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Swain County is nearing the end of an ongoing saga with neighboring Graham County over who will provide emergency services to Deal’s Gap.

The sparring counties reached a tentative agreement last week pending approval by both boards.

According to the agreement, Swain will reimburse Graham $250 for each time it sends an ambulance to Deal’s Gap, as well as pay any portion of ambulance bills that is uncollectible.

“It is good news. We can still be a friend to Swain County and help them out in that area but in this case we are being fairly compensated,” said Steve Odom, chairman of the Graham County commissioners.

In exchange, Graham will also reimburse Swain for taking care of emergency calls at Graham’s Tsali mountain biking area, which is closer to Swain.

Kevin King, county manager for Swain, called it a fair agreement and said he expects commissioners to approve the plan next week.

Deal’s Gap — an outlying Swain territory that is completely bordered by Graham — receives droves of thrill-seeking motorcyclists headed to the Dragon and Hellbender, world-famous sections of winding roads. But it would take an ambulance 45 minutes to get there from Swain, so Graham has long provided emergency services to the territory.

Graham was being hit in the pocketbook by routinely covering all 911 calls to the area and grew weary of responding to an increasing number of serious wrecks. Each time Graham sends an ambulance out of the county to the remote Deals Gap territory, “We have to call in backup crews to cover our own county,” Odom said.

And patients treated don’t always pay their ambulance bill.

“A lot of times we are left holding the bag,” Odom said.

Odom said Swain was taking advantage of Graham. The county proposed everything from annexing the territory to demanding $80,000 annually from Swain.

But Swain County claimed it was incurring its own expenses transporting Graham patients to area hospitals from the Tsali campground.

After a months-long stalemate on the issue, Graham decided to drop all emergency services to the area in January. Swain leaders retreated from their line in the sand and said for the first time, they would be willing to negotiate.

But according to King, the two decided to cooperate again after a rockslide shut down the Dragon.

“A lot of conversation came out of those few days it was closed,” said King.

While King is unsure on why Graham County backed down from its initial demands, he suspects the county could not find figures to back up their initial request, which he called extravagant.

Before the tentative agreement was reached, Swain’s rescue squad had independently collaborated with the Steacoah rescue squad to come up with an agreement of its own. Stecoah would provide first-responder coverage to the area until Swain could make the long drive to Deal’s Gap.

King said the new arrangement will again solidify the relationship between the two counties.

“We’re all mountain people and trying to reach an agreement,” said King.

Becky Johnson contributed to this article.

Despite Graham County pledging to end all emergency services to Deal’s Gap starting Jan. 1, its EMS director has already sent rescue squads to respond to tractor trailer wrecks in the Swain territory since the year began.

Graham’s emergency services director Larry Hembree says he’ll continue to send ambulances to Deal’s Gap, but only if Swain County asks for help.

“If there’s an ambulance call, and they request our assistance, we will go,” said Hembree.

Until this year, Graham habitually responded to wrecks in Swain’s Deal’s Gap — gateway to the world-famous Dragon, a mythic road in Tennessee that sports 318 curves in 11 miles. A curvy stretch of N.C. 28 known as Hellbender also winds through Deals Gap. Both attract hordes of motorcycles and sports cars.

Starting this year, Graham County commissioners officially handed over emergency services for the area to Swain after growing exasperated with the increasingly expensive service as the number of wrecks rose there. Graham asked Swain for a financial contribution to continue emergency coverage, but Swain refused.

Graham County Chairman Steve Odom said 911 calls have been transferred to Swain County, and that Graham should not respond without an agreement in writing — in contrast to Hembree’s stance that they would continue to pitch in if needed.

“Without a mutual aid agreement in place, it puts our county at a risk of liability,” said Odom. “You’re leaving your home jurisdiction, going into another jurisdiction...you’re putting your county at risk because you’re doing something at risk.”

While calls have been few and far between for now, the true test of Swain’s ability to respond will come when the weather warms up and droves of motorcycles and sports cars crowd up the dangerously curvy roads there.

“Around the first of April is when it’s going to heat up,” said Graham County Commissioner Steve Odom. “That’s not too far off. I guess we’ll see how good a job they do at that point.”

Kevin King, county manager for Swain, said the county is still exploring its options, including assigning a first responder to Deal’s Gap.

But for Swain, a new mutual aid agreement with Graham is still not off the table.

