The Road to Nowhere still dead-ends in the mountains of Swain County, but Uncle Sam has finally made good on an IOU that dates to World War II.
After previous commitments fell short, the Interior Department last week paid the county $35.2 million to settle a 1943 pledge to rebuild roads flooded by Fontana Lake. The lake's dam, for which 600 families were removed from their land, was built in wartime to supply the electricity needed to make aircraft aluminum.
The 34-mile North Shore Road from Bryson City to Fontana was meant to compensate for the flooded roads and the thousands of acres that were transferred from the county's tax base to federal ownership. Federal land covers 87 percent of the county, limiting economic development.
But only 7 miles of the road was built before work was stopped in 1972 because of engineering problems and environmental protests. The road winds through a tunnel, then abruptly ends, earning its nickname.
County residents, meanwhile, never forgot the federal government's pledge.
In 2007, with the road's construction no longer an option, the county agreed to a $52 million cash settlement. But the money trickled slowly Swain's way. By last September, only $12.8 million had been paid. Then new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke released another $4 million that had been appropriated by Congress but not released.
Zinke, in an announcement Saturday about the additional $35.2 million, said the payment "truly illustrates our commitment to being a good neighbor and in ensuring that rural Americans are no longer forgotten."
North Carolina's congressional leaders, including Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr and Rep. Mark Meadows of Asheville, had pressed for full payment. On June 6, Zinke formally announced plans to do it.
"We actually got the money. It was deposited on Friday," said Swain County manager Kevin King. "We are paid in full."
More than $32 million is a windfall for a forested county of 14,000 people with a budget of only $28 million. But it won't be a gusher of cash.
Under a 2010 agreement, the money was deposited with the state treasurer's office. The county can spend only the interest the money earns, which King estimated might be $1 million this year.
County commissioners haven't decided how to spend it, King said, but "we're like every other community in America, we need money for public safety and education."
County commissioners Chairman Phil Carson called the long impasse “a burden to the citizens of Swain County for 75 years" that the payment will help heal.