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The Little Tennessee River, Briefly Interrupted

When it was completed in 1944, Fontana Dam was the fourth tallest dam in the world. And at 480 feet, the Tennessee Valley Authority dam is still the tallest in the Eastern United States, and a must-see for visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s the first of five hydroelectric dams along the Little Tennessee River.

Constructed to provide additional electrical power for the war effort, the dam and the resulting 11,700-acre Fontana Lake required the purchase of 68,292 acres of land, 5125 acres of which was forested and had to be cleared. 1,311 families and 1,047 graves had to be relocated, and four Western North Carolina towns — Fontana, Bushnell, Forney, and Judson — were completely inundated.

As the four towns disappeared, a new village was created to house the project’s 5,000 construction workers. Many of those structures remain today as part of the Fontana Village Resort.

The story of the dam’s origin is portrayed at the Fontana Dam Visitor Center (Open May to November, 9 am – 7 pm, daily), and in Lance Holland’s book, “Fontana – A Pocket History of Appalachia.”

Photo by J.R. vanLienden

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Millstone Marks Horace Kephart’s Favorite Smoky Mountain Refuge

Shortly after Horace Kephart’s death in 1931, the newly-formed Horace Kephart Troop, Boy Scouts of America, placed a millstone marker on the site of the writer’s last permanent campsite in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park above Bryson City. The plaque reads —

On this spot Horace Kephart – Dean of American Campers and one of the Principal Founders of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – pitched his last permanent camp.

In his book, Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains, Bryson City author George Ellison wrote “… Kephart found refuge from summer visitors seeking him out by camping at the old Bryson Place, now a designated camping area in the national park, situated about 10 miles north of Bryson City alongside Deep Creek. He would sometimes go there for an entire summer, hauling in by wagon or on horseback the supplies and equipment he required, which included a small folding desk and writing materials.”

The marker’s location is generally described as “Campsite 57, at Bryson Place”, yet many hikers have tried unsuccessfully to locate the marker. But with a GPS it can be found at 35° 31.197′ N, 83° 25.182′.

On the Historical Marker Database website, W. Frank March of Sevierville, TN added the following assistance — “The memorial is located approximately 322′ SW (bearing 220 degrees) from the Martins Gap Trail sign. From the trail sign, go back down the trail toward Deep Creek campground approximately 150′, then go off the trail at an angle, to the right. The marker is below the trail, on the right.”

Horace Kephart is buried in the Bryson City Cemetery.

Photo by Sharon McCarthy, Smoky Scout

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Blue Ridge Parkway 75th Anniversary Kicked Off in Cherokee


BRP75Just as the 75th anniversary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park draws to a close, the neighboring Park’s anniversary has just begun. Last week, the Blue Ridge Parkway kicked off its 75th year with a ceremony at the Ravensford Overlook near the southern end of the 469 mile scenic roadway. The Cherokee NC location was significant for several reasons — it’s where the two parks and the Qualla Boundary share borders, and it acknowledged the Cherokees’ major role in bringing the Parkway through the reservation and into Swain County.

Jerry-WolfeThe kick-off ceremony included a “passing of the torch” from one Park to the other, ceremonial dances by the Warriors of AniKituhwa and a Cherokee blessing from 85 year-old tribal elder Jerry Wolfe, who was born and raised only a mile from the Ravensford Overlook in a cabin where the parkway now runs.  View video.

More about the Parkway’s 75th Anniversary here.

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100 Years Ago, Getting Syrup for Your Pancakes Was No Easy Task


There was no running to the corner market for a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth. You had to grow and harvest the sugar cane, grind the stalks in a horse-powered cane mill, and boil the pulp in a wood-fired cooker …all before pouring the syrup over your pancakes.

gsm75_verticalThis 19th century sorghum syrup-making process will be the centerpiece of the Mountain Life Festival on September 19 at the Mountain Farm Museum, on the banks of the Oconaluftee river near Cherokee. For more than 35 years, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s Fall Festival has provided visitors with a glimpse into the past as they make soap, apple cider, sorghum molasses, hominy, traditional toys, music and more. The syrup making demonstration is provided by students, staff, and volunteers from Swain County High School through a cooperative agreement with Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

As part of the GSMNP’s 75th Anniversary, this year’s festival will include a special showcase of Appalachian folkways. Tools, farm implements and historic photographs from the Park’s archives and artifact collection will be on display to help pay tribute to the former residents who lived where the Park now stands.  Music will be provided by Marshall Crowe and the Bluegrass Singers.