“If they’ve incurred costs down there, we want to ensure that they break even,” said King. “We would be more than happy to entertain a mutual agreement that we would pick up the difference.”

Previously, Graham responded to wrecks in Deal’s Gap in exchange for Swain transporting Graham residents from the hospital in Bryson City to other destinations and responding to mountain bike accidents in Graham County’s Tsali Recreation Area. But Graham claimed the arrangement was far from equal.

Since the debate began, Graham has suggested everything from annexing the territory to receiving $100,000 annually from Swain for its services.

The first option was out of the question for Swain, and the $100,000 seemed exorbitant. Graham lowered its sights to $80,000 per year, but that was still higher than Swain desired.

King said Swain does not want to shell out the $50,000 annual payment that Graham has requested most recently.

Swain wants to make sure it’s not handing over more than necessary since Graham will recoup some of the costs from the patients it transports.

Nevertheless, Swain Commissioner David Monteith said he’s optimistic about sitting down with Graham commissioners soon to work out a deal.

“I think we’ve found some ground everybody can work for,” said Monteith, though he would not elaborate. “I think what’s going to take place is going to be good.”


What’s Swain doing out there?

Deal’s Gap is an outlying area of Swain County that’s surrounded by Graham County. Deal’s Gap bordered the rest of Swain County in the past but became isolated after Lake Fontana was created.

The satellite territory is so far-flung that it takes an ambulance 45 minutes to reach it from Bryson City. Ambulances from neighboring Graham County can arrive on scene a full 20 minutes faster.

Graham County delivered yet another jolt to the three-month debate over who should provide emergency services to Deal’s Gap, a motorcycle mecca in a satellite portion of Swain County that sees serious wrecks each year.

Graham commissioners voted 3-2 at its latest meeting to stop providing rescue and law enforcement to the Swain County territory starting Jan 1. Graham routinely handled all emergency calls to the remote area as a favor to Swain, but grew tired of providing the service and demanded $80,000 annually from Swain as compensation. Swain refused, however, prompting Graham’s surprise move to end services.

“The negotiations just don’t seem to be going anywhere,” said Graham County Commissioner Steve Odom. “They need to realize that that is their county. If they are genuinely concerned, they’re going to have to get out their checkbook. We can’t continue to do it for nothing.”

Since Swain doesn’t seem eager to pay up, Odom suggests that a part of the $195,000 Swain gets in property taxes from Deal’s Gap be used to set up an EMS substation to ensure quick response times once Swain has to take over the calls. It currently takes Swain from 45-50 minutes to reach the Deal’s Gap area.

At Monday’s county commissioner’s meeting, Swain County Manager Kevin King said the cost of installing such a substation in Deal’s Gap would be “astronomical” considering that there are only 34 homes and businesses in the area. The emergency calls to the area, however, stem from hordes of tourists riding sports cars and motorcycles on the famed twisty roads in the region known as the Hellbender and Tail of the Dragon.

One possible solution is to expedite the setup of a proposed substation in the western part of Swain County, which would cut response times to Deal’s Gap to 35-40 minutes. King said Blount County in Tennessee has comparable response times to similar wrecks on the other side of the state border near Deal’s Gap.

Glenn Jones, chairman of the Swain County Board of Commissioners, said while that response times may not be the best at first, the county would “iron the kinks out” in time.

At the same meeting, Graham County also voted unanimously to end trash pickup services for Deal’s Gap, breaking a $21,000 annual contract with Swain County. While Graham claimed the service actually costs close to $36,000, Jones said he doubts the bill will go over a third of the original $21,000.

Swain County had contracted that service out to Graham since its garbage trucks pass by the Deal’s Gap area anyway. But King said he will now look at how Swain County can take over the garbage pickup services itself.


Swain’s position

Swain continues to point out that it responds to calls in the Graham County portion of the Tsali Recreation Area, a popular area for mountain bikers, and provides ambulance transport for Graham residents who end up in Swain’s hospital — both of which balance out Graham’s assistance in Deal’s Gap, Swain claims.

Another unanimous vote from Graham at its last meeting, however, resolved to take over the transport of its residents from Swain County Hospital to other area hospitals.

Meanwhile, Swain County plans to continue providing services in the Tsali area.

