Timeless Tennessee, in the footsteps of the Cherokee

In East Tennessee, Victoria Summerley finds the landscape is a living museum of rivers and railroads that echoes with the ghosts of a turbulent history

In the mountains of East Tennessee, the trees can change colour within the space of a day. When I arrived here in the last week of October, the forests still wore the green of late summer, and the sun was warm on bare legs and arms. Then came a change in the weather and, though it was still mild, within 24 hours the red maples had begun to flaunt their fiery autumn livery and the birches showed bright yellow against the cool darkness of the conifers.

In the mountains of East Tennessee, the trees can change colour within the space of a day. When I arrived here in the last week of October, the forests still wore the green of late summer, and the sun was warm on bare legs and arms. Then came a change in the weather and, though it was still mild, within 24 hours the red maples had begun to flaunt their fiery autumn livery and the birches showed bright yellow against the cool darkness of the conifers.

These sudden alterations seem less surprising the more you explore this region, where rivers can be turned on and off like taps, and where towns grow as fast as pumpkins in prosperous times and wither back into quiet obscurity when the wealth moves on like a will-o'-the-wisp.

The river and the railroad: these are the two main actors in the dramas which have been played out here. Their parts have been as crucial as any Civil War general or Cherokee chieftain and they are playing those parts still for the people of East Tennessee.

I was spending a few days in the Cherokee National Forest and what is called the Tennessee Overhill district, 40 miles north of Chattanooga and 60 miles south of the fringes of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Overhill district was once Cherokee territory, part of a network of settlements clustered around the crossroads of what is now Tennessee, Georgia and North and South Carolina. The Tennessee towns were literally "over the hill" (ie over the Appalachians) from the main Cherokee settlements in North Carolina, hence the name.

All that remains of the Cherokee in Tennessee today, however, are memorials and a litany of names: the state's title is a corruption of Tanasi, the Cherokee name for the present Tennessee river. In the Cherokee National Forest you still find the Hiwassee and the Ocoee rivers – where the Cherokee once fished and hunted – alive with fishermen, hikers and birdwatchers. But the Cherokee left more than 150 years ago. They were pushed eastwards into Georgia by the growing number of settlers, and finally rounded up by US troops in the Cherokee Removal of 1838 and marched off to Oklahoma on that infamous journey known as the Trail of Tears. It took six months to walk the 1,200 miles to Oklahoma. One in four of the 13,000 Cherokee who were forced to go are thought to have died along the way.

But there are other memories in the Tennessee Overhill district. Take Etowah, for example, one of the string of towns on Highway 411, which follows the route of the railroad which ran from Chattanooga to Knoxville. In 1906, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N) built a new passenger depot for their new railroad here. There were engine shops where the wooden boxcars were repaired, a turntable and a freight depot. The clapboard depot and station, painted and restored, is now a museum, and you can see a picture of it when it was first built, the workers standing outside surrounded by fields.

Another photograph, taken only four years later, shows a whole town, sprung up as if by magic, which was to have its own high school, its own band and its own newspaper (the editor was also the leader of the band, apparently). The museum has a reconstructed ticket office and, although the huge marble bar of the canteen has gone, you can see where it was and climb the superb carved staircase to further exhibits upstairs.

There is still a railroad at Etowah but only freight trains run on it: it's the CSX Railroad's main line from Cincinnati to Atlanta. If you're lucky, a freight train will come past as you're looking around the museum, its mournful whistle adding that final touch of railroad colour. You may want to stop and watch it go by. For those of you unfamiliar with American freight trains, this will probably take at least half an hour.

Significantly, the depot also houses the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association, which vigorously promotes the various sites and events in the three Overhill counties, McMinn, Polk and Monroe. It was through the association that I met Harold Webb; store proprietor, rafting outfitter, preservationist and, above all, enthusiast.

Harold is the sort of person who gives the word activist a good name. He also rents out what is known as the Watchman's House, built in 1891, on the bank of the Hiwassee river opposite the Webb Brothers store in the small community of Reliance. The store is almost a museum in itself. Alongside the gas pumps, the post office and the usual country store accoutrements, there are photographs and artefacts belonging to Harold's parents and grandparents. Harold now runs the store with his sister Sandra, who showed us Cherokee baskets of museum quality and even a charred prospecting pan that had been on loan to a museum, but was returned to the Webbs after a fire.