The purpose of the Mountain Life Festival is to share with park visitors some of the traditional fall activities that were an important part of rural life in the southern mountains. The spirit of cooperation that existed among families and neighbors is reflected in this event. You can view a preview in this video from the sponsoring Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Mountain Life Festival (free)
Saturday, September 19
10 am – 4 pm
Mountain Farm Museum
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Oconaluftee Visitors Center
Cherokee, NC

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Indian Creek Was The Legendary Angler Mark Cathey’s Home


Mark Cathey (1871-1944) once ‘owned’ Indian Creek. It was where he lived — a short distance above these falls — and it was where he mastered the art of fly fishing. Cathey was a colorful character who would modestly admit “I have been accused of being the best fisherman in the Smokies.”

Today, most visitors to the Deep Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park take the short one-mile walk to admire Indian Creek’s beautiful falls. But after learning more about legendary angler, you may want to continue your walk northward through what was once “Cathey’s Place”.

Bryson City naturalist George Ellison related two classic Mark Cathey stories in his Smoky Mountain News “Mountain Views” column in 2001. Ellison wrote, ‘He earned his living as a lumber-herder, trapper, and hunting or fishing guide. When the splash dams on the creeks in the Smokies were released, lumber-herders ran along the banks to clear jams. Some few, like Cathey, had the agility and courage to ride the logs down the creek, ducking branches and risking sure death in the event of a miscue.” Read entire article.

In his new book Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Jim Casada writes about Indian Creek and it’s most famous resident. When fishing Indian Creek, Casada writes, “…you can take quiet comfort in knowing that you are wading and casting in the footsteps of Uncle Mark Cathey.” Download a PDF excerpt from Jim Casada’s new book and read chapter 23 “Indian Creek”.

Download a PDF map of Deep Creek’s trails and waterfalls.

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Couple Celebrates 50th Anniversary With a Return To Bryson City


At just 19 years old, Robert Rybak and his fiancé Evadean drove all the way from Columbus, Ohio to Bryson City. Too scared to ask their parents for permission, the couple made the trip to North Carolina to secretly get married. February 22 marked 50 years of marriage for the couple.

Robert, who was in the Air Force, and Evadean, an operator at Ohio Bell, met at a popular restaurant near the Air Force Base.  She was there with a friend, and he showed up after a USO dance.  Evadean’s friend teased her saying she wouldn’t be able to get a date with Robert.  She proved her friend wrong. The two met and soon fell in love.

Robert and Evadean made the trip to Bryson City from Ohio again recently to rediscover the place that holds so many special memories.  The wedding took place at the Swain County Courthouse with Justice of the Peace O Neal Muse and witnesses Odis Sitton and Percival DeHart.  The couple was very excited to find the courthouse and both remarked, “It looks so much smaller now!”

Photo by Jennifer Wilson

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Old-fashioned Flowers in an Antique Garden


The Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Mountain Farm Museum is a re-creation of the many household gardens that were once common throughout the Smoky Mountains. Located near the Cherokee entrance to the Park, the living museum accurately demonstrates the farming methods and crops of the nineteenth century, including the hollyhocks that were often grown along the split-rail fence lines. Photo by Jennifer Wilson.

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The Old Courthouse — Bryson City’s Iconic Image


Constructed in 1908 and used by the County until 1980, the historic Swain County Courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

The building was designed by Frank Pierce Milburn and R. S. Smith. Milburn was a prolific architect of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who designed major public buildings in almost every southern state. His work ranged from county courthouses to state capitols, including the South Carolina State House and the old Florida Capitol. Smith worked in Asheville, first with Richard Morris Hunt at Biltmore Village, and then independently.

Falls City Construction Company, of Louisville, Kentucky, built the structure in just six months, at a cost of approximately $35,000. Records show the commissioners authorized the company to get “a tower clock with metal Bell for a cost of $850”.

Today, the first floor is used as a senior center by the State of Franklin Services. And yes, the clock and bell still work.

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Mingus Mill Opens For 75th Anniversary Season


gsm75_verticalThroughout 2009, extra attention will be focused on The Great Smoky Mountains National Park as the nation’s most visited national park celebrates its 75th Anniversary year. In the North Carolina Smokies, the anniversary season gets underway next weekend with the seasonal opening of the historic Mingus Mill. Built in 1886, the historic water-powered grist mill is just a half-mile from the Oconaluftee visitor center in Cherokee.

