enjoying the Natahala River at the Outdoor Center,
the turning point on the Great Smoky Mountain Rail
Road, on May 5, 2015.
CITY, N.C. ó 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
not a recent infatuation, said Hunterís 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.
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 familyís second trip on the railroad, and the second
year in a row that Hunterís 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
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 wasnít
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
are offered daily and seasonal excursions, including the
Nantahala Gorge Excursion and the Tuckasegee River
Excursion, as well special trips for Halloween and New
Yearís 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.
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 donít serve
meals, a boxed lunch is available.
the 4Ĺ-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.
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.
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
on the warm spring day in early May could order pot roast,
fire-braised chicken salad, beer-battered cod, veggie
loverís 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
one-hour layover at Nantahala Outdoor Center, visitors can
grab a bite at the Riverís End Restaurant or Big Wesser
BBQ & Brew. The NOC Outfitterís Store carries
sporting supplies for whitewater canoes, kayaks, stand-up
paddleboards, plus gear, apparel, footwear and
the clock carefully: Five minutes after the warning
whistle blows, the train pulls out of the station whether
passengers have returned or not.
the law, explained the conductor, and itís 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
Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
Bryson City, N.C.
choices: Adult First Class (over 21) with dining; Family
First Class, with dining; Adult Premium Open Air Gondola
with first-class service; Crown Class; Standard Coach
Class and Open Air Gondola.
Adult fares range from $104 for first class with dining,
to $55 for coach and open air. Child prices range from $54
for first class, to $31 for coach and open air.
Nantahala Gorge Excursion, 44-mile round trip lasting 4Ĺ
hours; Tuckasegee River Excursion, 32-mile round trip
lasting four hours.