The Watchman's House is an ideal venue to sit and watch the river go by, or keep an eye on the local birdlife, but that is not how it got its name. It was built by the L&N and sits above the old railroad, which passed over the Hiwassee here on a bridge supported by wooden trestles. The watchman's job was to keep a lookout for any smouldering cinders from passing trains that might start a fire on the bridge, and rush over and put them out.

Harold has restored the Watchman's House to create three apartments, two of which have their own porch and rocking chair, and any of which will fulfil Little House in the Big Woods fantasies. They all have brass beds, patchwork quilts and an astonishingly eclectic range of odds and ends which are combined with charming results. For example, the walk-in shower in the bottom apartment has a useful, generous marble shelf which looks rather like a mantelpiece. It is a mantelpiece. The expensive-looking lace valances which hang at every window are from a mail-order catalogue. The flooring looks like terrazzo-style marble but is actually bits of the river bed, blasted away during the building of the new bridge.

Ah yes, the new bridge. This supplanted an iron bridge, of which Harold was rather fond. He'd protested about the removal of the iron bridge, arguing that it should be restored rather than demolished, but without success. On the day the demolition squad were due, he went down to the bridge for the last time. "And you chained yourself to it," I suggest. "Well, that's what they claimed," he replies, his eyes widening behind his spectacles in innocent outrage, "but I just thought I'd sit there awhile. And then the demolition men started shouting at me and telling me to get off. I decided I didn't like the way they were talking to me." In the end, 10 police cars were dispatched to remove Harold, who was arrested and charged. During the preparation of his court case, his lawyer discovered that due to an old covenant, ownership of the bridge had in fact reverted to Harold.

A deal was struck. Harold would not be prosecuted for obstruction if he agreed not to sue over the bridge. "I will regret signing that deal for the rest of my life," he says sadly.

Harold has strong views about most things – not least of which is the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the body that controls most of the waterways in the Tennessee Valley. It was established in the 1930s to manage the power of this mighty river. The most bizarre installation of them all is the Raccoon Mountain Pumped-Storage Project at Chattanooga, which uses off-peak electricity to pump water up to a huge reservoir at the top of the mountain. In the morning, the water runs back down to generate power for the peak hours.

Both the Ocoee and the Hiwassee rivers have hydroelectric dams, and the flow of water thus changes throughout the day, which affects the rafting and kayaking operators, or "outfitters" as they're known.

Harold concedes that the TVA has been pretty good about delivering water when promised over the past few years, but he claims that at the beginning of this year's season, the outfitters were only getting a couple of hours flow per day. The TVA, of course, would argue that it needs the water to provide electricity for the region. The outfitters argue that they need the tourists, who are not impressed by the prospect of floating down a dry riverbed.

When the rivers are running high, however, they are impressive and it is little wonder that the Ocoee river was the venue for the Atlanta Olympics white-water events in 1996. There is a visitors' centre here and, if you've driven the Ocoee Scenic Byway (Highway 64) from 411, this is a good place to stop. You can wander along the river and try to spot which rocks were man-made additions for the Olympic course.

You can also see a section of the original "Old Copper Road", which at this time of the year you might take to refer to the copper colours of the autumn leaves. In fact, copper was mined at Ducktown and Copperhill from 1843 until the 1930s, and you can see how it was done at the Ducktown Basin Copper Museum on the site of the Burra Burra Mine. There's gold in these here hills, too, at Coker Creek, on Highway 68 north from Ducktown to Tellico Plains. Gold was first discovered here in the 1820s, and by 1856 more than 500 prospectors were trying their luck, as visitors can do today.

