Over the centuries humans have dealt with death in many different ways. Much can be learned from a visit to a graveyard. Death of a loved one, especially when it was unexpected, is always devastating and the engraving on the gravestones can teach us about the history and culture of an area. There are numerous cemeteries along the Lakeshore Trail, many just off the trail corridor by a few feet. Have you ever wondered why?
In 1910 the W.M. Ritter Lumber Company began logging big trees in the Hazel Creek drainage area. They built the mill town of Proctor. The company moved out of the area in 1928. The Great Smoky Mountain Park purchased the land in 1934. Then in 1944 nearly 600 families were removed from this area due to the construction of a huge dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The Fontana dam was built to supply electricity to the Alcoa, Tennessee plant near Knoxville in support of the Nation’s wartime demand for metal for building airplanes. When the dam was constructed, Fontana lake was created and the water flooded the valley towns. More than half of the 600 families that were forced to leave their homes came from the area between Hazel Creek and Bryson City. That meant that they would have to leave behind their loved ones’ graves. In these earlier times when there were no large group cemeteries, people used to have burial plots near their family homes. These graves were usually marked with rough stones, rocks, or wood. Some of these graves were covered over with water, some relocated, but the majority were left where family members can still return and visit.
In early days, graves were mostly marked with the deceased’s name, age, and year of death. Gradually, churchyard burials evolved. Large, square-shaped tombstones were prepared from slate (1650-1900) or sandstone (1650-1890). The inscriptions carved on slate used to be shallow yet readable.
Public cemeteries evolved in the 19th century. Eventually, people started giving importance to the gravestones, headstones, footstones, etc. as a means to memorialize the dead. Headstones were sometimes engraved with a small epitaph or a few words about the deceased whether written by the individual himself or by someone else. Plus, they bore details like the date of birth and date of death of the departed loved one.
During the Victorian era (1837-1901), Queen Victoria’s loss of her beloved husband Albert in England changed the customs and practices associated with death here in North America. This period of time was marked with elaborate tombstones and headstones. The cemeteries appeared more like parks as they had lavish and decorated gravestones.
The North Shore Cemetery Association was and is a non-profit group organized for the purpose of preserving the graveyards and general history of the Fontana Basin. “Organized in 1977, with an immediate aim to gain general access to the cemeteries of the North Shore in conformity of the contractual agreements that formulated in 1943 between Federal, State and County Agencies. Another aim of the Association was the planning of decorations for the cemeteries along the North Shore of Fontana Lake as were held in the area before 1943 and the removal of families. It was and is made up of former residents and their descendants who lived in this area and whose land was taken for the building of the Fontana Dam and Basin area.” The Fontana Marina in Graham County has schedules telling when it is possible to take a pontoon boat out to the various cemeteries and recollect the past as you wander, respectfully, between the graves. If you go on a “Decoration Day”, you may be lucky enough to hear some of the old family stories from the descendants of the families that were forced to leave their homes.
A visitor will note the numerous gravestones marking the loss of children in the mountain graveyards. Before the time when vaccinations became available, disease took the lives of many newborns and youngsters. Many of the gravestones for the babies had no names and are simply marked with the words “Infant”.
While hiking the Lakeshore Trail, or when exploring on your own in the Park, remember that most of the cemeteries are not marked. Generally, if you see a trail going off to the side of the main trail with a “No Horses” sign, that trail usually leads to a cemetery. Wander respectfully and read the epitaphs on the stones. Each one tells a story, and gives us a tiny look at what it was like to live in these mountain communities. Kim Hainge, author