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A Guide to "The Fugitive's" North Carolina
Thirty years ago, Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones starred in a big time action movie. The film's props and locations are still out there in the mountains to this day, but for how much longer?
I’m gonna get to The Fugitive in a moment, but I want to start with something from the movie that snuck up on me. During the summer of 2015, I rafted the Cheoah River, which is out near the Tennessee border. It’s only a river sometimes. I’ll get back to this, but the main channel had no water in it for the better part of a century, which means it’s narrow and steep and laden with rocks, brush, and a lot of dangerous whitewater stuff. Raft guides take it very seriously. I was a guide once, and the Cheoah intimidated me.
As we thankfully got to the end, the rapids subsided and we floated on to Lake Calderwood. I glanced up to my right and saw something I didn’t expect. Something that blew my mind more than any section of frothy whitewater. There, towering over me, was the dam that Dr. Richard Kimble jumped off of in the 1993 thriller The Fugitive.
I’d just been through the most intense rafting experience of my life. All I could think about for the rest of the day was Harrison Ford up on that dam, telling Tommy Lee Jones that he didn’t kill his wife.
The Fugitive and its North Carolina backdrop
The Fugitive was released 30 years ago this week. It was a huge hit in 1993, grossing $369 million at the box office. It’s never really gone away, thanks to the fact that it played in heavy rotation on cable networks looking to fill time. It helps that it’s a great movie, created and put together in a way that nobody really does anymore. The Fugitive is also the rare thriller that has a plethora of fantastic improvised lines, like this one:
The result is that The Fugitive feels loose, intense, and real in a way that the CGI-laden, tightly scripted movies of today do not. If you have the time, I’d highly encourage you to read this new oral history from Rolling Stone that tells how the movie came together. Of note: The screenwriter for The Fugitive was Jeb Stuart, who grew up around the Charlotte area and graduated from Ashbrook High School in Gastonia. Stuart, who also wrote Die Hard, HAD NOT WRITTEN THE ENDING OF THE FUGITIVE by the time they had started shooting it. He also witnessed what it took to get Tommy Lee Jones to actually utter the movie’s most famous line, which comes after Harrison Ford says that he didn’t kill his wife. According to Stuart:
I was on set that day. Tommy did not want to say “I don’t care.” But he needed to tell the audience he does not care if the guy’s innocent or guilty. It was freezing cold. The water’s running through. Harrison had been such a trooper. He’s standing there in this opening, which has a jump of about four feet, to a mattress. We’re all freezing. And Tommy keeps saying, “No, I don’t like that line. It doesn’t work.” And we had, “I don’t care” in the script, but he kept trying others. And so after a while I just said, “Why don’t you just try, ‘I don’t care?'” And once he did it, [the director] Andy Davis said, “That’s it. Wrap.”
The climax of that scene was shot at the Cheoah Dam and yes, Harrison Ford did stand on the edge, 225 above the river below. The shot itself was done with a little trickery: The filmmakers built a section of tunnel, put it on the back of a flatbed truck, drove it out on the dam, pivoted it, ran water through it, and got their shots. When they were done, they put the pipe back in place and drove away. (The rest of the tunnel scenes were shot on an elaborate sound stage in Chicago).
Filmmakers ended up throwing six dummies off of the dam. They cost around $12,000 each and most of them came back in pieces. And if you’re wondering, some physicists say a real person making that jump could possibly survive because the churning water below breaks the surface tension. Still though. Don’t try it.
In all, the tunnel scenes and the dam jump cost around $2 million of the movie’s $70 million budget. According to the Los Angeles Times:
The producers paid Alcoa, the dam’s operators, for two days’ use of the facility, mostly in water fees of $12,000. The first day, the dam’s sluices were open at full throttle pouring about 150 million gallons an hour. The second day’s shoot, they were shut completely as an unsuccessful search is conducted for Ford’s body. As [co-producer Peter] MacGregor-Scott said: “That’s some water bill.”
