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Swain Commissioners discuss reviving decades old unkept promise

By Kristin Fox

Just shy of 50 years ago, an agreement was reached between the North Shore Cemetery Association and the National Park Service to gain annual access to cemeteries located along the North Shore of Fontana Lake. The North Shore refers to the area once home to many large towns and settlements in the Fontana Basin which were later taken for the creation of the Fontana Dam and Lake in the 1940’s. 

This also marks the beginning of what came to be known as the “Road to Nowhere” dispute as roads were flooded to make the dam and the lake with the promise that a road would be built back so families could visit the cemeteries of their loved ones. However, that never happened hence it became known as the “Road to Nowhere.” 

Today, a tourist destination located in Smoky Mountains National Park, just outside of Bryson City, the “Road to Nowhere” continues from Bryson City for about 8 miles and then abruptly ends at a tunnel.

In response to the unkept promise, the North Shore Cemetery Association was created in 1977. The non-profit organization was created to preserve the cemeteries and history of the North Shore by two sisters, Helen Vance and Mildred Johnson. The association’s initial work was to gain access to the North Shore cemeteries as promised in the agreements made in 1943 between federal, state and county agencies. 

The group’s other focus was and continues to be the planning of annual Decoration Days in keeping with the tradition of the land since before 1943 and the removal of the families of the North Shore area. 

Decoration and Decoration Day are defined in the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English as “an occasion on which a family or church congregation gathers on a Sunday to place flowers on the graves of loved ones and holds a memorial service for them. Traditionally, this involves singing and dinner on the ground as well as a religious service.”

Decoration Day has locally always been a special tradition observed each year during the spring and summer months so that ancestors and loved ones are not forgotten. The holiday is also an opportunity for annual cleaning of the cemeteries and decorating the graves with flowers and other adornments. It is a time to show respect to the people and families who once called the area home, as well as a time to preserve the history of the land for future generations.

Transportation to most of the cemeteries begins at the Deep Creek National Park Access Area in Bryson City. Participants travel by boat from the access area across Fontana Lake and then are taken to the cemeteries in Park vehicles along administrative roads. There are a few cemeteries at the eastern and western ends of the North Shore that can be reached by private vehicle or on foot. From one to three cemeteries are visited on each Decoration Day.

Fast forward to today, and Decoration Days were a topic of discussion at the July meeting of the Swain County Board of Commissioners. Commissioners, David Loftis and Kenneth Parton, spoke openly about their concern about the condition of the North Shore cemeteries, the future of dedications and the assessment of the cemeteries for these special days, and their disappointment with the Park in not delivering what was promised to the people of Swain County and the surrounding areas.  

When the North Shore Cemetery Association negotiated with the National Park Service for annual access to the cemeteries, annual maintenance of the 27 cemeteries in the North Shore area was also promised in the agreement.

“I would like for all the commissioners to go to the next decoration that they have on the North Shore and see exactly what happens with that,” said Loftis. “I went recently, the cemeteries are in pitiful shape, the tombstones are nasty. You can tell that the Park just goes a couple of days before the decorations, weed eats and blows it off. You can’t even get to some of the cemeteries, because it is overgrown, and the bridge is too small to drive vehicles across.” 

“The association had brought grass seed, pine mulch, and stuff to redo the cemeteries, and they had to take it over the same day as the Decoration or they couldn’t take it,” he added.

“The park is supposed to maintain those cemeteries,” said Parton. “We need to check into that part of the agreement because that is definitely in writing. They are supposed to maintain the cemeteries not just for Decoration, not just a week before, not just a day before. And they should also work with us to get materials in.” 

“Some of the cemeteries at Cherokee are in bad shape,” he added. “We wanted them to fence in those that have been affected by the elk. The elk have broken headstones and stomped holes in the ground which will only get worse as they collect water. The took responsibility of the grounds, they need to maintain the grounds.”

“We went to that meeting and a lot of things were said, that they would do this and would do that,” said Parton. “We’ve got to stay on top of it, because the more the people die out and the less people go to Decorations, they will do away with them. Actually, during a conversation with (Great Smoky Mountains National Park) Superintendent Cassius Cash, I wanted to get something in writing about Decorations, but they are definitely not willing to do that. Precedence has been set since 1970 on letting us in; they are supposed to get us in and out to the cemeteries.”

“We also found out at the North Shore Association meeting with the Park back in March that they will let you volunteer and help and some things you’ve to have too much training,” he added. “They told us we have to have a 40 hour chainsaw training to cut brush with a chainsaw. So, when they do stuff like that then the volunteers rely more on the Park employees to do stuff. They have volunteer days, and they should work with us on letting us actually volunteer and work; I understand liability, but they could create a waiver so we could actually work.”

“Let’s get together and show them some support, there aren’t many of them left,” said Parton. “I’d like to push them (the Park) to at least take care of the cemeteries and remind people they have the right to go visit the cemeteries.” 

The Fontana Dam is the tallest dam in the eastern United States. The dam was built by the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned electric company, to supply electricity to Alcoa, the aluminum manufacturing company located just west of the Smokies in eastern Tennessee. The justification for the Fontana Dam in part was that it was regarded as critical to the war effort as aluminum was a key metal needed during World War II.

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