The Thing About Trains

04 Dec 2020

It doesn't matter where they're goin' - what matters is deciding to get on

BY Mandy Murry

Beneath the flocked white Christmas tree adorned with handmade wooden ornaments lay a hardbound book. Its cover, beaming light from what appeared to be a steam engine, a blanket of snow and the words, “The Polar Express.” For years, it was tradition to have a bell placed somewhere that it could ring with the movement of a door, to keep the magic of “believing” alive during the holidays. Written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, this book inspired many for years before Tom Hanks helped make it an annual holiday tradition, played out on passenger trains across the country. 

In our own backyard, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad operates The Polar Express™ November 6 through December 31, 2020. The 1¼ hour round-trip passenger excursion comes to life as the train departs the Bryson City depot for a journey through the quiet wilderness for a special visit to the North Pole. Set to the sounds of the motion picture soundtrack, guests on board will enjoy warm cocoa and a treat while listening and reading along with the magical story. Children’s faces show the magic of the season when the train arrives at the North Pole to find Santa Claus waiting. Santa will board The Polar Express™, greeting each child and presenting them with a special gift as in the story, their own silver sleigh bell. Christmas carols will be sung as they return to the Bryson City Depot.

Bryson City is abuzz with magical smiles and laughter from kids and adults wearing pajamas around town waiting to board the train for the experience. When train goers see Santa and the North Pole, excitement fills the air. It’s a win for everyone, as so many wonderful memories are made. Once at the North Pole, they will see the Hero Boy and Elves as well! It’s a special transformation of the year-round train operation. 

Originally known as The Murphy Branch, a former branch line of the Southern Railway between Dillsboro and Andrews, the iron rails brought new life to the mountains of Western North Carolina in 1880. In a time when mercantile business was scarce and only a few commodities of bare necessities were around, landlocked mountaineers began receiving knocks on their door from floods of salesmen who peddled oil lamps that superseded tallow candles and New England "factory cloth" to replace scratchy, uncomfortable homespun. From door to door, they sold books, pump organs, enlarged pictures, jewelry, lightning rods, baubles and doodads.

The turn of the 20th century brought about four daily services between Asheville and Murphy.  The rail line experienced its heaviest use during wartime, in the early 1940s when the massive Fontana Dam was constructed. Thousands of carloads of cement, equipment and other materials reached the construction site by rail on a spur line built from Bushnell to Fontana. Huge shipments of copper ore from mines in the western end of North Carolina and Copperhill, TN, increased the line's tonnage. In the 1920s, ribbons of concrete crawled through the mountains, linking towns together.

With the increasing popularity of the automobile, passenger traffic on the railroad declined, discontinuing all passenger traffic on the Murphy Branch on July 16, 1948, ending 64 years of service that had opened Western North Carolina to the outside world. When freight traffic dropped off by 1985, Norfolk Southern closed the Andrews to Murphy leg of the Murphy Branch, and the state of North Carolina purchased the Dillsboro to Murphy tracks to keep them from being destroyed.

The Great Smoky Mountains Railway was formed in 1988. American Heritage Railways purchased it in December 1999. Today it operates as the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR) and an upward of 200,000 passengers enjoy the scenery and the experience of a true operational railroad each year aboard passenger excursion trains. Special themed trains and events run at different times during the year, including the Steam of the Smokies, steam engine No. 1702, Western North Carolina’s most historic steam locomotives with a rich history and impressive engineering. 

Premier special event trains

Uncorked Wine and Rail: A pairing experience with first-class dining offered certain days throughout the season. Everyone receives an exceptional meal paired perfectly with samples of multiple wines and comes with a souvenir GSMR wine glass to take home. Adults Only

Shine & Dine- Moonshine Experience: The Carolina Shine is GSMR’s all-adult, first-class moonshine car featuring copper-lined walls filled with the history of moonshining in the region. Each moonshine jar is handcrafted and authentically infused with real fruit; the way moonshine was meant to be made! Ticket purchase includes a fresh pulled pork BBQ meal, souvenir GSMR Carolina Shine drinking mason jar glass, plenty of ‘shine samples, and an entertaining ride! Adults Only

BBQ & Brews: A fun time for all ages, including evening rides available to the Fontana Trestle in hopes of catching the sunset while sampling handcrafted local brews and freshly prepared BBQ!

All Aboard Peanuts® The Great Pumpkin Patch Express: Kids love to put on their Halloween costume and ride the train to a pumpkin patch where they join Charlie Brown and Snoopy, play games, trick-or-treat and pick the perfect pumpkin out of the patch. Weekends in October

Adventure trains

The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad adventure packages are great for the ultimate Smoky Mountains experience. Guests ride the train one way, have lunch and then enjoy the selection of their choice. 

Rafting: Guests get to cruise the rapids and raft eight miles of the Nantahala River, fully guided.

Rail & Trail:  GSMR sends guests aboard a customized Jeep® for exploration up the mountains, past waterfalls and lakes, up to the Appalachian Trail and back.

Tarzan Train- Ziplining and Rail: A fully guided canopy tour offering 13 ziplines and eight sky bridges with spectacular views of the Smoky Mountains, Fontana Lake and Clingmans Dome.

Private Parties are available as well. Book an entire caboose to ride in style for your party or gathering. These are great for family reunions, birthday parties, private meetings, corporate field trips or just any time. Their cabooses accommodate up to 15 people with seating on the main level and in the cupola. The cabooses feature heat, private bathrooms, windows that can be opened and open-air vestibules at each end for unobstructed views. The Carolina Shine is one of the most popular adult experiences. For private parties larger than 15, train cars can be rented out for groups or even the entire train! 

And of course, ‘tis the season for The Polar Express™. 

All Aboard!

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