By Jim Buchanan
1950 wasn’t a very memorable year for North Carolina Tar Heel football fans.
The year had opened on a positive note with a 13-7 win over No. 20 N.C. State. But that was followed by a 14-7 loss to the new No. 20, Notre Dame, a 0-0 tie at Georgia and a 13-7 home loss to Wake Forest. The ship was righted with an easy win over William & Mary.
Then came the Tennessee game.
The 1950 Tennessee squad was one of the best in history, eventually racking up an 11-1 record and defeating No. 3 Texas on New Year’s Day. The squad’s only loss came early in the season, a 7-0 upset to Mississippi State.
The Heels were game but fell to the Vols 16-0. Disheartened fans likely noticed the temperature starting to plunge rapidly as they filed out of Knoxville for the trip back to North Carolina.
While most traffic between Tennessee and North Carolina these days goes via I-40 through the Pigeon River Gorge, that option wasn’t available in 1950. That route didn’t open until October of 1968, and in fact many people didn’t think a road could be engineered through that rugged terrain at all. (They were proven right to a degree when a slide blocked all four lanes of the route in February of 1969, and repeat rockslides have occurred in the decades since).
So, fans leaving the game started their journey through the most direct route, over Newfound Gap in the Smokies.
Newfound Gap had other plans.
From the Nov. 9, 1950 Sylva Herald:
SNOW, ICE AND FOG ALMOST BLOCK GAP SATURDAY NIGHT
Hundreds of motorists returning Saturday night from the Tennessee-Carolina football game at Knoxville found travel over Newfound Gap very hazardous with snow, ice and fog almost blocking the Gap between 8 p.m. and Sunday morning. A number of cars stalled and had to be helped over the Gap by park rangers. A sudden drop in temperature during the late afternoon caught hundreds of North Carolina people on the Tennessee side and also caught the park rangers unprepared for the emergency caused by the football game travelers, and now sand has been placed on the dangerous curves.
From Gatlinburg to the Gap there’s an elevation gain of more than 3,500 feet, and temperatures can drop dramatically during the ascent. The gap gets far more snow than lower elevations, averaging 69 inches a year. Much of that comes in the form of small accumulations that melt fairly rapidly, but there are years snowpack accumulates.
And there are times folks get caught by surprise. While no one got more than a good scare in 1950, that surprise was a memorable event in a forgettable football season.