The Murphy Branch of the Western North Carolina Railroad delivered thousands of mountaineers from the wilderness of their landlocked hills. A year after iron rails reached Asheville in 1880, workers scattered to the west of the city, digging, filling, and blasting an extension of the line that stretched 116 miles to Murphy, providing thousands with a path to reach the outside world. The Murphy Branch experienced its heaviest business in the early 1940s when the massive Fontana Dam was constructed during World War II. 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, Tennessee, increased the tonnage of theline. In the 1920s, ribbons of concrete crawled through the mountains, linking towns together. Passenger traffic on the Murphy Branch, then owned by the sprawling Southern Railway System, began to decline as a result of the introduction of automobile and bus travel. Southern discontinued all passenger traffic on the Murphy Branch on July 16th, 1948, ending 64 years of service that 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. By 1988, many entities had come together to form the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, which then began running excursions. Rolling stock for the GSMR was purchased from various railroads around the nation. The Dillsboro to Nantahala route was one of the most scenic on the Murphy Branch and the excursion trains caught on right away. Upward of 200,000 passengers enjoy the scenery each year aboard the excursion trains. American Heritage Railways purchased the GSMR in December of 1999. The Great Smoky Mountains Railway operates today as the newly organized Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
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