WALLAND, Tenn. — Efforts to extend a serpentine ridge-top road with soaring views of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been thwarted for decades as engineers have grappled with how to complete a 1.6-mile stretch known as the missing link.
A $35 million commitment this summer by the federal government, National Park Service and the state of Tennessee means the 10-bridge stretch can finally be completed, thrilling supporters who say it will open up one of the most scenic areas of the Foothills Parkway, but concerning those who say the project has gotten too expensive and poses a threat to the environment.
To Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former two-term Tennessee governor, the wait for and cost of bridging the missing link will have been worth it once visitors are able to take what he calls “one of the most picturesque drives in our country with a view of the most-visited national park in our country.”
The new segment scheduled to open within two years will end up costing about $244 million in today’s dollars. Work on the missing link was halted in 1989 after retaining walls failed and contractors exposed pyrite, a mineral better known as fool’s gold, which forms sulfuric acid when it comes into contact with rain. The toxic brew dissolves metals in bedrock and can wash into streams and rivers, choking off plants and wildlife and coating streambeds with iron hydroxide, tinting water yellow, red or orange.
Along with the engineering and environmental problems, escalating costs kept the missing link on the back burner until the late 2000s, when the federal government agreed to pay for the longest part of it: an 800-foot, S-shaped bridge designed to disturb as little earth as possible and costing $25 million. The money was provided through the 2009 Recovery Act, the federal response to the Great Recession.
“The expenditure is really incredible,” said Geoff Riggin, a veterinarian who led an unsuccessful petition drive to keep work from resuming on the missing link.
Even after the bridges are built, half of the proposed 72-mile-long Foothills Parkway will remain unfinished: Land to construct the last 34 miles has been acquired, but no work has yet been done.
The Foothills Parkway was approved by Congress in 1944 as a companion to other National Parkway routes such as the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina, and the Natchez Trace from central Tennessee to Mississippi. The National Parkway system was developed as part of the New Deal to help bring the economy out the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Construction of the parkway began in the 1960s and the first two sections, covering 22.5 miles, were quickly completed on either end of the scenic drive, which begins at Interstate 40 near the North Carolina border in the east and ends at Chilhowee Lake in the west. But the paved roadway hit dead ends on either side of the missing link.
Riggin says that wasn’t such a bad thing; while vehicles could not access it, the area was still open to walkers, bikers, hikers and nature lovers. Riggins said he used to enjoy riding his bike along the peaceful ridgetops and over a trail through the missing link area around Caylor Gap, where he occasionally stopped to pick wild blueberries.
“So it had a utility then as it was,” he said. “But obviously that wasn’t the original purpose of it.”
Alex Ringe, the conservation chair for the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club, said the substantial money sunk into bridging the missing link has virtually ensured that this section will be completed, despite lingering concerns with the pyrite.
“That’s a locomotive that we’re not going to stop, even if we wanted to,” he said.
But he says the Sierra Club believes that should be the last work done on the parkway. Instead of disturbing additional land and spending millions more to extend the parkway 34 more miles to the east, the club believes an existing highway, U.S. 321, could be designated as the last part of the scenic highway.
Alexander acknowledges that even if support for finishing the parkway were unanimous, the likely steep cost makes it unlikely work will begin anytime soon.
“I don’t think we ought to sit here for another 70 years waiting for a half-billion to $1 billion to materialize,” he said, a reference to the 72 years that have passed since the parkway was first approved.
But Alexander said the remaining land that has been acquired for the rest of the parkway is an important resource, and he plans to ask the National Park Service for recommendations on changing a federal law that currently restricts its use to only being used as a scenic parkway. Options could include opening it to trails for hiking, biking or horse riding, he said. Allowing even a temporary alternate use would require congressional action, Alexander said.
“We ought to do some creative thinking about what the most appropriate use is, at least for the time being,” he said.
The truncated Foothills Parkway is already an attraction to tourists headed for the Smokies, including car and motorcycle enthusiasts who enjoy its sweeping curves.
“It gives people a great place to come and play and have a great time,” said Ron Gerhart, a retiree visiting from Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma, on his motorcycle. “It’s all worth it.”