Sixty-five miles west of Asheville, Highway 288 extends for 6 miles into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — and then abruptly peters out inside the mouth of a tunnel. There’s something eerie about the sight, and hikers love exploring this Appalachian anomaly. But though it seems like something from a horror movie, the only truly haunting thing about the road’s sudden ending is the specter of a broken promise whose bitter aftertaste still lingers more than 70 years later.
The whole truth
Hazel Creek: The Life and Death of an Iconic Mountain Community, by UNC Asheville history professor Daniel Pierce, explores the complex history of the road and the people it was meant to serve. Released in April, the book details the multifaceted and often overlooked story of the ill-fated town of Proctor and its inhabitants. And while some may see it as a spooky ghost town or obscure relic of a remote past, Pierce’s book demonstrates that Proctor’s legacy is still relevant today.
The story of the Hazel Creek community is thick with tension: between traditional and modernizing ways of life; between agriculture and industry; between local and national interests. There’s also authorial tension between the views expressed in Our Southern Highlanders, Horace Kephart’s classic 1913 account of the people and the area, and Pierce’s book. Kephart, writes Pierce, “unfortunately and inaccurately” portrayed the locals “as exemplars of the ‘strange and peculiar’ people who inhabited the isolated mountain coves and hollows of southern Appalachia.”
The first white settlers arrived in Hazel Creek around 1830. By 1910, the thriving town of Proctor had a school, a church, two post offices and a movie theater. As the logging and mining industries moved in and out of the area, Hazel Creek survived numerous booms and busts that left their mark on both the local environment and the economy.
And by the 1930s, when the national park was being assembled, the National Park Service had “bought into those stereotypes that Horace Kephart and others helped to perpetuate,” writes Pierce. Even today, he told Xpress, many local people believe prejudice played a role in why the federal government reneged on its promise to build a new road that would give the residents who were booted out access to the cemeteries where their ancestors were buried.
But what sounded the death knell for Proctor, the very heart of the Hazel Creek community, was the Tennessee Valley Authority’s construction of Fontana Dam in the early 1940s. Providing hydroelectric power for Alcoa’s aluminum plants in Tennessee and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s top-secret atomic bomb project was seen as crucial to the war effort, but the newly created reservoir flooded residents’ former homes and the road that led to them. To make way for the park and the dam, notes Pierce, “Communities sacrificed a lot in places like Hazel Creek. And it wasn’t their choice.”
The last half of Pierce’s book explores the project’s continuing implications for those residents. For a mix of environmental, financial and political reasons, construction of the promised road to the cemeteries (replacing one lost to the flooding) had been halted for good by the 1970s, and the 6 miles that were built stood as a physical reminder of the painful, involuntary displacement.
From the 1950s to the ’80s, says the author, who grew up in West Asheville, the Park Service’s attitude toward the Hazel Creek residents was: “We’re the experts … and you need to just let us do our job.” He acknowledges, however, that the agency’s approach has changed dramatically since then.
Meanwhile, in 2010, the long-running dispute appeared to have been settled when Swain County agreed to accept a $52 million payment from the federal government in lieu of the promised road. But in the latest installment of what Pierce sees as a continuing pattern of bad faith, most of that money has never been paid.
And as he puts it, “There’s a justice issue there.”