This week will mark the official completion and opening of the Foothills Parkway “Missing Link,” the product of grueling decades-long engineering, funding and construction efforts.
The 16-mile stretch of road overlooking the picturesque central and eastern sections of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is part of the 72-mile Foothills Parkway approved by Congress in the 1940s.
“This is a remarkable feeling for all of us because many of our colleagues did not think we would see this day,” said Dana Soehn, management assistant and public affairs specialist for GSMNP. “There were so many starts and stops along this construction journey that many times it seemed we were not going to get to this finish line.”
After finishing paving this fall, NPS on Saturday will open the section from Walland to Wears Valley to the public, providing 33 total miles of contiguous parkway.
“There’s a lot of celebration that we are going to be able to have next week,” Soehn said. “There has always been this constant of enthusiasm and support to continue the construction of the parkway.”
Advocates of the parkway
“The people that have been the drivers behind making sure that we hit the next milestones and meet the next challenge I think they’re all going to be with us, but Dean Stone unfortunately will not be among us,” Soehn said.
The late Stone, the longtime editor of The Daily Times, died in 2016 and was a strong advocate for the Foothills Parkway and an insistent supporter of finishing the “Missing Link.” The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a resolution introduced by U.S. Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr. that would name Bridge 2 of the completed section of the parkway the Dean Stone Bridge.
Duncan and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. and a Maryville native, both have been instrumental in progressing the project by securing funds in the House and Senate, advocates said.
“I think all sorts of local people and tourists will come up here and enjoy these views, but I know that the people who have supported this project for so long will think it’s really special,” Soehn said. “We’re excited for (parkway advocates) to get to see the Missing Link completed.”
Some locals who have followed the project echo Soehn’s excitement.
“I am just tickled pink,” Townsend resident Rob Roberson said of the Missing Link’s completion. “With these beautiful mountains and their slopes, and for them to cut a shelf that will always be there, (past failed attempts to complete the project) just bothered me.”
Roberson, 88, has followed the parkway’s progress closely since the 1980s because of his love for the mountains.
“They tore up the slopes and they were collapsing and falling down,” Roberson recalled of early, failed attempts to build the Missing Link. “But now it’s finally getting completed, and I just couldn’t be more glad.”
After reading about the project in a Daily Times editorial by Stone in the late 1980s, Roberson began collecting clips from various local newspapers in the area, following the progress of and even writing letters to the editor about the Missing Link.
“I just thought it would be such a great thing and it would be such a shame if they damaged the mountains and nothing came of it,” Roberson said. “To see it come together after this many years is such a special thing and is so good for our community. ... It’s going to be a really great view.”
A destination of its own
“There are many overlooks that provide viewing opportunities both into the park and back toward Maryville, into the ridge and valley,” Soehn said. “This 16-mile section in particular provides a viewshed that you can’t see anywhere else and looks at the highest peaks of the park.
“This offers unparalleled views to anything else along the parkway, and I believe it is going to become a destination of its own,” she added.
With slivers of red and orange just beginning to surface through the mostly green mountain foliage visible from Bridge 2 during the last week of October, Soehn reflected on the significance of the opening’s timing.
“We were very hopeful that we were going to finish it before it got too cold and that paving window closed,” she said. “It was always our hope to finish in time for fall color and while the color has been later than normal, for this project’s purposes, it looks like it’ll be timed perfectly.”
Tourists and locals alike are invited to experience the Missing Link on foot Thursday morning for a unique pedestrian opportunity before it opens to motorists Saturday.
Participants will be shuttled to the site from River Rat parking lot — 8435 State Highway 73, Townsend — at approximately 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and noon. Pedestrians should expect about a two-mile walk with 10 percent grade.
“While the parkway is designed as a scenic driving experience, we wanted to provide one special opportunity for people to experience it by foot before it opens to motorists,” Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said in a press release. “We hope the public will join us for this Community Day celebration as we enjoy the beauty of the parkway and the new recreational opportunities it provides for our local residents and visitors.”
The Missing Link will be open to vehicles beginning Saturday morning.