the road to nowhere

Lakeside Drive.  It was a typical enough road, climbing out of downtown as it took us past a school and houses and farms.  Typical enough, at least, until we rounded a corner and saw the sign that let us know we were on the Road to Nowhere.

Fontana Lake is beautiful.  Mountains drop straight down to its’ tourquoise-green waters while fish jump and bald eagles fly overhead.  It twists and turns through 30 miles and is so remote that you rarely see another boat.  But, it’s what’s underneath the lake that is the most interesting.


In the 1940’s, WWII had finally reached America and an increase in aluminum was needed for wartime efforts.  The rugged and remote valley of the Little Tennessee River was chosen to create a dam to produce electricity for the ALCOA aluminum plant in Tennessee as well as for Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manhattan Project.  

The valley was filled with small towns.  People who had been there for generations, working in mines or for lumber companies.  People who loved the beauty and isolation of the area.  Old Highway 288 connected these communities to each other and to their cemeteries.  But, because of the war, things moved fast and, before they knew it, more than 1300 families were forced to leave the area.  The TVA built the dam, the tallest in the east, in a little over two years and Fontana Lake was formed, submerging the towns and Highway 288 far below.

The towns were gone but the Federal government promised to replace Highway 288 with a new road.  The road was to hug the north shore of Fontana Lake from Bryson City to Fontana, providing a way for the former residents to have access to the generations that remained behind in the old family cemeteries.

Construction began on Lakeview Drive in Bryson City.  The road entered the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and everything was going well until an environmental issue halted construction.  The issue was eventually resolved, but construction of the road never resumed.


The road now follows the lake about six miles into the park and abruptly ends at a tunnel.  It truly is a “Road to Nowhere”.   You can now park at the tunnel and hike through it.  Once through the tunnel, the asphalt ends and half finished guard rails give way to hiking trails that continue around the lake.  



 And the cemeteries still remain, more quiet and isolated than ever.  The only way to access them is by hiking in or taking a ferry that the Park Service offers during the summer so former residents can visit their ancestors.  One of the only reminders that this was once a valley filled with small towns bustling with activity.
Below is a map of the area.  You can reach the tunnel by taking Lakeview Dr. East (aka the Road to Nowhere) out of Bryson City.  The road ends at a parking area near the tunnel.

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Cairo, IL- the most desolate city in the US

We’d been one step ahead of the storm for a while.  Dark clouds piled high behind us, lighting streaking between them, as we sped on heading home.  It was late afternoon when I slowed the car as the road cut through a small city.   Or rather, what once was a city.  The wind picked up and large raindrops fell, splashing onto the windshield, adding to the moodiness as we drove through the town.  

Huge letters on a bridge announced to us that we had entered a city named Cairo.


I’ve always been fascinated with locations on the edge of something.  Places that just don’t seem to fit in anywhere or rather, maybe, are the beginning or end of the line.  Cairo (pronounced “Care-O” by locals) Illinois feels this way to me.  Cairo is just barely in Illinois.  It’s located on a small spit of land clinging to the bottom of Illinois and is bordered by Missiouri on one side and Kentucky on the other.  It’s also just barely out of the water with the lowest elevation in Illinois and is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.  All of this makes Cario feel cut off from the world.  Not really belonging anywhere.

We drove into the center of town to its Main Street, Commercial Ave.  Something was not right.  The street was empty; abandoned.  Buildings here were in various stages of decay, crumbling in on themselves as weeds consumed them from the outside.  Many buildings were just gone, nothing more than an empty lot.  


The wind picked up, sending a whirlwind of leaves and litter across the street. A pack of dogs ran by, chasing the blowing garbage into an empty lot. But other than those dogs, there was no one around.  All was eerily quiet.  How could a town that was once obviously thriving become a virtual ghost town?  