The movie has staying power, as do a lot of its filming locations in western North Carolina. Even its biggest props are still out there. Here, then, is a quick guide to some of the places that remain from the movie, and some of the other stuff that you should check out while you’re there.
This thing is the oldest damn dam in the whole Tennessee Valley Authority system. It took three years to build, and when it was finished in 1919, it was the most powerful hydroelectric dam in the world. It was also, at 225 feet tall, the highest overflow dam on Earth.
Its name is a little misleading. The Cheoah Dam is actually a dam on the Little Tennessee River. The Cheoah River flows into that river about 1,000 feet or so below the dam.
Regardless, the Cheoah Dam was so well built that it became a model for how other hydroelectric dams should be constructed. It’s also held up fairly well. Again, the thing is 104 years old at this point, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Even so, it looks… old. Which, I dunno, is not the way you want a dam to look, maybe? So, how much longer will it last?
Maybe 30-40 years. In 2012, Alcoa used a federal recovery grant given out during the Great Recession to modernize the dam. The bulk of the money went to replacing the turbines and generators, some of which were originally installed when the dam opened in 1919. The project increased the electrical output as well. Today, it can generate enough electricity to power roughly 100,000 homes.
Highway 129 still runs right past it, and there are places to pull off to get a better view. The top of the dam is fenced off, lest you want to re-create the jump. Please. Don’t.
The Train Wreck
The thing that causes Richard Kimble to become, ahem, The Fugitive, is a prison bus crash. After other prisoners attack the guards and the driver is inadvertently shot, the whole bus rolls down a hill and lands on some train tracks. Kimble climbs out and jumps just before the locomotive turns it into a pile of twisted metal. Today, you’d probably use CGI to depict something like this, but movie makers didn’t have that sort of technology back then, kids. No matter! They decided to wreck a real locomotive into a real bus, and the result is a real holy shit moment:
That scene cost about $1.5 million to shoot, and the filmmakers only got one crack at it. The train cars themselves were stripped down, and were rigged to come apart (the derailed boxcars are actually rolling down a spur track that was built for the movie). According to a fantastic play-by-play accounting in the Los Angeles Times, filmmakers took over a section of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad for two months to get things ready. They also had to find old train cars and change the logos, because no actual railroad company wanted to be associated with a crash. In the end, they used 16 cameras to get the shots they needed, most of them operated remotely and for good reason. One of them ended up underneath 26 feet of dirt and took eight hours to dig out. But no cameras were destroyed, and the whole crash lasted about 60 seconds. That incredibly hard to make scene made things a lot easier down the line, editor Don Brochu told Rolling Stone:
When the train wreck hit during a test screening, there was a buzz in the audience for over two minutes. People were just freaking out. After that, the studio totally left [director] Andy [Davis] alone.
After the movie, the filmmakers just left the bus and the locomotive behind, and 30 years later, they’re still there on the side of the tracks near Dillsboro. You can see them through the woods if you park on the side of Haywood Road near the Jackson County Green Energy Park, but actually getting up close on foot isn’t allowed. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad owns the property, the tracks, and the props themselves, and they don’t want you all up on it. The best way to see it up close and legally is to buy a ticket.
So, are they gonna stay there? John Boyle, western North Carolina’s longtime answer man, asked that question earlier this year in a story for the Asheville Watchdog. The answer? Yes. The wreckage is still a draw, the railroad folks told him, and they swear they’re not gonna get rid of it.
What Else Is Out There?
These movie-related spots are pretty great, but they’re a real long drive from the most populated parts of North Carolina. If you’re gonna go, you might as well get as much bang for your buck as you can.
Look, I know you’ve all heard of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but the Cherohala Skyway is what you’d get if you boiled the more famous road down to syrup. It runs 43 miles from Robbinsville to Telico Plains, Tennessee, and it’s relatively new: It opened in 1996. The idea was born in 1958, when the show Wagon Train was hugely popular on TV. All sorts of people wanted to create their own Wagon Trains of varying historical accuracy (see: The one that ran from North Wilkesboro to Boone). In Tellico Plains, a guy named Sam Williams organized one to get publicity for a new highway in the area “since our roads are only fit for covered wagons.”