During the negotiations, Swain had offered to station an ambulance in Deal’s Gap during heavy traffic weekends and give Graham a discount to house any overflow prisoners in the Swain jail, offering to charge $40 instead of $50 per day. The offer was somewhat self-serving, as Swain would like to lure Graham to house prisoners in its new jail, which is struggling financially.

Odom said Graham County is still open to hearing other offers from Swain before the year’s end.

While Swain County Commissioners have not voted yet on a resolution on Deal’s Gap, no one brought up the idea of renegotiating with Graham at the latest meeting.

“It’s kind of like we’re beating a dead horse,” said Jones. “I think they know and we know, we don’t have $80,000.”

Graham County has thrown a curve ball in an ongoing debate with Swain County over ambulance service in Deal’s Gap, a motorcycle mecca that sees a disproportionately large share of wrecks.

Deal’s Gap is an outlying area of Swain County, so far-flung that it takes an ambulance 45 minutes to reach it from Swain County. The area is much closer to Graham, which has historically provided emergency services to the area as a courtesy.

Graham and Swain are at a stalemate in negotiations over whether Graham should be compensated for providing the service within Swain’s borders. Swain thus far has refused to ante up, claiming it already provides a quid pro quo by transporting Graham residents who end up in the Swain County Hospital.

In a surprise move on Tuesday, Graham informed Swain that it would not answer emergency calls to Deal’s Gap over Labor Day weekend. Graham will have its hands full responding to calls within its own borders, they said.

Swain County Manager Kevin King said the news came as a surprise, since the two counties were still in talks and Graham previously said it would give Swain time to make arrangements to cover the area if they couldn’t come to another resolution.

King said Swain County generally has two ambulances in service at any given time. A third ambulance that usually serves as back-up will be posted in the Deal’s Gap area for the Labor Day weekend.

King said Swain will also be willing to help out Graham if they are stretched too thin.

“If they need our help, we will be right there,” King said.

Swain will continue transporting Graham residents receiving treatment at Swain’s hospital.

“We are not going to play that game with them,” King said.

Swain and Graham county commissioners agreed Monday to let their respective county managers look at solid numbers before deciding on a resolution to the Deal’s Gap quandary.

Graham County, which provides rescue service to the satellite Swain County territory and motorcycle mecca, wants Swain to contribute financially for the service, take care of its own terrain despite the distance or cede the 1,900-acre area to Graham.

Meanwhile, Swain has countered that it loses money each time it transports Graham County residents and those injured in Graham County’s Tsali Recreation Area— one of the nation’s premier mountain biking destinations — from its Bryson City hospital on to larger hospitals in Sylva and Asheville. These patients end up in Swain County’s hospital because Graham County does not have a hospital of its own.

Contrary to what Graham County had originally asserted, Swain County Manager Kevin King claimed Swain was the real financial loser on the two counties’ mutual aid agreement.

King presented the results of his research to the two boards at the second meeting called specifically to address this issue.

Assuming that the county recoups the typical 70 percent of its expenses from the patients it transfers to hospitals, each ambulance trips equals a loss of $214 for the counties, according to King.

Last year, Swain County made 55 trips to the Tsali area and 110 trips transporting Graham County patients from Bryson City to bigger hospitals. That would mean a total loss of more than $35,000 for Swain County.

On the other hand, Graham County made 29 trips to the Deal’s Gap area last year, which according to King’s calculations, signifies that Graham County lost a bit more than $6,000 last year.

But Graham County Manager Lynn Cody said the expense is much greater than that.

“It’s costing little over $100,000 to compensate our EMS, fire and rescue service and our law enforcement,” said Cody.

King said Graham County has not backed up that figure thus far.

“Up to this point, they have not proven it,” said King. “I’m empathetic to what they’re saying. I just don’t think it’s costing them what they’re saying it costs.”

According to Cody, however, the final figure must take into account the added costs associated with Graham County ambulances making a long trip on windy roads to arrive at an accident scene, only to find both the victim and motorcycle missing. Furthermore, some of the injured refuse to be treated after the ambulance has already arrived. In these not so rare occurrences, Graham County can’t bill anyone for their trip, leading not only to a loss of time and money, but also more wear and tear on their vehicles.

Terry Slaughter, EMS director for Graham County, agreed that responding to calls at Deal’s Gap has not exactly been easygoing, even if it is only an issue in the summertime when throngs of motorcyclists crowd the roads there.

