Remembering Judson, WNC’s underwater ghost town

A 1940s-era look at what would become Fontana Lake. I Photo via Buncombe County Special Collections

Fontana Lake (located ~1.5 hours away in Bryson City) is one of WNC’s most popular outdoor destinations. While it’s well known as the region’s largest lake with the tallest dam east of the Rocky Mountains, the abandoned town of Judson that lies beneath the lake’s waters is less well known. Today, let’s take a dive (see what we did there?) into its underwater past.

The former small town located in Swain County had ~600 residents and a small variety of shops including a sawmill and a post office. Life in the small town was typical until the 1930s and 1940s, when Swain County sold an abundance of private land to the federal government to create Fontana Lake. The lake was created to supply hydroelectric power to companies producing aircraft, munitions, and ships during World War II.

A 1940s-era postcard showcasing Fontana Dam. I Photo via Buncombe County Special Collections

 

Once Fontana Dam was completed in 1944 (creating the Fontana Lake reservoir upriver)  Judson became submerged, and all residents were immediately displaced due to the flooding of thousands of acres. It’s a tragic loss for residents of the area whose homes and ancestral lands now exist underwater. 

To appease the residents whose town and primary roadway were now submerged, the government offered to build a replacement road. The aptly named “Road to Nowhere,” whose sign can still be seen in the Smoky Mountains of Bryson City, was intended to be about 30 miles long, but only six miles and a tunnel ever came to fruition due to environmental concerns. In lieu of finishing the road, the US Department of Interior settled upon a $52 million payment to Swain County in 2018.

Fontana Lake today. I Photo by @adamgravett

While Fontana Lake today offers recreational opportunities like smallmouth bass fishing and houseboat rentals, it also offers views of the submerged ghost town when the lake is extremely low. With permission during drawdowns, visitors can sometimes still catch glimpses of it.