History Professor Dan Pierce Investigates a Road to Nowhere and a Lost Community

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Dan Pierce, NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, knows his way around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Ask him for the best hiking trails or fishing streams and he can tell you the popular spots, and likely a few places you’ve never heard of before. But it was one particular road that Pierce has been focused on lately as he researched and wrote his newest book, Hazel Creek: The Life and Death of an Iconic Mountain Community. It’s called “the Road to Nowhere.”

“If you go just above Bryson City, there’s a sign that says ‘The Road to Nowhere, a broken promise since 1943,” Pierce explained. The road leads away from Bryson City into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, into a long, dark tunnel. And there it ends.

Beyond the dead-end road are miles of hiking trails, Fontana Lake, and what’s left of the once-bustling Hazel Creek community—a few empty homes, sites for a mill and a mine, and old family cemeteries. The only way to get there is by boat. Everything else is under the lake.

The presiding image of the Hazel Creek community is what is known as “the back of beyond,” a term coined by outdoor writer Horace Kephart, who moved to Hazel Creek in 1904. His best known work, Our Southern Highlanders, portrayed southern Appalachian communities as “frozen in time,” Pierce said, “a really isolated mountain people, locked in the 16th century.”

“One of the things I wanted to show is that that’s not really the case, particularly when you get to the 20th century because you have logging and mining,” Pierce said. “It was an area that was very much shaped by boom and bust cycles.”

Pierce studied old community newsletters published by the Ritter Lumber Company, which operated out of the Hazel Creek area from 1907 to 1927 and brought the community’s population to over 1,000. “It was a lot of gossip and community goings-on,” Pierce said. “It really gave a real picture of how rich the community life was.”

Still, the image of a hard-working Appalachian woman standing in the doorway of her isolated cabin with dirt floors and no running water is a hard one to shake.

“Those are treasured illusions of mountain people,” Pierce said, “even among those of us who try to dispel them.”

And then, in 1944, the Tennessee Valley Authority purchased the land that the Hazel Creek community stood on, and began construction of the Fontana Dam. The residents were forced to leave, and the only major road to the area was flooded underneath the rising lake. After the construction of the dam and creation of the lake, the land was turned over to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A new road was promised in order to connect the descendants of the Hazel Creek residents to their family cemeteries, but was never completed. The residents of Swain County, where the road is located, agreed to a $52 million settlement—but it has yet to be fully paid. Today, it’s called the Road to Nowhere.

“You can look at Hazel Creek as emblematic of a broken promise by the federal government. It still is, until that money is paid in full. It’s a broken promise. It’s been 75 years since that deal was signed. So that’s one way of looking at it,” Pierce said. “But I think the important way of looking at Hazel Creek is to look at it as the fulfilment of a promise.”

Pierce said that promise is one made by the federal government in the National Park Service Organic Act.

“They talk about leaving some very special places in the United States, in the words of the act, ‘unimpaired for future generations.’ …Here’s a place that a railroad ran through that was totally clear cut, where the wildlife was decimated, where the stream was full of human waste and who knows what else, and a place of destruction. The worst of humans is now a place that is approaching old growth status. Wildlife has been restored, the fish have been restored the stream.

“It’s a wonderful place; it’s hard to get to, but it is a special place and it’s been preserved. So, I like to look at it as a fulfilment of a promise.”