Great Smoky Mountains RR
May 13, 2009
|Another American Heritage train ride into history - Wednesday, May 13
Our first ‘long’ trip in the motorhome was in the fall of 2006 when we spent seven weeks doing a loop through 9 southwestern states. At that time we included a stop in Durango, Colorado where we took an historic train ride on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway. It was an all day excursion on a narrow gauge railway built into the sheer cliffs of the Animus River canyon. The steam locomotive was powered by coal, and the water stations along the way were gravity fed as they had been for the entire 125 years. It was a trip never to be forgotten.
Durango and Silverton is owned and operated by American Heritage Railways, which owns two other historic railroads, one in Texas and one in North Carolina. The North Carolina line is the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, and it is this train that operates out of Bryson City. In season the line operates two excursion trains a day, one headed east to Dillsboro, and the other headed west on the Murphy Branch. The eastbound trip doesn't open until June, so we booked a ride on the westbound route and we’ll save the Dillsboro trip for another visit.
The line dates back to the post Civil War era when the south was undergoing many profound changes. One was the extension of the railroads to previously isolated communities. Originally known as the Western North Carolina Railroad, the company started construction on a branch from Asheville to Murphy in 1881. Construction was hard and most of it was done by convicts at the point of a gun. A picture in the trains’ official publication All Aboard shows a line of convicts standing beside the track. A guard with a shotgun is standing in the background, and of course he is the only white man in the picture.
The line opened up western North Carolina to the outside world and by the turn of the century the company was running six passenger trains a day between Asheville and Lake Junaluska, and four trains a day between Asheville and Murphy. The line saw it’s heaviest business in the early 1940’s when the massive Fontana Dam was built to provide power to the Oakridge, Tennessee atomic bomb project. Fontana Dam created a lake that inundated four whole villages, and the viaduct that was constructed to take trains over the lake was the highest bridge east of the Mississippi.
In the 1920’s roads and the increase in automobiles caused passenger traffic on the railroad to decline. The Southern Railway System discontinued passenger service on the Murphy Branch in 1947, ending 64 years of service. By 1985 freight traffic had declined to the point where Norfolk Southern closed down the line. At that time the State of North Carolina purchased the Dillsboro to Murphy tracks to keep them from being destroyed, and by 1988 a consortium was created to form the Great Smoky Mountains Railway.
The run from Dillsboro to Nantahala is one of the most scenic stretches on the Murphy Branch, and soon the new company was running excursions that became very popular. In 1999 American Heritage Railways purchased the GSMR, and today upwards of 200,000 passengers a year enjoy this ride into history. This year the company has more than 600 excursions scheduled.
We arrived in Bryson City shortly after 9:00 and purchased our tickets. That gave us time to enjoy a cinnamon roll and the music of a trio of blue grass musicians for an hour while we waited to board. We chose the economy coach tickets, which put us in a restored pre 1920’s car named Bryson City. This turned out to be a good choice because the car had windows we could open to get air and take pictures. A nice couple from Texas had seats across from us, and we enjoyed their company on the trip.
The route crosses Fontana Lake on the original viaduct, and the bridge members are so rusty it is surprising they are still using it. The conductor came through the car as we were crossing shouting out, “Pay no attention to the rust! Pay no attention to the rust!” This made it funny - but still you wonder . .?
Past the lake the line follows the Nantahala River into the Nantahala Gorge, a place popular with whitewater rafters. This year the water is higher than usual and one woman told us they weren’t running as many rafting trips because the water was too dangerous, but from the number of rafters we saw it looked like it was pretty much business as usual for the rafting companies. It was hard to see how they could get many more rafts on the river, and the rafters waved to us and seemed to be having the time of their lives.
The train takes a one hour stop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center so you can get out and stretch and walk around. You can also get a bite to eat, either on the train’s dining car or at one of the cafes at the stop. We opted to have lunch on the train so we could spend the hour at the stop looking around.
The trip back was pleasant and uneventful, and back at Bryson City we visited their Toy Train Museum before we left. This remarkable little museum had over 7,000 pieces of Lionel electric train toys. There are engines, passenger cars, freight cars and equipment, and there is a large model train exhibit of 25 trains that has at least five trains running all the time. By the time it closed at 4:00 we were ready to drop and we headed back to our campground to crash. We spent a wonderfully quiet evening napping, reading and reflecting on another fascinating day.