The Cherohala Skyway

     Portions of ancient Cherokee trading routes underlie the roadbed of the spectacular and panoramic Cherohala Skyway. Since these lands were first inhabited there has been a desire to bridge the “Over the Hills Mountains,” the “White Smoky,” or “Enemy Mountains.” The Cherokee Indians and early settlers had a desire to establish a route from the town of Tellico Plains, TN to the area near Robbinsville, NC and to the territories lying beyond. This is the location of the Cherohala Skyway, which was finally completed in 1996 after almost thirty-five years of planning, negotiation, and construction.

The dream of the Cherohala Skyway began in 1958. Television was America's new brand of entertainment and the Wild West was a Hollywood staple. Gunsmoke and Wagon Train captured weekly audiences. Wagon Train, dramatizing the settling of the American frontier, was a favorite show of Sam Williams. Williams dreamed of his own wagon train from his home in Tellico Plains to the Unakas of North Carolina. He brought up his idea, jokingly, at the Kiwanis Club meeting in the spring of 1958. There were roads that joined the two locations but at the time were only fit for covered wagons. After some derisive laughter, the idea started to take a serious tone and the new Wagon Train Road movement was born.

Six weeks after the original idea, sixty-seven covered wagons and over three hundred horseback riders gathered at the Tennessee - North Carolina state line to make history. This first Wagon Train traveled to Murphy, North Carolina. The success of the first wagon train took the organizers by surprise. This brought much-needed media attention including television coverage as well as newspapers and magazines.

Promotion of the highway was important, but the experience of an authentic wagon train was the reason it became an annual event.  The route varied from year to year with the train making its way through small towns such as Tellico Plains and Robbinsville, Murphy, Hayesville, Franklin, Andrews, and Bryson City, N.C.

The wagon train attracted the attention the men hoped it would. Politicians loved the idea, which would evolve into the construction of a highway between Tellico Plains and Western North Carolina.  In the late 1950’s, the legislatures of Tennessee and North Carolina endorsed the construction of a road that would open up development of recreation areas in the Southern Appalachian region.

Economic development committees from Monroe County, TN, and Graham County, NC  began actively promoting the wagon train.  It was on the 1960 wagon train that then Robbinsville Mayor Smith Howell made the first announcement that the road connecting the two states would run from Tellico Plains to Robbinsville. Coincidentally, the 1960 wagon train remained the largest ever with 105 wagons and 776 horseback riders.

Charles Hall was one of the men at that Kiwanis Club meeting and remained a driving force behind the push for the road.  In 1962 Hall and several other men went before Congress to ask for money for the project. They had discovered the road could be built entirely on federal land, with it traveling through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests, so financial support was sought from the Federal Lands Highway Fund. Since Federal monies could only be spent on Federal land the Wagon Train Commission turned its attention away from Murphy, NC as being the destination of the road to other possible routes.  The focus of destination was shifted to Robbinsville since most of the road could be built on Forest Service land. The US Forest Service was receptive and provided plans and a suggested route.

Senators Estes Kefauver (TN), Albert Gore, Sr. (TN), Sam Ervin (NC), and Everett Jordan (NC) enthusiastically supported the proposal to improve the east-west travel route to stimulate the area’s economy.  In October of 1962, under the Federal Highway Act, the highway that would eventually become the Cherohala Skyway was authorized.  Senator Kefauver sent a telegram to Charles Hall, Mayor of Tellico Plains, informing him that Federal funds had been approved with a projected cost of six million dollars. In the end, the Cherohala Skyway would cost over one hundred million dollars.

Design and surveys got underway in the spring of 1963. First monies were made available July 1, 1963 and two years later, the Federal Highway Administration awarded the first construction contract to start work on the North Carolina side of the highway.

Even after the first appropriation the Wagon Train kept going to keep the money coming in. By 1967, the 10th anniversary of the Wagon Train, the road was finally under construction. By 1969, 7.2 miles of the road had been completed on the Tennessee side, and about nine miles in North Carolina. But then the project hit some major snags.

Construction of the Skyway had been controversial from the very beginning. The original route in North Carolina was planned to skirt the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and a strong public lobby opposed this part of the roadway. Twenty-one separate environmental groups kept the project at a halt in North Carolina from 1968 to 1983.  Planning for the alternative “Santeetlah Crest Route” was begun in 1977 and opposition was finally overcome by agreeing to this new route in North Carolina from Santeetlah Gap to Beech Gap.  This would allow the Skyway not to split Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.  Design approval for the Santeetlah route was received in June 1982 and construction on the North Carolina side could begin again.  The few miles of road that had been completed became a road to nowhere, but remains popular for its vistas, and is sometimes used by uphill car race enthusiasts.

In 1977 Tennessee had a setback. An acid leak was discovered from a rock formation of fill material. Natural formations of Anakeesta rock exposed by road excavation and used as fill material were leaching acid downstream into the watershed. Experts realized that this naturally occurring acid leaching phenomena would cause considerable damage to trout fishing and water quality. A contract for implementing remedial measures to counteract the acid problem was awarded in July 1978. Further studies were taken to avoid the same problem on the remaining uncompleted sections of the road.

The long awaited Cherohala Skyway was finally completed as a 45-mile stretch starting from Tellico Plains, TN and ending in Robbinsville, NC.  On Oct. 12, 1996, after 100 million dollars and thirty-four years, the Cherohala Skyway was officially dedicated as a National Scenic Byway. From 38 years of conception in Tellico Plains to completion it was a much-anticipated day for the many people that worked so diligently on the project.

It was a well-deserved recognition because it is truly a wonder and a marvel to drive up to over 5,000-foot elevations and view the magnificent scenery that rivals any drive in the entire United States of America. The Cherohala Skyway got its name from the two National Forests it runs through, CHERO coming form Cherokee National Forest and HALA coming from Nantahala National Forest.



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