October 12, 1996.
Charles Hall stood in front of a large crowd of people, all who were gripping a 150-foot ribbon stretching across the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina. Excitedly, he told everyone to cut on the count of three.
One. Two. Three.
“With the cutting of this ribbon, we dedicate this road in honor and in memory of all those who participated in the Wagon Train. And to the pleasure of this generation and all future generations, the Cherohala is now open! All barricades have been removed!” Hall proclaimed.
As the scissors closed and the ribbon fell, a nearly four-decade-long dream of two mountain communities became reality and the Cherohala Skyway was dedicated and opened to traffic.
“I didn’t know if Daddy would live to see it (the completion of the Cherohala Skyway),” said Pam Hall Mathews, Charles’ daughter, who now operates the Charles Hall Museum & Heritage Center in Tellico Plains. “To me, the Cherohala Skyway is a testament of how many people’s visions can come together. Daddy’s purpose, he would say, wasn’t that he wanted the mountains to change, but that you had to look forward. His motive was to help the people of Tellico Plains; it always was.”
Hall not only lived to see the Cherohala Skyway completed, but he lived until he was 90 years old and saw the National Scenic Byway become a tourist attraction for people from all over the country.
Twenty-five years after its dedication, the Cherohala Skyway now has more than 2 million visitors annually.
Undeniable economic impact
The Cherohala Skyway covers approximately 51 miles and begins at 900 feet in Tellico Plains before climbing in elevation to 5,200-feet at Sycamore Gap and dropping into Robbinsville, North Carolina. The byway is divided almost equally between the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala Forest in North Carolina, which is how it got its name “Cherohala.” The project cost nearly $100 million to complete.
“As we celebrate 25 years of the Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway, it is vital that we pause and reflect on the true blessing it is for this tourism asset to exist in Monroe County,” said Monroe County Tourism Director Blaina Best. “More so, we all should be thankful for every single person that worked hard to bring the first National Scenic Byway in Tennessee to our area. The economic impact the Cherohala Skyway has annually is undeniable, but more importantly, the memories that the Skyway has afforded to both locals and visitors will continue to secure this scenic route’s successful future.”
Best said the Cherohala Skyway sees an average of 3,043 vehicles a day, which equates to an average of 1,110,695 vehicles that drive the clouds and experience the Cherohala Skyway annually. The Tennessee Department of Tourist Development estimates that the average traveler coming to Tennessee has three people per vehicle. Using that information, Best noted that it is safe to estimate that the Cherohala Skyway sees anywhere from 2,221,390 (two travelers per car) to 3,332,085 (three travelers per car) each year.
“The Cherohala Skyway takes you to some of the most beautiful scenery that God has created,” said current Tellico Plains Mayor Marilyn Parker. “We are privileged to have this beauty in our backyard — the ‘Little Town with the Big Backyard.’ We welcome the opportunity to show our hospitality to all visitors. As we grow, we are working on keeping our integrity as a warm, welcoming town.”
The idea for a Wagon Train
In 1958, Hall was an instrumental part of the Tellico Plains Kiwanis Club, who came up with the idea to start a Wagon Train while discussing the need for a connecting highway between Tellico Plains and western North Carolina.
Club member Sam Williams said, “Why don’t we have a Wagon Train? We only have wagon roads!”
While the members had a laugh over Williams’ suggestion, they later found themselves considering the idea. Club President Pryor Hunt appointed a Wagon Train Committee, including Hall and Williams, and after gaining support, the first Wagon Train was planned for July 4, 1958. Hall served as the delegation’s only scout.
“It was sort of my baby,” Hall told The Advocate & Democrat in 2011. “Everything you can think of happened on the Wagon Train. When you had 1,000 people on one trip, you had a little bit of everything—birth, death, conceptions, all of it.”
The group met in Tellico Plains on June 30 and camped near the Tellico River on July 1-2. On June 29, three wagons and eight horses left Andrews, North Carolina, for Robbinsville, where one wagon joined the caravan. The North Carolina group arrived in Tellico Plains on July 2.
As a whole, the riders from both Tellico Plains and North Carolina paraded through downtown Tellico Plains that afternoon, led by Wagon Master G.C. Frye. That night, a Square Dance was held in Town Square, a tradition that still continues annually to this day.
On July 3, the entire caravan made its way along the Tellico River to the Tennessee-North Carolina state line and then on to Murphy, North Carolina, where a parade was held on July 4.
Successive wagon trains in 1959, 1960 and 1961 traveled the same route, growing in size each year. The 1961 Wagon Train departed Tellico Plains on July 3 with 92 covered wagons and 525 horseback riders.
“I have memories from the age 5 on, scouting Wagon Train roads with Daddy,” said Mathews. “It was always rough terrain, but I was always so intrigued by those trips.”
Mathews said in the camp at night, everyone would cook together and then tell stories about the day.
