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'Road To Nowhere' Debt Repaid: Here's What Happens To The Money

Lilly Knoepp
The wall outside the Swain County Courthouse memorializes the communities that were flooded during the construction of Fontana Lake.

The U.S. government came through on a 75-year-old promise to Swain County when it paid the final dollars of a settlement for the so-called “Road To Nowhere” this month. However, officials say that the county won't see the additional funding until next year.

Local politicans and citizens celebrated “promises kept” with a giant check for $35.2 million dollars.  It represents the final payment for the unfinished road along the north shore of Fontana Lake. The road would have been a connection to homesteads and gravesites that were covered by the lake after the construction of Fontana Dam in the 1940s.

“I want people to know that Swain County citizens made a huge sacrifice - a huge sacrifice - when they gave up their homes and left everything they had (for the construction of the dam),” explains Chairman of the Swain County Board of Commissioners Phil Carson as he discusses the 1943 agreement to build the dam.

Carson took part in the 2010 decision to favor a $52 million dollar settlement from the government instead of asking for the road to be completed. He also helped file the county’s lawsuit in 2016 after payments for the settlement stopped coming in.  Carson says he’s relieved the full amount is in the bank.  

“I hope that this can help to heal Swain county feelings with our government,” says Carson. “I think it’s time to except for us to accept what has been given and it will help generations to come.”

The full settlement has been deposited in an investment account at the state treasury.  Swain will not be able take any money out of the account but they will receive a check for the interest each year.

Last year when there was only $16.8 million in the account, the county received $300,000 in interest. This was used to buy new emergency vehicles, according to County Manager Kevin King.   

Next year, they expect to see over $1 million in interest to put toward their budget. That is a big chunk of change for Swain County. Its most recent budget was just $28 million dollars.

The total settlement is based on the 1943 cost for the promised road plus interest. Carson estimates that the cost of the road today would have been $700 million at today’s dollar value.

Credit Lilly Knoepp
Decoration Day at North Shore Cemetery celebrates Swain County's heritage.

As a 6th generation native of Swain County, this is a personal win for Representative Mike Clampitt. However, his family cemetery is still inaccessible. It’s one of the places that would have been reached by the promised road. Clampitt honors his ancestors each year by visiting their graves by boat on North Shore Heritage Day. This is a day that families from the north shoreline of Fontana Lake gather to decorate the graves of their ancestors and celebrate their heritage.

“I’ve met family I never knew that I had,” says Clampitt as he descibes the day. He hopes that access to the cemetaries might still be restored some day but he says the settlement is a good place to start.

“The animosity for the federal government has been tremendous.  This is a healing process,”says Clampitt.  “It won’t bind all wounds. We will still have the scars on our heart.”

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke expressed that he could see a campground being built with federal funds at the end of the unfinished road, according to Clampitt. The road is officially called Lakeview Drive. If a campground were built at the end of the road, then it might lose it's nickname: the “Road to Nowhere.”