Swain County

About

Located along the Tennessee border, Swain County was formed in 1871 from Jackson and Macon counties. The county gets its name after David Lowery Swain, the state’s 26th governor who went on to serve as president of UNC for 33 years. The county seat of Bryson City was originally known as Charleston. However, residents opted to change the name to Bryson City in 1889 after the town’s founder, Captain Thaddeus Dillard Bryson.

The vast majority of the county is protected from development, with 87% protected as a result of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Cherokee Indian Land Trust, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Nantahala. While agriculture and forestry contribute to Swain’s economy, the county’s revenue is largely driven by tourism. Comprising approximately 40% of the county’s land, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts thousands of visitors annually. Known as the fly fishing capital of the South, Bryson City has positioned itself as a competitive alternative to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge for tourists seeking mountain adventure. In addition to fly fishing, visitors also flock to Bryson City for the white water rafting, hiking, elk viewing, and picturesque landscapes. The highest point in the Smokies, Clingmans Dome, is located in Swain right along the TN border with an elevation of more than 6,600 feet. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been lobbying local officials in NC and TN for their support in urging the US Board on Geographic Names to restore the mountain’s Cherokee name of Kuwohi, meaning “mulberry place,” as its official name in recognition of the cultural and spiritual significance of the mountain to the Cherokee.

The Qualla Boundary, the home of the Eastern Band, is located in the eastern part of the county. While Native Americans are said to have inhabited the region for more than 12,000 years, the land trust was not established until 1876, a decade after the government recognized the Cherokees’ right to own their own land. Today, Native Americans comprise approximately a third of the county’s population. The town of Cherokee, located 50 miles from Asheville, is the capital of the Boundary. Visitors to Cherokee can golf, fish, and experience indigenous arts and cultural experiences like the acclaimed outdoor drama Unto These Hillswhich celebrates its 74th anniversary of the production this summer. Undoubtedly, Cherokee’s most lucrative tourist attraction is the Harrah’s Cherokee Resort and Spa, which opened in 1997 and originally offered only video poker (live dealers were not allowed until 2012). Just last year, Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos attracted 4.2 million visitors.

Swain is also home to the Fontana Dam, the tallest dam in the Eastern US and the fourth-tallest in the world. The dam was created in the 1940s to provide electric energy for a local aluminum plant vital to the country’s war effort. However, buried under the dam’s reservoir, Fontana Lake, lies the ghost towns of Judson and Proctor, once booming lumber and mining communities located in Swain in the early 20th century. The dam’s creation flooded out both of these communities, as well as the highway that provided access in and out. At the time, the federal government promised to build a road to allow residents to return to their properties and have access to their cemeteries. The road was meant to be approximately 30 miles from Bryson City to Deals Gap, however, construction stopped in the 1970s after only 6 miles of road had been laid. The road concludes at a tunnel, which abruptly ends in a wall of mountain, earning it the nickname “the road to nowhere.” While Judson is said to be fully underwater, remnants of Proctor can still be found in the overgrown woods of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Like many Western NC counties, Swain was once a Democratic stronghold but has trended Republican in recent elections. Ted Budd earned 60% of the vote in 2022.

Geography

Elected Officials

County Data