these mountains, I was often surprised at how virulently anti-government some of my new neighbors could be. When I learn about events like the Road to Nowhere, I am surprised that the feeling isn't more widespread. It's a textbook example of how hard it can be for the little guys to ever collect on a promise made by the federal government. 

The odds are that the citizens of Swain County would probably still be waiting for the government to make good on the Road to Nowhere if one of their own hadn't replaced Charles Taylor in 2006. Congressman Heath Shuler was born in Bryson City, and he campaigned on being against the road, but only on the condition that there be a settlement on the old promise. Thus Shuler kept several divergent groups happy. It's at least ten times cheaper than building 26 miles of mountain road today, it keeps the environmentalists happy, and it will fund other economic development ideas for the citizens of Swain County. It isn't often that a congressman gets to make good on a campaign promise to be fiscally conservative in a deal that ends up sending $52 million in federal money to his hometown.