“It’s a little more time consuming than just a typical call where you pick up someone at their home,” said Slaughter. But fortunately, they have never had a situation where ambulances were too tied up at Deal’s Gap to respond to calls in Graham County, thanks in part to mutual aid agreements with other counties, he said.

Out of Swain County’s $11 million budget this year, about $798,000 has been allocated to EMS. Meanwhile. Graham County expends about $884,000 of its $12.6 million budget on EMS services.

Glenn Jones, chairman of the Swain County Board of Commissioners, said he hoped the two counties would carry on with the status quo.

“I would like to see us get along together and continue a mutual agreement,” Jones said. “[But] if we have to go it alone, we probably are prepared to do that.”

If Swain County took over rescue service at Deal’s Gap, its ambulances would have to travel nearly 50 minutes to respond to calls. The only other option would be to put up an EMS substation in Deal’s Gap.

Graham County Chairman Steve Odom said he would be willing to give Swain County six months to prepare an such a facility.

But Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said it would be hard to pull off that special service for 8 full-time residents out of about 13,500 residents in Swain County.

“I don’t see that we could justify it to the taxpayer,” said Monteith.

King said that people who move into the outskirts of Swain County, like Deal’s Gap, realize what they’re getting themselves into.

“They know when they buy that property where EMS is, where law enforcement is, where the courthouse is,” King said.


Redrawing county lines?

Swain stands to lose $195,000 in annual tax revenue from the 34 homes and businesses in Deal’s Gap if it were taken over by Graham County.

Odom said Graham County is not following through on its annexation proposal at this point, but it isn’t yet out of the question. He said Graham is fully prepared to petition the state legislature to move county lines.

“If they failed to give us enough money, if they fail to take care of it yes, then I don’t know why we shouldn’t pursue it, “ said Odom. “Even if it’s a long drawn-out process, I think the argument is on our side.”

Ben Steinberg, general manager at Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort, said he doesn’t see a need for Graham County to take over since he doesn’t mind living in isolation.

“This area, while it may not offer the creature comforts of modern life, it’s a small price to pay for the beauty of the natural surroundings,” said Steinberg. “We run to town once a week, get all the things we need. Our sign out front says population 8, and we absolutely love it.”

Steinberg said even if Graham County did annex the territory, life in Deal’s Gap probably wouldn’t change drastically.

“I’m not sure either community will be able to provide all the services we would need,” Steinberg said.

An inspiration for songs, poems, and pilgrimages by motorcycle enthusiasts from around the world, the challengingly curvy stretch of U.S. 129 that crosses over from Western North Carolina to Tennessee has become the center of a political dispute between Swain and Graham counties.

This mythical road, known as The Dragon, becomes packed every summer with motorcycles and sports cars that navigate its famous 318 curves in 11 miles. But the road’s ever-increasing popularity has led to a parallel rise in accidents on the Dragon and the North Carolina roads that lead up to it, including the “Tail of the Dragon” and N.C. 28, or “Hellbender.”

Accidents range from minor falls to wrecks off the road that require intensive rescue efforts and airlifts. Further complicating the rescue effort is the isolation of the roads, as well as gaps in cell phone service that make it difficult to call for help.

Graham County has traditionally provided EMS and rescue service to the area, including in Deal’s Gap, a satellite part of Swain County that’s bordered by Graham County and Tennessee. But as the number of calls from the area go up, so do costs for Graham County.

Officials from both counties have met as recently as Monday (Aug. 24) to discuss new arrangements. Graham County has presented three possible courses of action: annexing this estranged portion of Swain County, receiving annual contributions from Swain County to cover expenses, or handing over full responsibility for the area to Swain County.

Meanwhile, Swain County has countered that it transports patients from Graham County at no charge from its hospital in Bryson City to larger facilities in Sylva or Asheville. While the two counties attempt to decide the fate of this 1,900-acre section of Swain County, throngs of riders and drivers continue to flock to the roads there that enjoy legendary status.


The allure of the Dragon

Visitors to the Tail of the Dragon don’t come looking for standard views, according to Ron Johnson, co-owner of the informational Web site TailoftheDragon.com.

“The pavement is beautiful. The scenery is the road itself,” said Johnson, who has been riding the Tail since 1975. “It’s the most unusual road I have seen in my life. It’s out in the middle of nowhere — no intersecting roads, no houses, driveways, businesses. Every corner is different.”

