Tail of the Dragon History, American Road Magazine
The Historic Tail of the Dragon
By Ronald E. Johnson
NOTE: This article originally appeared in American Road Magazine, Vol. 4, Number 4, 2007
The Tail of the Dragon (US 129) is one of America’s best known motorcycle roads. It also has a checkered history that is not widely known. There may even be ghosts that haunt these parts.
Many know about the difficult times settlers had in their westward movement, but few realize the troubles these hardy people met in the southern Appalachians. Not only was the terrain nearly impossible to navigate and the weather intense, but the mighty Cherokee and white bandits posed an even deadlier possibility.
Fort Loudon, near present day Vonore, was built by the British in 1756. Soldiers and armaments including cannons were transported over the rugged mountain trails. Relations with the natives quickly deteriorated and the fort was abandoned in 1760. Many of the fleeing men and women were massacred as they departed.
At about this time the Deal Trading Post was established by a group of brothers and cousins of that name. The post dealt with the Cherokee Indians and other nations of the Five Civilized Tribes. It is no coincidence that the name Deal is on the Cherokee Roles. The trading post was in direct violation of King George’s edict banning British settlement west of the Blue Ridge. Some of the Deal family migrated west in the Trail of Tears Cherokee relocation in the 1800s. Others moved into Middle Tennessee and established a trading post at the terminus of the Natchez Trace.
By the early 1800s settlers had ventured into most of the easily accessible regions of America, but this densely forested area remained a no-man’s land except for a few Native Americans and those like the Deals who traded with them. Travel was difficult with the only passable trails created by wild animals such as buffalo and deer. The natives had followed these “routes of least resistance” created by natural instincts which bypassed difficult and steep terrain and even led to good water supplies. It was in this manner that the Tail of the Dragon was designed to such perfection. Today the Dragon is one of America’s top motorcycle and sports car destinations. It is ironic that it was designed by 4-legged beasts.
Battles were common between Indian tribes long before the white-man ventured into the area. As the white-man moved in tensions mounted over trading, land ownership and hunting rights. Governmental treaties did more harm than good and brought more bloodshed between the whites and the Indians. Add a few bushwhackers and common criminals to the mix and it got even worse.
Blount County Tennessee was formed in 1795 and near-by Cades Cove, a fertile valley hidden deep in the Smokies, was first settled in the 1830s. With the discovery of gold in north Georgia and western North Carolina the Federal Government began the relocation process of the Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma. Many of the Indians moved deeper into the mountains to avoid what would became known as the Trail of Tears. At about this same time a toll road known as the Tennessee Turnpike was constructed on the North Carolina side that connected present-day Almond to Deals Gap. Tolls were collected by property owners at the state line and several other locations. This was probably the origins of the first store at Deals Gap. The Madisonville/Franklin or Tallasee Turnpike, today known as The Tail of the Dragon, became the major route into Tennessee and Cades Coves. Even today the rugged Parson’s Branch Road is an adventure with 19 water fords.
A property at the Parson intersection offered food and bunk rooms for travelers and cattle pens for use by cattle drivers. It was also another toll location. Several wayfarers who tried to sneak through at night without paying were supposedly hanged on the spot.
It was sometime in the mid-1850s that Deals Gap and Deals Branch were named for a local family by that name. On the Tennessee side at the future site of Calderwood the Hardin Family had a plantation employing some 50 blacks by the 1840s.
The 1860s and the Civil War brought even more mayhem to the Dragon. Union and Confederate companies, made-up of conscripts who were bandits, robbers and uneducated backwoods men, operated with little supervision. In 1864 Bas Shaw, a Union prisoner, was murdered by the Confederates as they escaped Union Calvary. Shaw was tied to a tree and shot dead. He was buried along the roadway and for many years travelers tossed rocks on the grave as they passed.
Other incidents resulting in deaths involved innocent non-combatants. The Kirkland Bushwhackers took advantage with their own brand of murder and robbery using Deals Gap as one of their favorite hold-up spots. In one horrid incident the gang held-up a family near the Gap. The couple and infant were taken off the road into the woods. When the infant began to cry it was murdered to keep passersby from hearing it. The Kirklands were so feared that they were never tracked down and arrested. To this day there are rumors of bandits on the Dragon which likely date back to the 1800s.
Traffic on the Little Tennessee and Madisonville/Franklin (Tallassee) Turnpikes (today known as the Dragon) was primarily locals riding pack horses and rugged wagons, cattle drives going to market, and a few westward bound pioneers. One can imagine how desolate and dangerous the Tail of the Dragon was in those times. Even today the road seems wild and remote.