Cairo was once a bustling town.  It’s location made it an important city in the Civil War where it was used as a supply base and training ground for the Union Army.  After the war it became an important steamboat port, then a hub for railroad shipping.  Mark Twain, in his book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even portrayed Cairo as the town Huck and Jim were headed to where Jim would be safe.  Cairo was soon an important , wealthy city of 15,000.


Then the steamboats stopped running.  Bridges were built to reroute railroads, and later autos, away from Cairo.  And there was always the water.  Despite levees and flood walls built to protect the city against seasonal flooding, the water kept overtaking the city.  Numerous floods have devastated the city throughout the years.  Jobs, then people left.


Racial tensions have been a major problem as well.  There were a number of lynchings in the late 1800s-early 1900s.  In the mid-1960s, the alleged police murder of a young black soldier led to protests and riots, and the National Guard was even called in.  In response to perceived threats from the black community, the white community formed a civilians’ militia called the White Hats (wow, does that name sound like something else?!!!).  Of course, that just made everything worse and more people left Cairo.  You can read more about Cairo’s history here.


The final blow was the creation of Interstate 57 across the Mississippi in the late 1970s. There was now no reason to enter Cairo. Hotels closed, restaurants followed, and soon even the hospital shut down.  Poverty skyrocketed and the population continued to dwindle. Cairo has, I think, the highest population drop of any city in the United States.


  I’ve read that that there are efforts to revitalize Cairo.  There’s so much history there, but I don’t know.  The jobs are gone.  The population has fallen to less than 2,400.  Poverty and a poor education system plague the town.  How do you recover?  Looking at pictures online you see that more and more buildings disappear each year.  The only tourists seem to be people like us, driving through, gawking at the devastation.  Snapping those pictures.  


But, I think the pictures show a certain beauty.  The architecture of many of the buildings is amazing.  Details you just don’t see today.  And there’s beauty in the abandoned and overgrown.  I think that you can feel more in an abandoned building.   These buildings literally expose, layer upon layer, their history.  The good, the bad, the changing world; all there revealed in the decay.  You just get a feel of how much has gone on in the building when you see it crumbling and slowly being overtaken by nature.


Before we left Cairo we drove down to Fort Defiance Park (a military fortification during the Civil War).  We walked up an overlook at stared out at the rivers.  The exact place where the Ohio and Mississippi met and became one was very obvious.  The waters slammed into one another and continued the flow south now as one; the mighty Mississippi.  Always moving forward, fast, stopping for nothing.

A bolt of lightning suddenly hit near us lighting up the murky evening bright as day.  

It was time to go.  Time to move on.

adventure in san antonio: there’s more than the alamo

This time last week I was in San Antonio.  I hear it’s a great vacation spot.  But I wasn’t there on vacation, I was there for 8 days of meetings with my company.  Eight long days of meetings and tests and certifications!  On Saturday, though, we were free to do what we wanted.  So my friend Amy came down from Austin and we were off to explore the city! Continue reading “adventure in san antonio: there’s more than the alamo”

slow fade

On a warm spring day this past year we went on a short hike to explore another forgotten building.  We hiked up an old rutted road that was slowly being reclaimed by the forest.   The road climbed and twisted and soon we found ourselves staring up at a whitewashed tree with a huge white owl on a branch!  Had we wandered into a magical wonderland?  No, we had found Outlook Lodge! Continue reading “slow fade”

abandoned places: frontier town

 

 

 

We had driven by the park many many times; flying by the exit on our way up north.  The sign, beckoning visitors to stop, faded more and more as the years passed.  Finally, one warm May day we decide to stop and look around.  We turned in to the large parking lot, now covered with potholes and weeds, and drove down a rutted road; heading back in time. Continue reading “abandoned places: frontier town”

abandoned

The road we were on twisted and turned passing a few small houses, lakes, and wetlands.  It would soon come to a dead end, but our destination was before that.  We had never been on this road even though it wasn’t too far from home.  Off of this road was a lake; the location of a now deserted camp.  We wanted to see what still remained. Continue reading “abandoned”