by John B. Veach

Prior to 1900 most of the logs that were produced in Graham County were either floated down the streams and rivers or hauled in carts by teams of oxen. Lumber that was produced on small circle mills was hauled on wagons either to the Southern Railroad on the Little Tennessee or over the mountain to Marble.

The first railroad, a narrow-gauge, was built by the Kanawah Hardwood Lumber Company from Andrews to Little Snowbird about 1906 but did not start operating until 1907 because of a serious damaging flood. They built a small band mill on the flats just below the present Little Snowbird Bridge. The railroad ran for a number of miles up Little Snowbird and the present road above the Forrest Denton place is on the old railroad grade. The railroad was in operation for only a few years.

Kanawah Hardwood's No. 1 Climax

Kanawah Hardwood's No. 2 Climax

Beginning about 1916 the Kitchen Lumber Company and then the Babcock Lumber Company, in the 1920's, operated a standard gauge logging railroad from the Southern Railroad at Calderwood, Tennessee, into the Slickrock Creek drainage area as well as into Bear Creek and Deep Creek. There are still many evidences of this railroad that had to be abandoned about 1929 when the construction of the Calderwood Dam was started.

The Graham County Railroad Company

This company was incorporated by a special act of the General Assembly of North Carolina on the 27th day of February, 1905. The incorporators included J. L. Rumbarger and his associates, Alfred S. Barnard, G. B. Walker, T. A. Morphew, A. D. Raby, W. F. Mauney, and R. B. Slaughter. The proposed route of the railroad was from Topton along the side of the mountain through the gap and down Tallulah Creek to Robbinsville. No work was started on the route and at a meeting on October 11, 1910 under the leadership of Frank R. Whiting and W. S. Whiting, a capital stock of $150,000 was authorized and a campaign was started to sell the stock.

On June 5, 1911 Mr. F. S. Whiting and his associates in the Whiting Manufacturing Company purchased stock and proposed an alternate route to the one from Topton through the gap due to the cost of building the road to the gap. He proposed a route from Fontana down the Little Tennessee River on its South Bank, up Meadow Branch across the gap to the Cheoah River and then up the river to Robbinsville. The directors then ordered Mr. Whiting to make a cost study of this proposed new route. The directors continued to meet but were apparently never able to raise a sufficient amount of money to start construction of a railroad on either route during the succeeding years.

1925 Shay with Ed Collins as Engineer

In 1923 and 1924 substantial acreages of timberlands were purchased by the Champion Paper and Fiber Company, Bemis Lumber Company, and Gennett Lumber Company, comprising the watersheds of Little Snowbird, Big Snowbird, West Buffalo, and Santeetlah. Mr. H. C. Bemis purchased the outstanding stock of the Graham County Railroad Company, renewed the charter, and started construction of the railroad over the original route from Topton to Robbinsville. The arrival of the first locomotive and cars in Robbinsville in late 1925 was cause for a big celebration by the citizens of the county. T. M. Jenkins was one of those on hand to help celebrate.

The company continued to haul freight until late 1970 when service was discontinued until a larger tonnage of freight could be developed and assured. The original steam Shay locomotive was still in operation and the Graham County Railroad became famous all over the United States as the last steam freight line in the country. Ed Collins was the locomotive engineer and C. C. Bateman the conductor for most of the time the road was in operation. The distance of the road from the junction with the Southern near Topton to Robbinsville is 12 1/2 miles with a total trackage of just over 15 miles.

In 1966 Bear Creek Junction was organized and a scenic steam train with one of the famous old Shay locomotives moved over the tracks of the railroad that they leased from the railroad between Bear Creek and the lookout at the gap at Nantahala Gorge.

Diesel and Shay locomotives together at the Junction

The Buffalo-Snowbird Railroad Company

This railroad was owned and operated by the Bemis Lumber Company and Champion Paper and Fiber. It was built for the purpose of transporting logs, pulpwood, and hemlock bark from the Big Snowbird watershed and West Buffalo watershed to the Bemis sawmill, where it joined the Graham County Railroad approximately where Fontana Mills (Stanley Furniture) is located today. Pulpwood and Hemlock logs destined for the pulp mill at Canton were then transferred to the Graham County Railroad.

Construction of this railroad started in 1926 up Atoah Creek and then across the gap and down to Big Snowbird Creek. This mainline standard gauge track continued up the creek to the mouth of Owl Camp Branch where a big log yard was developed. The track from this point on was narrow-gauge and logs had to be dumped and reloaded on standard gauge log cars here.

About 1940 a bridge was built across Big Snowbird at the mouth of Dick's Branch and a standard gauge railroad constructed up Dick's Branch to the gap and then down to West Buffalo at the mouth of Squally Creek. A big logging operation was carried on here all during the war but log trucks finally won out and in 1948 the Buffalo-Snowbird Railroad became a thing of the past, the rails pulled up and the road abandoned. It is estimated that during its time Buffalo-Snowbird built and operated over 40 miles of standard and narrow-gauge railroad.