“It was our family vacation,” she said. “But it had a mission to it. Everyone there shared a common interest — all had a certain amount of love for being in nature, preserving American history, and a desire to improve the roads between our two states”
Each trip received extensive publicity, including coverage by television and newspapers, and even an article in Life Magazine in 1959, but the only road construction was the paving of an existing three-mile road. Yet, Hall said 1958-1965 were the peak years for Tellico Plains.
“According to press reports, anywhere from 20-30,000 people would be here for the Square Dance to send us off on the Wagon Train,” he said. “It was very exciting for our small town.”
“As a child, it felt like the circus had come to town,” recalled Mathews. “There were so many people and music everywhere. Of course, Daddy would never let us stay very late. Momma (Billie Nell Hall) would always walk us home.”
Sam Stamey, who served 10 years as Tellico Plains mayor, said everyone knew to be there to watch the wagons ride through town.
“It was almost like a traditional Christmas parade,” he said. “Cars would have to park miles away and walk into Town Square.”
Securing funding for a road
While the Wagon Train and Square Dance helped provide publicity, organizers knew they needed to secure funding, but that was not an easy task. Cecil McDaniel, a staff member of Sen. Carl Hayden of Arizona and a native of Tellico Plains, suggested the group seek financial support from the Federal Lands Highway Fund.
With a source of funding in mind, the wagon train turned its attention to other possible routes across the mountains as the money for that program could only be spent on federal lands.
Hall said the group was not accomplishing anything in their efforts toward Murphy, North Carolina, but were receiving a lot of support from Andrews and Robbinsville, North Carolina.
Then Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington appointed a panel to handle negotiations with the U.S. Congress and North Carolina state officials on Aug. 7, 1961. With that, a group, including Hall, went to Washington to seek funding.
On March 13, 1962, the Interior Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations heard and approved the group’s request.
The time had arrived for the group to gather support and publicity for its new route with another Wagon Train across the mountains to Andrews, North Carolina. Wagon Train leaders for this trip were Wagon Master Ed Frye, Assistant Wagon Master Capt. Frank Swan and Chief Scout Hall.
Following the Wagon Train, McDaniel and Sen. Estes Kefauver made arrangements for a delegation from Tennessee and North Carolina to appear before the Public Roads Subcommittee for Public Works. Before the hearing, Hall went to meet with Sen. Robert Kerr of Oklahoma, but the senator was out of office. Instead, Hall met with Kerr’s administrative assistant Don McBride, who, Hall was surprised to learn, had married Tellico native May Lou Patterson.
“It was the efforts of Sen. Estes Kefauver, Cecil McDaniel and Don McBride (who was later appointed to the TVA Board of Directors) that the project was funded,” Hall recalled.
On Oct. 10, 1962, Sen. Kefauver sent a telegram notifying Hall that $6 million in federal funds had been approved to construct a roadway between Tellico Plains, Tennessee, and Robbinsville, North Carolina.
Compromises and frustrations
In 1965, work began on the North Carolina section, skirting the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, and the first Tennessee section along the Tellico River. By the mid 1960s, however, the environmental movement was strong enough to halt the road project. Objectors did not want a road going through the virgin forest of Joyce Kilmer. By this time, Hall was serving as Tellico Plains mayor.
“Daddy was pleased when they stopped that route,” said Mathews. “He never wanted that. There were a lot of compromises and frustrations throughout the process. People often thought of him as a developer, but he had a stopping point.”
From 1968 to 1983, no work was allowed in North Carolina, while both states tried to work out a new route. The new route would eventually be from Santeetlah Gap in North Carolina to Beech Gap at the state line.
“Daddy said many times that it wouldn’t happen overnight,” said Mathews. “But he was always patient; he knew it would happen one day.”
The Tennessee section, in the meantime, continued to inch up toward the state line. But the Tennessee portion also suffered a set back when it was discovered in 1977 that exposed rock formations created acid when combined with rain water. It cost $4 million to cover the rocks and prevent contamination of the streams.
Lloyd Middleton served as the Eastern Division’s Federal Public Lands Highway construction engineer and, thus, designer for the Cherohala Skyway from the beginning of its construction contracts in 1965 to its finish date. He was also the construction engineer for the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Middleton called it “challenging” to lessen the environmental impact including the handling of the iron pyrite rocks and said “innovative techniques” were used to built a road on such steep slopes.
Mathews said her father also credited Middleton with the “excellent construction” of the Cherohala Skyway.
“I consider the Skyway the little brother to the Blue Ridge Parkway (because it is shorter],” Middleton once said. “I am proud of the design that offers many mountain vistas with as little environmental impact as possible.”
The Wagon Train returned to Tellico Plains for its 10th anniversary in 1967, in 1976 for the Bicentennial trip and again in 1982 for its 25th anniversary. Smaller trips in Tennessee were held in 1987, 1988, and 1989. In 1991, Kenneth Shaw, Don Frye and Roy Hutsell organized the Tellico Plain Wagon Train Association and the Wagon Train continued for many years.
