Bryson on the route

Motoring through the Mountains - 1930s: Bryson

Swain County
Altitude: 1,750 feet

Bryson City
Two Views of Bryson City, N.C., November 1, 1937Bryson City

These two views of Bryson City were dated November 1, 1937. In the first view, the Swain County Courthouse, built in 1908, is visible at left of center and is distinguished by its cupola and portico. The second view highlights the town’s mountain setting. The Courthouse is also discernable in the second view, at center right. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park had been dedicated three years earlier and Bryson City was one of the “gateway” towns for the new park. In his pamphlet titled “Trips in the Smokies, 1930,” Horace Kephart commented that,

“The best way to reach the ‘top o’ Smoky,’ and the center of the Park, is from Bryson City 5 miles east on N.C. 10 to Oconaluftee river, thence north 13 miles on N.C. 107 to Smokemont, passing through the Cherokee Indian Reservation on the way. North from Smokemont light cars can go to the Indian Gap, 9 miles, which is on top of the Smoky range (5265 ft. above sea-level).”

This view of the Smoky Mountain Power Plant at Ela, near Bryson City, was dated October 18, 1937. It emphasizes the growing importance of hydroelectric power in western North Carolina, both in terms of generating facilities and consumption. The dam, on the Oconaluftee River near its confluence with the Tuckasegee River, was built in the mid-1920s as a municipal power plant and purchased by the Nantahala Power & Light Company in 1942. Nantahala Power & Light Company’s principal office had been located in Bryson City when the company was chartered in 1929, but relocated to Franklin, North Carolina, in 1937.

On April 2, 1931, Horace Kephart, a prominent proponent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and resident of nearby Bryson City, died in a tragic automobile accident near Ela, at Coopers Creek.

As roads in western North Carolina were improved or newly constructed and as automobiles became more commonplace, regulations on the construction and maintenance of roads became necessary. A pamphlet entitled Road Laws of Swain County, 1923 (Observer Printing House, Charlotte, N.C.) contained the text of “An Act to Provide a Better System of Maintaining the Roads of Swain County” empowering a board of commissioners with “the entire management, control and supervision of the laying out of roads, the working of roads, the upkeep of roads and the building of bridges and the repair of bridges.” The law also provided that,

“All persons between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five shall work on the public roads of said district in the section to which they are assigned for six days in each year at the call or summons of the overseer of their section; or in lieu thereof, they may pay two dollars for each day they fail to work when summoned, and they shall be receipted by the overseer.”

In her 1928 thesis “A Study of the Diffusion of Culture in a Relatively Isolated Mountain County” (University of Chicago), Ellen Engelmann Black commented on the impact that automobiles had produced on life in Swain County:

“The importance of highways in practically every aspect of the county life can scarcely be overestimated. . . . The three hour railroad journey to Asheville can be accomplished in less than two hours by automobile. . . . There are four buses running both to and from Asheville each day, the popularity of which is amply illustrated by the decreasing travel on the railroad. . . . The increasing numbers of tourists are bringing money into the county and local products such as Indian baskets have doubled in price in the last five years due to this and to the great demand for them. . . . Perhaps the greatest change observable in the past ten years is in women’s’ dress which has been largely produced by Sears, Roebuck and Company money orders after increased travel has shown how other people look. . . . Spinning wheels stand idle and the bright colored shelves of dry goods supply the cloth which in an earlier day was designated as ‘that fotch on stuff’.”

The comment about “that fotch on stuff” in the last sentence refers to items that would have been purchased in a store, as in cloth, and often with the implication that it was an inferior product to homemade materials.

This collage of photographs, taken on November 1, 1937, features Bryson City (top left), the Little Tennessee River as seen from the Franklin to Bryson City road (bottom right), and a second view of the river (right). A handwritten note to “See pictures on other side taken from this spot” reveals two additional pictures of the Little Tennessee, one again taken on November 1, 1937 (right), and another taken from the same spot in April 1928. Even though this particular stretch of the river was not affected, at the time the pictures were taken the Little Tennessee River was under consideration for construction of a large-scale dam that would ultimately submerge stretches of the river to form the Fontana Reservoir. As indicated in the handwritten captions, the road between Franklin and Bryson City had permitted access to this scenic view.

Bryson in the 1890s  |  Bryson in the 1910s

To the West: Forney


To the East: Whittier

Return to the Map for the 1930s

Sources & Readings

  • Bishir, Catherine W., Michael T. Southern, and Jennifer F. Martin. A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
  • Black, Ellen Engelmann. “A Study of the Diffusion of Culture in a Relatively Isolated Mountain County.” M.A. thesis, University of Chicago, 1928.
  • Cotham, Steve. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2006.
  • Farwell, Harold, Jr., and J. Karl Nicholas, eds. Smoky Mountain Voices : A Lexicon of Southern Appalachian Speech Based on the Research of Horace Kephart. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
  • Frome, Michael. Strangers in High Places: The Story of the Great Smoky Mountains. Expanded ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.
  • “History of the Nantahala Power and Light Company.” Typescript, Nantahala Power & Light Company manuscript collection, Hunter Library, Western Carolina University.
  • Kephart, Horace, “Trips in the Smokies, 1930.” Published by Bryson City Drug Company.
  • Kephart, Horace. Our Southern Highlanders. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984.
  • Montgomery, Michael B. and Joseph S. Hall. Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004.
  • Road Laws of Swain County, 1923 (Observer Printing House, Charlotte, N.C.)