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Great Smoky Railway Trip

May 20th, 1995 by Gayle Swanson


A good while back I received some information in the mail from the local Piedmont Carolinas chapter of the NHRS - National Historic Railway Society - on trips scheduled for the next 6 months. Two were on the Great Smoky Railway up in the mountains of western North Carolina, where I'd not yet been. The first trip was a steam locomotive (Baldwin #1702) ride through the Nantahala Gorge, on May 20th, a Saturday. I had my ticket order in the same day, with a check, my film bought and cameras ready weeks before, well, days actually since what film I'd bought earlier had been used on the Zoo a couple of weeks earlier.

The plan was to leave Charlotte at about 5:00am. I left home a good 45 minutes early - the ride to the United Methodist Church uptown took all of 15 minutes. When we got there, quite a few people were already there, including one person pacing at each entrance to the parking lot. This, of course, brings the bus faster as everyone knows.

The bus was a roomy tour type of vehicle, comfortable, and with huge windows, and a video screen up front and another one about halfway down the aisle. We all got ourselves settled, some to continue their sleep, others to read or chat, and still others to gaze outside into the dark countryside. As we approached the turn off toward the mountains - near Shelby, the sky lightened and soon after the sun rose behind us into a sky devoid of even a single cloud. Hendersonville was the first stop, about 20 miles south of Asheville. The McDonalds that had been planned on was not open yet. The Bojangles next door was. After waiting for a long time we were back off with our breakfasts and coffee in hand. The route we took after that is beyond me. I fell asleep, and woke shortly before Brevard, to a foggy nowhere. The bus lumbered on, towards Bryson City, where we were to board the train. Bryson City is only about 7 miles south east of Cherokee, and at the edge of the Great Smoky National Park which straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.

Everyone got off the bus, tickets were picked up and distributed and we had about a half hour to wait for the boarding. The engine, a steam locomotive, was hitched to about 10 cars, composed of about 6 open-sided cars, several lounge cars and two club cars, with a caboose at the tail end. The closed cars that we'd reserved were air-conditioned and very comfortable, and we were told we'd be getting a snack, cookies & a drink.

At exactly 10 o'clock, the train pulled out with a mighty hooting of its whistle, starting slowly. It never went beyond what is called "yard" speed, about 20 mph. Still, it was a good speed since it made it easy to take photos along the side of the train as we passed small valleys, small farms and a beaver pond on a slow uphill grade heading for Fontana Lake first. The vegetation we chugged through was a mixed conifer and deciduous forest with shortleaf pine, maples, hickory, spruce, dogwoods, and a lot of wild berry bushes that were flowering profusely. Now and then we'd pass a lone TV antenna. No house, just an antenna. Well, about a hundred feet below, sheltered by trees, were the houses the antennas belonged to. The houses were barely visible. Probably by choice of whoever lived there.

The Tuckaseegee (Cherokee word for turtle) River ran alongside the track, both heading toward Fontana Lake. As we approached, we could see at the shores of the lake where houseboats were floating, attached by cables to large trees or boulders. The boats are used as fishing camps (as opposed to fishcamps, which in the Carolinas are restaurants serving up fish) during the summer. Many are rented to families to vacation or weekend on. The whistle blew and the announcement was made to watch . the trestle was approaching. I headed for the open-sided car next to ours. The 791-foot long trestle crosses Fontana Lake on piers that are 180 feet tall.  Shortly after, we passed opposite the point where the Little Tennessee River empties into the lake.

The lake narrowed, as did the gorge we entered, the Nantahala Gorge, which was created by the Nanatahala River, one of North Carolina's premier spots for white water rafting and canoeing. Large rubber rafts filled with people slowly wending their way along, the people waving to the passengers who called down to them. As we approached the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the rapids became stronger, and the rafts smaller, and the rafters obviously more skilled. We passed the Center, which has cabins and camping on the grounds, and continued along, still alongside the river, to a point where the track divided. This was the turning point where we would return to the Outdoor Center. Well, no, not really turning. The locomotive backed up, alongside the train to the other end, hitched up again, and running backwards now, pulled us back to the Outdoor Center where we would stop for lunch at Relias' Restaurant which was ready and waiting for those who'd bought tickets in Bryson City.

We stopped alongside the river, flowing at a fairly good pace, and walked up the hill to eat. The weather was still holding. The temperature was in the 80s by now, skies clear except a few wispy warm-weather clouds. The meal choice was chicken or ham. I picked ham. a good choice, the one person who wanted the chicken wasn't happy - but then, he'd hoped for a hamburger, which wasn't surprising. He was a young man of 8 years old and not happy. The dessert was a delicious blackberry cobbler but without ice cream.

We walked back down to the river, taking photos as we went - of the hills around, and of the rafters. Wasn't long before everyone had boarded the train again for the return trip to Bryson City. On the way back, one group of rafters was so busy waving that they were stopped, abruptly, by a surprise meeting with a large boulder. Nobody fell out, but the raft was grounded, so some got out into the icy water. and moved the raft over, waved again and continued. this time watching their "path" a bit more carefully.

Once we left the gorge, everyone settled down, and sat around talking about various earlier train trips that many had taken, sharing exciting moments, trip notes. and talking about the "last trip of the 611". the last passenger trip up the Saluda grade from Spartanburg to Asheville. We'd be watching the video of that trip on our bus ride back.

The train rolled into Bryson City around 3pm, and we were given an hour to explore a bit of the town. I found a book and music store. Much of the music (tapes & CD's) was of mountain music. One tape came home with me, it's playing right now. Mountain instruments - bowed psalteries, hammered and plucked dulcimers, guitars, and banjos. Toe-tappin' music is what it is.

We returned to the bus, got on, settled down and watched a shorter video on other local rides, while discussing the stopping place for dinner. Quincy's in Waynesville. Not bad, not bad at all. As usual, at a buffet, my eyes outsized my stomach. I rolled out, the bus rolled on.

Now the Saluda tape was started. the last passenger ride up the steepest grade west of the Mississippi, and the last ride behind steam locomotive #611, which was then headed up to Roanoke Railway Museum where it would sit in splendor and be reminisced about by those who'd ridden behind. A trip later in the year, in October, to West Virginia would be making a stop.

There are a couple of "sidebars" to this, one describing other trips on the Great Smokies Railway, the other telling the history of the railway itself.


Copyright 1998 - Gayle Swanson, RailroadInfo.Com

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