Thursday, June 14, 2018


Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

I’m writing a book of poetry about trains, and a few days ago, my botanist friend Vickie Sullivan and I traveled to western North Carolina and bought a ticket on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad that departs from Bryson City, North Carolina and returns the same day. The drive from Sewanee along the scenic trail through Nantahala River country is a winding one, and on a Sunday afternoon, it’s a slow drive due to rafters and kayakers making their way to the Ocoee River. Despite the congestion, I always feel uplifted when we enter western North Carolina and I see the looming Great Smokies.

During the trip, we followed the Blueway Trail at the edge of the Smoky Mountain National Park — Little Tennessee, Nantahala, Oconaluftee, and Tuckasegee Rivers that flow into Fontana Lake, and I kept wishing for my old fly rod to do some backcasting. However, I’m sure that my limbs are no longer able to maneuver a float trip. 

We took the only train excursion offered the day after we arrived — the Nantahala Gorge Excursion — and saw much of the territory we’d been through five or six times during visits to western North Carolina. However, we got a closer look at Fontana Lake and traveled on the sky-high Fontana Trestle Bridge. The excursion that sounded like a well-traveled one was the “Shine and Dine Moonshine Experience” and was listed as the priciest experience on the schedule. True to its name, moonshine is the beverage featured during the train ride.

Our train ride was a unique adventure, but I’d been hoping to make the excursion that featured Dillsboro and the Cowee Tunnel filmed in the movie, The Fugitive. As this excursion wasn’t offered, we drove to Dillsboro and further to Silva the day following our train ride. Silva, a small town in the Plott Balsam Mountains, has become famous as a site filmed in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and for scenes from the movie Deliverance. Of course, we wandered into the City Lights Bookstore where I discovered further information about the Cherokee Little People after I’d found a book entitled The Cherokee Little People Were Real by Mary A. Joyce in a Bryson City Bookstore. 

I haven’t been able to determine whether these Little People were real but the Cherokee Indians say that when they arrived in the southeastern U.S., a group of people they called the Little People lived underground and came out only at night, tended gardens and returned underground after harvesting their produce. The sun rays were too harsh for them so they constructed cities underground and came out of their caves to work by moonlight. For that reason, the Cherokee also called them “The Moon People." They had red whiskers, squinty eyes, and were hardly four feet tall. According to old-timers and farmers, the flood of 1940 exposed an artifact with a leprechaun-like face known as “Lead Head” that features one of the Little People. The Little People’s tunnels are said to have been found in Cullowhee on the site of Western Carolina University but several historians report that these tunnels and artifacts were covered up and university buildings were constructed over them.

We skirted the Western Carolina University campus but didn’t make any archaeological digs while there, although I would have liked a glimpse of the mysterious coin with a strange face on each side called “Lead Head” — a face that has Dr. Spock ears and a large nose resembling an Irish leprechaun.

The Little People are no longer alive, according to most researchers but the Cherokee remember stories about them and report that they influenced the way Cherokees learned to live in the mountains. They were so missed that the Cherokee came up with the idea of the Little People Spirit People. These spirits can be helpful but they are also mischievous. Cherokees say that the Little People brought the news of Jesus to them, telling them about his life and his crucifixion. They say that when the Little People heard about Jesus’ death, they wept and wherever their tears fell to the ground, they transformed into fairy crosses which are the unique cross-shaped gems found in the southern Appalachians.

In one of the books, I discovered entitled Living Stories of the Cherokee by Barbara R. Duncan, the author relates that the Little People don’t die. “They’re like spirits,/and they (the Cherokees) could implore them to come,/and there are some who have seen them./Now you can’t see them /unless they want you to see them./And if you see them,/there’s something going to happen/whether good or bad,/either way…and you can hear them, you know,/in different ways, walking and, you know,/they are not mischievous/they are protectors.”

Train photograph by Victoria Sullivan

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