‘History was being made’
Finally, in 1996, the road neared completion. Earlier that year, Stamey, who was Tellico Plains mayor at the time, said officials held an informal ceremony at the state line.
“The Tennessee people lined up on one side and North Carolina people on the other,” he said. “And together, we pushed the rocks through for the first time and allowed someone to drive over the dividing line.”
Then, a Cherokee girl climbed on top of a rock and began to sing “Amazing Grace.”
“There wasn’t a dry eye there,” said Stamey. “It was just really touching. History was being made.”
Before the byway was set to open, the Wagon Train came together one last time for a special trip across the Cherohala Skyway into Robbinsville, North Carolina. Kenny Shaw from Tellico Plains and Roy Hutshell from McMinn County were the wagon masters.
The trip took the group five days. As they crossed the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Beech Gap on July 2, 1996, the Wagon Train stopped for a ribbon cutting ceremony.
The Cherohala Skyway was officially dedicated in a public ceremony on Oct. 12, 1996. At its opening, it had already been awarded a National Scenic Highway award.
“The completion of the Cherohala Skyway allowed people to see places that they couldn’t before,” said Mathews. “They didn’t have to hike for miles or risk their life to experience the beauty of the mountains anymore. And that, it was overwhelming.”
“One of the dignitaries commented that day about how it was the highest he had ever been without being on an airplane,” Stamey added.
Mathews recalled how Rev. Bill Childress said the prayer at the dedication ceremony.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “He talked about how man built the road, but God made the mountains.”
The most memorable moment of the day, however, was seeing her father’s face.
“All of us — daddy’s children and our husbands, his grandchildren — were there,” she said. “He had introduced all the dignitaries from a national, state and local standpoint, but then he looked at us, his family, and teared up. That’s what meant the most to him, that all his family was there.”
Two months later, Mathews’ twin sister Pat died after a long battle with cancer.
“We were all glad she got to be there to see Daddy’s dream come true,” said Mathews.
In 1997, the Tennessee State Legislature named the bridge over Laurel Branch on the Cherohala Skyway the “Charles Hall Bridge.”
“Daddy would laugh when my husband, Kent, would joke with him that he’d never heard of anyone who had a bridge named after them who was still alive,” said Mathews.
‘He lived and breathed it’
Charles Hall died on Dec. 31, 2014. He served in elected offices in Monroe County for 45 years, 31 of those years as mayor of Tellico Plains. In 1951, at age 27, he was the youngest person to hold the position of mayor in the state of Tennessee. He served as mayor until 1955, as alderman in 1961, recorder in 1962 and again as mayor from 1963 until he resigned from the post on June 14, 1990.
“As Daddy would tell you, he could have never done it alone,” said Mathews. “Leadership can bring so many people together to make something happen. He was just one of many who helped create the Cherohala Skyway. When it was finished, he looked to the town and ways to improve it. He was always wondering what was next.”
Hall led the fight to re-route Highway 165 (Cherohala Skyway) further through Tellico Plains and land acquisitions were obtained in 1997 to do so. Construction started in the spring of 1998 and was finished in 1999. The byway now connects directly to Highway 68.
Mathews said driving the Cherohala Skyway with her parents was always special.
“Of course, I’d have to force Daddy to do it,” she laughed. “He was always working on something and I’d have to make him stop and go with us. Once we’d get going though, he would tell you about every nook and cranny. He knew every inch of it. He lived and breathed it.”
Stamey recalled hearing a group of elderly men talking at the former Tellico Pride convenience store many years ago.
“One of them asked the question, ‘What does Cherohala mean?’ A guy named Hulo answered that in Native Cherokee it meant Charles Hall,” laughed Stamey. “Without Charles’ leadership, I’m not sure the Cherohala Skyway would exist. He worked tirelessly until the dream became a reality.”
A professionally-directed video, “Highway To The Sky,” is available for purchase at the Charles Hall Museum & Heritage Center in Tellico Plains. The seven-minute video offers footage and photos of the early Tellico Plains-North Carolina Wagon Trains, along with the construction and completion of the Cherohala Skyway. Funding for the video was made possible by a grant awarded to the museum from the East Tennessee Foundation’s John D. Grubb & Louise G. Sumner Fund for Monroe County.
DVD or thumb-drive versions are available for $15 each. Proceeds will aid the museum in completing Wagon Train displays and a large historic map.
For more information about the Cherohala Skyway, visit www.visitmonroetn.com/cherohala-skyway.
- Historical information obtained from Pamela Hall Mathews, “A History of Tellico Plains, TN 10,000 B.C.-2,001 A.D.” by Charles Hall and “Behind the Scenes” by Cindy Brooks. Photos courtesy of the Charles Hall Museum & Heritage Center and Monroe County Tourism.