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In six weeks, Williams organized a journey from Tellico Plains to Murphy with 67 wagon trains and 325 horseback riders. The event was so surprisingly popular that politicians decided they needed to harness that energy and build a road between both places. They couldn’t construct one between Tellico Plains and Murphy, but they could use nothing but public land to run a highway between there and Robbinsville. In 1962, Congress appropriated a bunch of money to get the process started, which then took 34 years to complete. They originally estimated that 5 million cars would use it every year, which is laughably ambitious (that’s 10 cars every minute for an entire year). Instead, the Skyway sees about 20 cars and 100 motorcycles a day, mostly in the summer. It’s far less crowded than the Tail of the Dragon, which is not too far away. Most times, driving the Cherohala is like driving on your own private scenic highway.
On a personal note, the Skyway got me out of a pretty good jam. In 2018, I drove way out to far western North Carolina to try and find a remote spot that had been the scene of a forgotten but highly significant murder. I started in Murphy, drove my little Volvo out on to increasingly worse roads until I crossed into Tennessee on forest service roads with loose gravel and no guardrails. I eventually started passing public campgrounds and found a few kiosks with maps on them, but there was nobody out there. It was March, and there was a dusting of snow on the ground. I had no cell service, so I just had to try and get back out to civilization. At some point, the gravel road I was on passed underneath the Skyway. It was the best thing I’d seen in hours. I made a turn, and I was back on the paved road within minutes.
Moral of the story: Sometimes it’s great to get off the beaten path. They’ll really make you appreciate paved roads.
The Tapoco Lodge
I stumbled in here after I finished rafting the Cheoah. It’s a fantastic place that’s really out in the middle of nowhere. The Tapoco Lodge has been around since 1930, and sits on land that used to be the town of Tapoco, which was built to house construction crews and their families. The lodge itself sprang up to give workers at the Cheoah Dam a place to stay. Today it has beer, good food, a spa, a bunch of hotel rooms, and the Cheoah River runs right out back. It’s a great place to watch paddlers try to navigate intense rapids while you laugh from the safety of an Adirondack chair.
For a very long time, the 22-mile-long Cheoah River was the waterway that time forgot. Alcoa built the Santeetlah Dam on the Cheoah in 1928 to make electricity for its smelter in Tennessee, and the stretch of river from Lake Santeetlah to Lake Calderwood was dry for 77 years. Then in 2005, American Whitewater convinced the feds in charge of Alcoa’s dam permit to mandate 18 days of whitewater dam releases every year. Immediately, kayakers and rafters showed up.
What they found: 77 years worth of brush and trees had grown up in the river bed, and road crews had blasted rock into the channel. The biggest trees in the river bed were cut down. Still, paddling the Cheoah during a dam release is a lot like just making your way through a flooded forest, where shrubs and boulders and root balls are in your way. The lower section drops 140 feet per mile. The experience is extremely intense, and raft guides are sort of in awe of it. You can see how narrow, frothy, and unrelenting it is in the video below:
Also, it should be noted that there are many ways to die on the Cheoah. A lot of whitewater rivers have undercut rocks and underwater logs, but the Cheoah has a lot more than most. It also has a lot of brush that sits, in some cases, right in the middle of the best path down the river. The water goes through. People do not. Hence, as I noted in a story for Our State magazine, death by shrub is a real possibility.
I did not die on the Cheoah. I was merely attacked by paper wasps that stung me under the eye and on both forearms. Our guide, looking for a calm place to stop the raft for a second, reached up and grabbed a branch with a large nest hanging on it. Chaos ensued.
So yes, the reward for surviving the Cheoah is a spectacular view of the dam made famous by The Fugitive. But like a lot of places out in western North Carolina, you don’t need a movie to have a memorable experience.