The next major activity came with the construction of the Cheoah Dam (Fugitive Dam) begun in 1916. Alcoa Aluminum needed large amounts of electricity in their production process and the Little Tennessee River was a perfect source. The railway line from Maryville to Chillhowee was extended along the Little Tennessee all the way to the construction site in North Carolina. A town at Tapoco housed some 2,000 workers. Today the Tapoco Lodge built in 1930 is a destination for many motorcyclists. After completion of the dam the private railroad line was extended to the Santeetlah Dam construction site and provided not only passenger service, but lumber hauling for loggers.
After completion of Santeetlah Dam in 1928 Alcoa Aluminum began construction of Calderwood Dam which can be seen today from the Tail of the Dragon Overlook at mile marker nine. A town for workers had been erected at Calderwood. In 1936 a lodge and golf course were added for the enjoyment of Alcoa executives. Remnants of the town, now unpopulated except for rattlesnakes and copperheads, still exist including a cemetery open to the public.
TN 72 and NC 288 were originally rutted, often muddy dirt cattle paths until the coming of motorized vehicles in the early 1900s. This brought better maintenance, but travel was still extremely difficult. The first motorcycle probably crossed this roadway well before it was paved and designated as US 129 circa 1931. The original Tennessee Turnpike (NC 288) followed present day NC 28 from Fontana and connected at the NC/TN State Line. Old NC 108 which dead-ended at Rhymer’s Ferry was replaced with US 129. The new road followed the Cheoah and Little Tennessee River to Deals Gap.
For decades the road was used primarily by Tapoco dam workers, locals, and whisky runners. The formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1930s brought in a few tourists. Road scenes in the 1958 Robert Mitchum movie Thunder Road which depicted the culture at the time were filmed on the Dragon.
In the 1950s the popularity of Fontana Village brought more traffic. Tourists flocked to the area to enjoy the natural beauty and cooler mountain temperatures. The store and gas station at the Gap went through some upgrades adding a café and motel. It was known as Moody’s, Crafton’s (or Crofton’s) and Mac’s Motel. In the 1990s it became the Crossroads of Time and in 2000 was renamed Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort. Old timers still call it the Crossroads of Time (CRoT) at Deals Gap.
This wild habitat was made even more dangerous by the release of black bears trapped elsewhere in the Great Smoky Mountains. Today bears are often encountered on the Dragon. Other animals sited on the road include deer, wild boar, turkeys, coyotes, fox, and squirrels. Rattlesnakes and copperheads are ever present.
There are legends of gold and silver treasures hidden in the area. An old Cherokee tale says that the gold treasure is protected by the Little People and will never be found. A secret silver mine near Deals Gap is a white man’s tale. The mine supposedly contains the bones of one man who discovered the secret cache and was murdered.
Today each week thousands of motorcycle riders and sports car enthusiasts share the mystique of this infamous roadway; a mere path carved by wildlife around the precipitous slopes of the Great Smoky Mountains. The road is still notorious, but in a much different light. There are no bands of mountain bushwhackers, no marauding Cherokees, and no toll takers who act as judge, jury and executioner. Today’s adventure seekers bring their modern, high-powered motorcycles and sports cars to challenge their nerve and skills on the Tail of the Dragon’s 318 curves in a 11 miles, a federal highway that may well be the world’s best road course.
And sometimes the Dragon wins.
One often hears stories about the Dragon that are created by rumors with little basis in fact:
(1) RUMOR – Someone dies in an accident just about every week. TRUTH – that over the past ten years there have been fifteen deaths (all motorcycle riders) on the 11 miles we call the Dragon.
(2) RUMOR – The body of a rider missing for several years was found last week and recovery teams located another missing body while on the scene. TRUTH – There have been riders long missing whose bodies were discovered later, but finding the additional body is stretching it.
(3) RUMOR – There are still bandits on the roadway that hold up women driving alone. TRUTH Not for the past 100 years.
(4) RUMOR – They close the road to have races. TRUTH – They have never closed the road for racing. Some filming for commercials has been allowed with closing for 15 minutes at a time.
(5) RUMOR – The road is about to be closed and many variations of this. TRUTH – This is probably one of the most protected roads in America. One side borders the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the other is a wildlife conservancy area and National Forest.There are studies for I-3 to follow this route from north Georgia to Knoxville, but it will never happen.