Misty clouds, rising from the dark green faces of the Great Smoky Mountains during the morning, appeared like smoke tendrils. The twelve-car train, wearing the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s tuscan red and Rio Grande gold livery and pulled by an EMD GP-9 diesel locomotive, vibrated and clanged its bell atop the gravel-imbedded rails next to the gray, wooden Bryson City depot, as it prepared for its imminent, 44-mile, round-trip departure to Nantahala Gorge. Passengers, many of whom had dislodged from buses, inundated the tiny portico waiting area, lulled into a North Carolina mood by a guitar-strumming trio. I would make the journey in the MacNeill Club Car, number 536, today, attached to generator car 6118 and trailed by Silver Meteor dining car 8015. That journey, inextricably tired to these western North Carolina mountains, could trace its origins to the mid-1800s.
Although the ruggedly beautiful area had been rich in natural resources, such as timber, fertile soil, and minerals, the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains, peeking at 6,000 feet, had rendered it isolated and inaccessible, with a rough, wagon-plied route its only connection with the rest of the state. After considerable efforts to persuade the state legislature of North Carolina to rectify this deficiency, it had agreed to subsidize the construction of track between Salisbury and Asheville in 1855, to be used by the Western North Carolina Railroad.
A smooth development period, spanning six years, had been thwarted in 1861 by the Civil War, at which time some 70 miles of rail had yet to be laid, but momentum had ultimately been regained 16 years later, when convict labor had been employed for the first time. Five hundred tracklayers had been subdivided into 150-men camps, each of which had been led by a captain, a foreman, and several guards.