Wayne Busch, owner of Waynesville-based America Rides Maps, said the Tail of the Dragon is well surfaced with nicely banked and cambered turns.

“It’s a very challenging road,” said Busch. “There’s one hairpin turn after another and another.”

Despite the thrills that come with negotiating the Tail, Busch said there are times he avoids the road altogether.

“I don’t go over there on the weekend,” he said. “It’s a zoo.”

According to Johnson, thousands of people have fun traversing the Deal’s Gap area every week. Many of them are passing through en route to the Dragon, especially during the summer and early fall.

There is at least one spot on the Tail where riders can pull over to watch the parade of notable cars and motorcycles, from antiques to “unique cars you’ve never heard of,” said Johnson, who once counted 74 Ferraris on the road in just one day. Vehicles there tend to run the gamut, from million-dollar cars to a rally of beat-up $500 cars passing through on a journey from New York to Louisiana every year.

But according to Busch, who has mapped more than 3,000 miles of road, people who focus only on the Tail are missing out on the “great stuff.”

“It’s really a shame. They don’t realize we have hundreds of hundreds of miles just like it,” Busch said. “That one has the fame and notoriety, and that’s what brings in the draw.”

Busch said those with high-performance machines come to the region to put them to the test, and that’s one possible theory for the rise in accidents.

“The road has been promoted as a challenge, and there are people who go there looking for a challenge,” he said. “They go there with expectations, and they try to go live them out.”

But Brad Talbott, owner of the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort, said the increase in accidents is simply the natural result of more traffic.

Moreover, he said the Tail is relatively safe, compared to other roads.

“For the number of folks we have, we don’t actually have that many accidents,” he said.

Johnson concurred, saying he felt safer riding on the Dragon than he felt on I-40.

“I don’t have to worry about dodging cars,” Johnson said. “I’m doing 30 to 35 mph, not 70.”


‘Unforgiving’ curves

In 2008, there were no motorcycle fatalities in Deal’s Gap nor on Graham County’s Cherohala Skyway (N.C. 143), another challenging road that sees heavy traffic from motorcycles. In a sharp upturn, there have been five motorcycle deaths on those roads this year.

Four of the five were on Hellbender, with two falling in the Swain County section and two on the Graham County stretch. The fifth death this year occurred on the Cherohala Skyway.

Terry Slaughter, Graham County’s EMS director, said there is no one type of wreck that is typical.

“Some wreck in the road, some out,” Slaughter said. “Sometimes, you have to have rescue personnel to work up drags, ropes and baskets.”

It usually takes Graham County ambulances about 20 to 30 minutes to get to the accident scene, but it takes witnesses 10 to 15 minutes on top of that to find a phone at a local business to call 911. If Swain County took over EMS and rescue service in Deal’s Gap, it would take 40 to 50 minutes to make the trip from Bryson City.

Over the years, Graham County EMS has responded to motorcyclists suffering everything from minor bumps and bruises to broken necks and heart attacks.

“There’s no coverage with the motorcycle,” said Larry Hembry, interim EMS director in Graham County. “I don’t think you can get your helmet to protect you.”

While speed is an issue on the Skyway, the majority of accidents on Tail of the Dragon and Hellbender are a result of inexperience and inattention, according to Sergeant Chris Wood with N.C. Highway Patrol.

In the past, fatalities in the Deal’s Gap area have resulted from riders not keeping their eyes on the road or pushing too hard on the curves.

“This is a very unforgiving area regarding mistakes,” Johnson said. “You got the mountain on one side and a drop-off on the other.”

Even years of riding on a motorcycle might not be enough preparation for the Tail of the Dragon and Hellbender if a rider isn’t accustomed to the mountainous terrain.

All five killed on Hellbender and the Cherohala Skyway this year came from out of state, Sgt. Wood said.

Talbott agreed that the type of terrain is instrumental to how well a motorcyclist can ride on certain roads. Talbott learned how to ride in Western North Carolina, so he had no trouble handling two-lane curvy roads, but it’s another story with bigger roads.

“Four-lanes scare me to death,” he said.

Talbott said he commends the highway patrol for ramping up efforts to promote safety, like putting up more signs and having conversations with bikers to warn them about dangers on the road. The state has even sent a few of its motorcycle squads to Deal’s Gap on request to create a better rapport between patrol officers and riders.

For Johnson, riding a motorcycle is similar to other risky activities like mountain climbing or hiking, and there is only so much officials can do.

