Misty clouds, rising from the dark green faces of the Great Smoky Mountains during the morning, appeared like smoke tendrils. The twelve-car train, wearing the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad's tuscan red and Rio Grande gold livery and pulled by an EMD GP-9 diesel locomotive, vibrated and clanged its bell atop the gravel-imbedded rails next to the gray, wooden Bryson City depot, as it prepared for its imminent, 44-mile, round-trip departure to Nantahala Gorge. Passengers, many of whom had dislodged from buses, inundated the tiny portico waiting area, lulled into a North Carolina mood by a guitar-strumming trio. I would make the journey in the MacNeill Club Car, number 536, today, attached to generator car 6118 and trailed by Silver Meteor dining car 8015. That journey, inextricably tired to these western North Carolina mountains, could trace its origins to the mid-1800s.
Although the ruggedly beautiful area had been rich in natural resources, such as timber, fertile soil, and minerals, the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains, peeking at 6,000 feet, had rendered it isolated and inaccessible, with a rough, wagon-plied route its only connection with the rest of the state. After considerable efforts to persuade the state legislature of North Carolina to rectify this deficiency, it had agreed to subsidize the construction of track between Salisbury and Asheville in 1855, to be used by the Western North Carolina Railroad.
A smooth development period, spanning six years, had been thwarted in 1861 by the Civil War, at which time some 70 miles of rail had yet to be laid, but momentum had ultimately been regained 16 years later, when convict labor had been employed for the first time. Five hundred tracklayers had been subdivided into 150-men camps, each of which had been led by a captain, a foreman, and several guards.
An erroneous route survey, revealing that existing topography had been unsuitable for track, had required another decade to properly determine, and had been exacerbated by crude, hand tool usage and primitive rock removal methods, the rocks themselves expanded by fire-created heat and cracked after drenchings with cold water.
The rails, following Indian trails and cow paths, entailed an 891.5-foot elevation gain with an average two-percent grade, and passed through five tunnels, and the precarious route had hardly been forged with safety. Indeed, on March 11, 1879, the Swannanoa Tunnel, which had been being bored from both ends, had collapsed and instantly crushed 21 workers.
Murphy, already the eastern terminus of the Marietta and North Georgia Railroad, served the same purpose in 1891 when the tracks for the Western North Carolina's Murphy Branch had been laid, albeit six years later than planned, and traffic interchange between the two had been facilitated when the former had changed its gauge from narrow to standard. The 111 miles from Asheville had, for the first time, been connected by rail.
Despite the delays incurred by its construction, its crude method, topographical obstacles, rough roadbed, and lack of ballast had often caused derailments, a condition partially alleviated with the addition of culverts and abutments.
Rapidly becoming the lifeline to the communities lining it, it carried supplies, agricultural products, and timber, and connected with other, existing shortline railroads, such as the Alarka Valley, the Appalachian, the Carolina and Tennessee Southern, the B&B, the Smoky Mountain, the Ritter Lumber Company, the Sunburst, and the Tuckasegee Southeastern, but it had always been plagued by steep grades, sharp curves, low-capacity locomotives, and inferior maintenance.
Three years after its completion, the Southern Railway took control of it, and, in 1907, it had been reorganized as the "Murphy Division," with Bryson City serving as its headquarters. Its local businesses and industries, manufacturing pulpwood and pallets and selling propane, had heavily relied on rail transport to support their activities, routinely requiring feed, cross ties, lumber, and sand.
Improved road access, however, gradually replaced the need for the rails. In 1937, for instance, two daily trains had departed Murphy-a freight service at 0600 and a passenger run at 0800-but by 1944, only a single passenger train had plied the line, leaving Murphy at 0715 for Asheville and returning at 1415. Aside from offering increased western North Carolina access, road development had been necessitated by the opening of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Diminishing timber resources, coupled with the completion of the nearby Fontana Dam, had finally resulted in the permanent discontinuation of passenger services on July 16, 1948. Thirty-two years later, in 1980, 2,239 freight car loads had plied the rails, yet by 1987, the number had dwindled to 817. During the last three years, by which time the railroad had been acquired by Norfolk Southern, regularly scheduled service, of no more than five cars, had only been maintained between Waynesville and Andrews, with stops in Murphy only sporadically made.
Maintenance costs, already high because of the 34 bridges connecting Dillsboro with Murphy and the excessive track curvature, had escalated without a commensurate increase in revenue, and in 1984, the Champion Paper Mill, long dependent on the line for its business, had converted its traditional pulpwood product to woodchips, packaged in a cube whose size had precluded its rail transport through the Dillsboro and Rhodo tunnels. Costs to either lower their roadbeds or increase their ceiling heights had been prohibitive, particularly for use by only a single company. As a result, the papermill had been forced to truck its products to Canton and Norfolk Southern, unable to stem its losses, had been forced to abandon the 67 miles of track between Dillsboro and Murphy in 1988.