A complete schedule of 75th anniversary events in Bryson City and surrounding North Carolina communities can be found on the Bryson City website. In addition to the official anniversary events, there’s a wealth of information on things to to in the North Carolina Smokies. Information on all 2009 events is available on the Park’s official 75th anniversary web site. Photo by J.R. vanLienden.

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Need a Hard-to-Find Item? Try Bryson City’s Oldest Store.


“Old Clampitt”, as it’s known in Bryson City, is the antithesis of the modern big box store. It’s an old-fashioned country store where you can still find such uncommon necessities as beekeeping supplies, horse tack and chicken feeders. The venerable N.C. Clampitt Hardware Store is the oldest continuously-operated business in Swain County and a fixture on Bryson City’s Main Street for generations. In 1982, when owners Monte and Diana Clampitt expanded the business into larger space just three doors down the street, they kept the old store open, to the delight of locals and visitors alike. Above, shopkeeper Teresa Maynard shows an old-fashioned crock jug to Sevierville visitors Tom and Linda Lakey.

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Bryson City Building Has a Charles Heath Family History


When artist and photographer Charles Heath first opened his Bryson City Gallery, he did not realize that his grandfather had once worked in the same building. Then he learned that the Depot Street structure had once been occupied by Slayden Flakes Distributors, the wholesale grocery company where his grandfather Charley Browning was employed.

Charles’ family has long been a part of Bryson City and Swain County, North Carolina. His great-grandfather Samuel R. Patterson (1928 photo below) served the county as Register of Deeds and later as Swain County Sheriff in the 30s and 40s. That’s his badge, below.


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Highway 288 Bridge — Now You See It, Soon You Won’t


Each Winter, when the Tennessee Valley Authority lowers the lake level by more than fifty feet, Fontana Lake reveals some of its fascinating history, like the old Highway 288 bridge pictured above. In the Summer, at full pool, the lake’s shoreline reaches the tree line at the top of the photo.

Highway 288 once connected Bryson City with the communities of Fontana, Bushnell, Forney and Judson along the Tuckaseigee River. But with the creation of the 10,230-acre reservoir in 1944, both the communities and Highway 288 were completely inundated, with only portions resurfacing during TVA’s annual Winter drawdown.

The bridge spans Lands Creek, which flows out of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just west of Bryson City.

ADDED 2/12/09

Several people have asked about visiting this bridge.

The best time to see it without a boat is in the winter, when the lake level is low enough to walk along the shoreline (by late Spring it should be under water). Here’s how to get there…

From the Dollar General store in downtown Bryson City, drive west on Bryson Walk. After you pass the Lumber Mill, look for Old Hwy 288 which peels off to the left and continues along the Tuckaseigee River. Continue on 288 until it ends at the municipal boat ramp. From there, walk north along the shoreline about a mile to the Lands Creek Bridge.

You can also see it from the pull-off on Buckner Branch Road, across the lake (where I took the photo).

— Charles Snodgrass

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A Literary Tour of Bryson City’s Hillside Cemetery

Thomas Wolfe angel

While the author never said, many scholars believe that the statue described in Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel” is the gravestone of Fanny Everett Clancy in the Bryson City hillside cemetery (above). Others believe Wolfe’s “angel” was a composite of two statues, the one in Bryson City and another in Hendersonville, NC. Both were imported from Carrara, Italy and sold at the Asheville tombstone shop owned by Thomas Wolfe’s father in the early 1900s. The Hendersonville angel has the smile and the foot of the angel described in the novel, while the Bryson City angel holds the lily that Wolfe described.

While at the Bryson City cemetery, also look for the large boulder marking the grave of Horace Kephart (1862-1931). The plaque reads “Scholar, Author, Outoorsman. He loved his neighbors and pictured them in “Our Southern Highlanders”. His vision helped to create The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.” Kephart also penned “Camping and Woodcraft” based on a series articles he wrote for Field and Stream.


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Hikers Find Relics of Smokies’ Lost Communities

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the nation’s most visited park, but only a few of those visitors attempt to see it all — like Sharon McCarthy, who’s well on her way to hiking all 900 miles of trails in the Park. And she’s doing it as a fundraiser to benefit outdoor programs for Girl Scouts across North Carolina.

Sharon (aka Smoky Scout) chronicles her hikes on her blog “Great Smoky Mountains Girl Scout Challenge“, an online journal illustrated with dozens of photos, like the one above of fellow hiker Judy Gross. While hiking along Lakeshore Trail, near Fontana Dam, the two came across the old car.