“You can’t make everybody safe,” Johnson said.

Swain and Graham counties are at odds over who should provide rescue service to the isolated Deals Gap territory, a dispute that could lead to a redrawing of county lines.

The Deal’s Gap area is a satellite territory of Swain County, lying on the other side of Lake Fontana and surrounded by Graham.

Deal’s Gap is home to the infamous Tail of the Dragon, a stretch of U.S. 129 sporting 318 curves in just 11 miles. Motorcyclists and sports car drivers flock to the road from across the country to race the mountain curves. The result is lots of wrecks, requiring rescue service to an otherwise remote area. Until now, Graham has taken on the burden of responding to wrecks since it is so much closer.

“When it started getting popular, what was no more than four or five calls a year at most has turned into a nightmare,” said Steve Odom, the chairman of Graham County commissioners.

Graham County has grown weary of providing rescue, fire and law enforcement to the increasingly popular area and getting nothing in return.

“Graham County is trying to be a good neighbor, but it has gotten to the point where it has exceeded the good neighbor part,” said Lynn Cody, Graham County manager.

Graham is giving Swain County three options: move the county line so that Deal’s Gap is part of Graham, pay an annual fee to Graham County, or station their own rescue personnel and law enforcement in the area.

“If we are going to take care of it, we should just have it part of Graham County,” said Sandra Smith, a Graham County commissioner. Smith proposed petitioning the state legislature to redraw the county line. But they decided to first sit down with Swain County leaders before running to Raleigh.

Graham and Swain county commissioners met on Tuesday (July 28) to discuss the issue.

Swain County will likely fight any attempt by Graham to take over the territory — or the property tax revenue that goes with it. Swain collects $195,000 a year in property taxes from the 1,900-acre territory.

Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said he would rather the county provide emergency services to the area themselves — despite the long distance — than cede territory to Graham County or pay an annual fee.

“Let’s face it. Every county is scrambling for money and their piece of the pie,” said Brad Talbot, owner of Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort. Talbot agrees that both counties have legitimate issues to work out, however.

Tit for tat

Graham County leaders claim their residents are bearing the burden of providing services in Swain County and need money — whether it’s the property tax revenue from Deal’s Gap or an annual contribution from Swain — to offset their costs.

“It all boils down to finances,” Odom said.

Graham County responds to an average of 30 wrecks a year on the Swain County portion of the Tail of the Dragon, many of them with serious injuries that tie up medics and ambulances for hours.

Swain County countered that patients are billed for ambulance service, so the county recoups most of their costs. But not all patients pay up, resulting in a net loss, Smith said. And other patients decide to drive to the hospital on their own or are treated by medics at the scene and never taken to the hospital, so the county is unable to bill them at all.

“That’s a lose situation for us because we don’t get paid for it. It is a dead run,” Odom said.

Graham budgeted $890,000 on EMS services last year and only collected $725,000 from patients.

According to David Breedlove, the emergency services director for Swain, no county is able to break even on emergency services.

While Graham County presented charts and dispatch logs showing the number of calls and accidents its people responded to in Deal’s Gap, Swain County countered with some facts and figures of its own. Since Graham County has no hospital, many patients from there are brought to the hospital in Bryson City. Many are then sent on to the larger hospitals in Sylva or Asheville, a service provided by Swain County’s ambulances. Swain County provides transport for an average of 100 Graham County residents a year from the Bryson City hospital to their final destination.

Breedlove said it balances out the services Graham provides in Deal’s Gap.

Swain County commissioners mostly listened during the meeting on Tuesday as Graham County leaders laid out their position. The two boards decided to reconvene at 9 a.m. Monday, Aug. 24, in Robbinsville.

“We got a lot of the plate. We’ve got to digest some if it,” said Glenn Jones, chairman of the Swain County commissioners.

What is Swain doing all the way out there?

The Deal’s Gap territory is technically part of Swain County, even though it lies on the other side of Fontana Lake, isolated from the rest of the county and surrounded by Graham County.

It hasn’t always been that way, however. The convoluted geography dates back to the creation of Lake Fontana. The Little Tennessee River once served as the county line between Swain and Graham. When the river was dammed up and a vast territory along the lakeshore was ceded to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Deal’s Gap area became inaccessible to the rest of Swain County without driving all the way around the lake and through Graham County to get there.

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