Continue up Highway 68 to Tellico Plains, and then take TN360 to Vonore, and the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum. This opened in 1986 and is run by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, based in North Carolina. Sequoyah, born around 1776, was the son of a Cherokee woman and a colonial soldier or trader called Nathaniel Gist. He was crippled from birth; the name Sequoyah is thought to derive from Sikwo-yi, or pig's foot. Abandoned by his father, he was brought up by his mother in the Cherokee tradition. Sequoyah's great gift to the Cherokee Nation was the invention of a syllabary – each symbol stands for a syllable, or combination of vowels and consonants, rather than a single letter. This enabled a culture which had been totally dependent on oral tradition to establish its own literature.

Sequoyah died in 1843 while on a journey to locate a lost band of Cherokee in Mexico. Tuskeegee, the village where he was born, is now beneath Tellico Lake, a reservoir built by the TVA on the Little Tennessee River between 1967 and 1979. During the feverish 12-year scramble to excavate the area before the water covered it, the remains of 191 Cherokee were removed and reburied at a memorial just outside the museum.

You must not visit the Sequoyah museum without visiting Fort Loudoun. It's only a couple of miles up the road and it is a superb reconstruction of the fort built here by the British in 1756, apparently at the request of the Cherokee who wanted protection for their families while they fought alongside the Brits during the French and Indian War. Needless to say, this alliance ended in its own trail of tears in 1760, but while Fort Loudoun was in operation, it marked the south-western extreme of British interests in the US. The reconstructed fort has a palisade of sharpened stakes, a guardhouse, a smithy, a bakehouse, barracks and gun platforms. But the best bit is to be shown round by a guide in full Redcoat regalia. Our guide was one William Kenton, who explained what life was like for the regular soldiers of the South Carolina Independent Company. He told us about the garrison weekends that take place and even – put your fingers in your ears at this point – demonstrated how to fire a musket. William was so convincing it came as rather a shock when we saw him a bit later dressed in his 21st-century ranger uniform, minus the wig and tricorn hat.

The cynical might dismiss all this as theme-park history; something to amuse the kids without over-taxing the intellect. Personally, I find that in places like Fort Loudoun you get as much out of it as you put in. And it's worth bearing in mind, as you look around the fort and its fearsome stockade, that the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association sees its area as a museum without walls, a place where understanding what has happened in the past can also be the key to recognising a new future and sustaining a new way of life.

Is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?

Catch a steam train to see the late fall colour

Fall in Tennessee comes later than it does in New England but is no less spectacular (and far more convenient for families travelling during the October half-term). This year it arrived late: it only really got under way in the last week of October, thanks to an autumn drought, but it can start as early as late September.

Traditionally, however, the last two weekends of October are the best times for autumn colour (and this is when you'll find steamboat and even steam train cruises being operated out of Chattanooga).

One of the most spectacular and well-known routes if you're driving around the Overhill district is the Cherohala Skyway (Highway 165) between Tellico Plains and Robbinsville in North Carolina which reaches heights of 5,000 feet. But if you're capable of doing more than just sitting in the car, walk the John Muir Recreational Trail in Reliance and get some fresh air as well.

You can get day-by-day information from the Cherokee National Forest Fall Color hotline at 001 800 204 6366 or the National Fall Color Hotline at 001 800 354 4595.

Traveller's guide

Getting there: Victoria Summerley travelled with British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com), which flies daily from London Gatwick to Atlanta. The lowest return flight for late November when booked direct with the airline is £240, but through the website www.opodo.co.uk a fare of £207 return is available. Delta (0800 414767, www.delta.com) flies from Gatwick and Manchester to Atlanta.

Getting around: A car is essential. The author's vehicle was supplied by Holiday Autos (0870 400 0000, www.holidayautos.com), which quotes £199 for a week's hire of a compact car in November, picking up and returning to Atlanta airport.

Driving from the airport to Overhill district takes about two and a half hours: take I-285 from the airport to I-75 and head north. At Exit 20, take the Cleveland bypass. Turn right on to Highway 64/74 which will take you to Ocoee and Highway 411.

Staying and playing: The stay at the Watchman's House was arranged through the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association (001 423 263 7232, www.tennessee-overhill.com). For rafting on the Hiwassee river, contact Harold Webb at Webb Brothers Float Service (001 423 338 2373).

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