Get a taste of history on Smoky Mountain rail line
BRYSON CITY, N.C. — Hunter Pate and the Dr. Sheldon Cooper share an obsession. The 9-year-old from Chicago and the famed, fictional physicist from the popular television series "The Big Bang Theory" are captivated by trains.
It's not a recent infatuation, said Hunter's mother, Melinda Pate. He has been able to fire off statistics about famous and not-so-famous train cars in the same fashion as the character in the sitcom, played by actor Jim Parsons.
"He's been fascinated with trains since he was little," said his mother while they rode in a first-class dining car of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in May. It was the family's second trip on the railroad, and the second year in a row that Hunter's birthday wish was to spend the day in the refurbished car as it traveled through the mountains at the eastern entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Western North Carolina was an isolated region in the 1840s, and the Great Smokies blocked travel to the north and west. To the south, the Blue Ridge Mountains cut off travel, as did the Appalachian Highlands to the east. But it wasn't until 1845 when a famine hit the region that residents realized how isolated they really were, and put pressure on the state Legislature to establish a railroad. In 1855, the Western North Carolina Railroad was chartered for a line that would connect Salisbury with Asheville.
The Civil War slowed construction, but in 1869, a portion of the Murphy Branch line was finished from Asheville to Old Fort and completed by 1879, after difficult construction through mountainous terrain that required steep grades.
Through decades of changing times and turbulent conditions, the railroad struggled to exist and the need for railroads slowed. The North Carolina Department of Transportation purchased it in 1988 for $650,000 and after 100 years, the state again owned a railroad.
A new company was formed called the Great Smoky Mountains Railway Inc. and started operations at the eastern threshold to the park with two diesel engines.
Today, the railroad, which is only 15 minutes away from the Cherokee Indian Reservation, operates with a half-dozen engines and passenger equipment consisting of restored coaches, crown coaches, club cars, dining cars, open cars and cabooses. The train travels 53 miles of track, two tunnels and 25 bridges over river gorges, across valleys and through mountains.
Guests are offered daily and seasonal excursions, including the Nantahala Gorge Excursion and the Tuckasegee River Excursion, as well special trips for Halloween and New Year's Eve. More than 70,000 people rode the train during the Christmas-themed Polar Express in 2014. Moonshine and wine excursions are quite popular, too.
Guests can travel in various classes, some with dining, others in open-air cars. First-class seating comes with souvenir tumblers and unlimited soft drinks in all cars and an embroidered GSMR tote bag. On classes that don't serve meals, a boxed lunch is available.
On the 4½-hour Nantahala Gorge Excursion, we traveled 44 miles through the countryside and along the Nantahala River in the Harper, formerly called the Dixie Flyer, built in 1949 for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Along the route, conductor Bruce Edwards of Ela, N.C., kept guests entertained and informed with a running account of the industries that developed alongside the railroad, and the folklore and people of each region we passed through.
The railway line travels over the historical Trellis Bridge to Fontana Lake and into the beautiful Nantahala Gorge, where the Outdoor Center is famed for zip-lining and whitewater rafting activities, also offered with railroad excursions.
The Harper, used as a bar lounge when the New York Central Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad merged, was purchased by the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in 1994 and refurbished into a first-class family dining car with a full-service bar.
Guests on the warm spring day in early May could order pot roast, fire-braised chicken salad, beer-battered cod, veggie lover's delight and, of course, a dish the South is famous for, pulled pork barbecue. Desserts included a decadent death by chocolate cake, cheesecake and other delicious items.
In a one-hour layover at Nantahala Outdoor Center, visitors can grab a bite at the River's End Restaurant or Big Wesser BBQ & Brew. The NOC Outfitter's Store carries sporting supplies for whitewater canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, plus gear, apparel, footwear and accessories.
Watch the clock carefully: Five minutes after the warning whistle blows, the train pulls out of the station whether passengers have returned or not.
It's the law, explained the conductor, and it's a long walk back to Bryson City. Edwards warned, "If you can find a local willing to drive you, it can cost you $100 or more."