Unicoi Turnpike Trail
The path now known as the Unicoi Turnpike Trail predates written history. It has been known by many names, depending on the time period. "Unicoi Path," "Tellico Path," "Overhill Trading Path," and "Unicoi Turnpike" are examples. In 1999 the section that runs between Vonore, TN and Murphy, NC was designated one of 16 National Millennium Flagship trails and named the Unicoi Turnpike Trail.
The Unicoi Turnpike Trail is more than just a path. The places, events, and people associated with the trail are linked to the nation's history.
During the 17th century, the path connected the Overhill Cherokee towns in Tennessee to the Cherokee settlements in the Carolinas and Georgia, as well as the Atlantic coastal ports. By the early 18th century, the trail was used to transport thousands of deerskins and furs to Charleston and Savannah, where they were shipped to Europe. The French and Indian War (1755-1761) prompted British soldiers and South Carolina militiamen to enter the Overhill Cherokee Country on this road to build Fort Loudoun. During the American Revolution, the trail became a warpath that funneled raids between colonists and Cherokees.
In the early 19th century, entrepreneurs converted the path into a toll road and named it the Unicoi Turnpike. Drovers herded thousands of hogs, turkeys, and other livestock from Tennessee over the turnpike to the Carolinas and Georgia. This spawned new markets for residents of East Tennessee and created economic opportunities along the route. "Stands," with inns, taverns, stores, and stock pens were established every 12-13 miles where drovers could spend the night and pen their animals.
The discovery of gold at Coker Creek in the 1820's brought hundreds of white prospectors into the area causing the U.S. government to establish Fort Armistead on the Unicoi Turnpike to discourage intruders from overrunning Cherokee lands. During the Cherokee Removal the Unicoi Turnpike was the first leg of the journey for more than 3,000 Cherokee people who were deported from North Carolina on the Trail of Tears. By the time of the Civil War the old road was largely abandoned in favor of other transportation routes but a tollgate operated at Unicoi Gap until the turn of the 20th century.
During the Civil War the mountain counties in eastern Tennessee were especially vulnerable to attacks by bushwhackers and guerrillas. This was especially true along the Unicoi Turnpike near Unicoi Gap. In fact the tollgate keeper was murdered during one of the raids. After the Weeks Act created the USDA Forest Service in 1911, sections of the turnpike became part of national forest lands, leaving those remnants of the old road somewhat undisturbed. In June 2005, a section of the original roadbed that lies in the Cherokee National Forest near Coker Creek was restored and opened to the public for hiking. The rest of the Unicoi Turnpike Trail can be explored by automobile on highways that follow the approximate route of the old path.
How to Get There
The auto trail approximates the original route of the Unicoi Path. It follows paved highways for most of the way, but there is a section on Joe Brown Highway (approximately 10 miles) in North Carolina (Hwy 1326) that is a gravel road with sharp curves. While the gravel section is suitable for automobiles, it is not advisable for busses.
To gain a sense of what travel was like on the Unicoi Turnpike in previous centuries, hike on the restored section that runs through the Cherokee National Forest between Unicoi Gap and Doc Rogers Fields near Coker Creek, TN. The hiking trail, marked with a blue blaze, is 2½ miles long and is rated easy.
We invite you to explore this ancient pathway. The Unicoi Turnpike Trail is designed so that you can trace the route in your automobile and hike on the original roadbed in the Cherokee National Forest. Historic sites and museums along the way will illustrate the role this important transportation artery played in our nation's history. Take note of the place names that speak of earlier times and of the people who once lived here. Pause in the small towns along the way where you will find places to eat, spend the night, and shop. Note: We suggest that you fuel your automobile before starting up the mountain toward Unicoi Gap. There are no cell phone signals for much of the way.