In her journal, Sharon writes, “…this part of Lakeshore Trail (all of it, really) is a fascinating walk back through time when there was no Fontana Lake and there were thriving communities here. We did take the time to explore some of the old cars that were abandoned when this was a road.”

Photo by Sharon McCarthy.

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Down by the Old Mill Race

Mill Race at the historic Mingus Mill

One of the most fascinating attractions in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Mingus Mill, the historic grist mill near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center just north of Cherokee. Built in 1886 and still producing stone-ground cornmeal, the mill uses a water-powered turbine rather than a water wheel to power its machinery. Visitors are treated to demonstrations of the corn-grinding process and may even purchase a bag of cornmeal. Open 9 to 5 daily from mid-March through mid-November. Also open Thanksgiving weekend. Photo by Jennifer Wilson.

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Whittier, NC – The Way It Used To Be

Scale model of Whittier, NC, circa 1895

Founded by Clark Whittier in 1885, the town of Whittier, North Carolina once flourished as a lumber center before succumbing to the Great Depression. No longer incorporated, the quiet little community on the banks of the Tuckaseigee river is mostly residential.

If you’d like a glimpse of the original Whittier, stop by Gloria Nolan’s “Stuff’ & Such” consignment shop across from the Whittier Post Office. Working from old photos, Gloria has created a scale model of Whittier as it was in 1895. Above, Whittier resident Ann Hill studies the model, imagining her Smoky Mountains community the way it used to be.

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And You Thought Museums Were Stuffy Collections of Old Relics

The Mountain Farm Museum is indeed a collection of 19th century relics, but there’s nothing stuffy about this open air museum. Its location — in a lush green valley on the banks of the Oconaluftee River — is literally in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains. In summer, the Museum is a working farm, with crops such as squash, corn and tomatoes cultivated in the garden and live farm animals grazing in the fields.

Just as it was a century ago, fall is a busy time on the farm as the summer’s crops are preserved for the winter. And on Saturday, September 20, you can see it all, with live demonstrations of soap making, hearth cooking, hominy, apple butter and cider, plus a working cane mill and wood-fired cooker used for the making of sorghum syrup. The event is the annual Mountain Life Festival, a one day event from 10 am – 4 pm.

The Davis House
— All the historic log structures in the Mountain Farm Museum were gathered from throughout the Smoky Mountains when the museum was constructed in the 1950s. The main farmhouse (above) was originally built by John E. Davis and his two oldest sons in the Indian Creek – Thomas Divide area north of Bryson City. The log house was built from chestnut wood before the chestnut blight decimated the American Chestnut in our forests during the 1930s and early 1940s.

The Mountain Farm Museum is located adjacent to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on US 441 north of Cherokee and just inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Museum is open daily from sunrise to sunset, year around.

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Once Upon a Time, Bryson City Generated Its Own Power

The Bryson City dam on the Oconaluftee River at Ela

Located on the Oconaluftee River in Ela, about five miles east of town, the Bryson City hydroelectric plant was constructed for the town in 1924-25.

It was purchased from the Town of Bryson City by Nantahala Power and Light (now Duke Energy) in 1942. The sale was approved by the town board and then by the majority of the registered voters. The town had been trying to sell the hydro plant since the late 1930s. It includes a multiple-arch type concrete dam, originally known as Oconaluftee Dam, and a power house with two turbines and generators. The 36 feet high and 341 feet long dam still generates electricity for the Duke Energy system.

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Ghost Town in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Ghost town in the Smokies

A hundred years ago, Proctor, NC was a bustling lumber town on Hazel Creek with more than 1,000 residents. Except for the ruins of the Ritter Lumber Company’s kiln (above), the cemetery and one house used by the Park Service, nature has reclaimed Proctor and left few visible reminders of its fascinating history. And with the building of Fontana Dam and Lake in 1944, the remote Hazel Creek area became virtually isolated and only accessible by boat.

This summer, there’s a unique opportunity to visit Proctor when historian and author Lance Holland conducts guided tours of the abandoned lumber town.

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Our First Postcard From The Smokies

Early postcard from the Smokies

Since the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s earliest days, visitors have shared the wonder and beauty of the Smokies with their friends via postcards. And now that the internet has made “snail mail” somewhat passe, we’ve decided to publish a whole new collection of Smoky Mountains postcards via this blog.

Our ePostcards will illustrate all the great things that contribute to the Smoky Mountains experience. And like the traditional postcard, our “Postcards From The Smokies” will be mostly photographic, with just a few words. A quick read. We plan on publishing a new postcard every week or so.

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