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Monday, 30 September 2013 16:28

GCRM's Founder Passes

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It is with great anguish and sorrow that we must make the following announcement.  William Jennings Godfrey, Jr., the Founder of the Gold Coast Railroad passed away on September 9th in his North Carolina home. His great contributions to this organization will be never forgotten, and he was an absolute great individual who will be missed. Click Read More for Mr. Godfrey's biography and to leave a message on a website for his family.


William Jennings Godfrey, Jr., 79, of Sylva, passed away September 9, 2013, at his residence. He was born in Queens, New York on May 24, 1934; son of the late William J. Godfrey, Sr. and Mildred Partens Godfrey. Known to friends around the world as simply "Bill," he founded several businesses, nurtured many hobbies and touched countless lives during his 79 years. As a member of the Aerobatic Club of America Bill enjoyed stunt flying in a Stearman Airplane and later built a full sized airplane. He was director of 5 (five) banks in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida area and built condos and homes as a General Contractor in Florida He founded the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami, Florida with a steam engine donated by the U.S. Sugar Corporation, Bill was an avid sailboat owner and racer for many years. 

Bill served as Amtrak's Director of Administration for the western United States (west of the Mississippi River) until retirement. He purchased a private railroad car, the "Sealevel," which was used by Robert Redford in the movie "The Candidate." The "Sealevel" also carried the Godfreys on many cross-country trips. He designed and built a Gothic style, 2 story barn in Barker's Creek. He enjoyed collecting and building black powder guns. 

As Chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party for many years, Bill hosted the famous "GOP Bar-B-Ques" at his farm on Barker's Creek in the 1980's. He restored 35 antique, horse-drawn carriages, sleighs and a pre-Civil War hearse. Enjoyed driving the horses and buggies in the Barker's Creek community and on many camping trips throughout WNC with friends. Godfrey's horse-drawn carriages also graced many Sylva Christmas parades. He belonged to the Carriage Association of America and was instrumental in bringing the organization's annual event to the Biltmore Estate in April 1987. 

In 1988 Norfolk Southern Corporation was within 48 hours of abandoning the 67 miles of track from Dillsboro to Murphy when Godfrey lead an effort to save the rails for existing freight customers and a proposed "shortline" train service for tourists. With Godfrey as the first president, the "proposed" railway quickly incorporated as the Great Smoky Mountains Railway and began offering excursion train rides in October 1988. 

In September 1988, Chancellor Myron L. Coulter asked Bill to serve on the initial board of directors for Western Carolina University's International Program Fund. This non-profit corporation was established to support and promote the international programs at WCU. As a member of this board Godfrey traveled to China multiple times. 

After he sold the horses and buggies; building and flying RC planes (radio controlled airplanes) as a member of clubs in North Carolina and Arizona became a passionate interest. For several years, Bill mentored Franklin middle and high school students as well as WCU graduate students in model airplane design and construction. For the last 9 years, Bill captained the "Essence" a 25-foot steamboat on Fontana Lake. 

He is survived by Elaine Bowen Godfrey, his wife of 42 years; four children, James K. Godfrey (Bonnie) of La Grande, Oregon, Shirley Knapp-Wright (Dewayne "Cuz") of Sylva, Edward Knapp (Spring) of China, and Ellen K. Higdon (Richard) of Whittier; nine grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, his sister Phyllis Matthews of Plantation, Fla.,  and more friends than can be counted. 

His funeral service will be held on Friday, Sept. 13 at 2:00 pm in the Chapel of Appalachian Funeral Services in Sylva, NC, with the Reverend Bill Serjak officiating. The family will receive friends on Thursday, Sept 12, from 6 until 8 pm at Appalachian. Burial will be in Barkers Creek Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to the Jackson County Humane Society ARF, PO Box 298, Sylva, NC 28779. 

Please leave comments for Mr. Godfrey's family at

Read 2923 times Last modified on Monday, 30 September 2013 16:29
Tom Flanary

Tom Flanary is a Director on the Board of Directors, and maintains the website for GCRM. He has been involved in GCRM as a volunteer since 2011, and has been a director since 2012. If you have comments, concerns, or questions, please contact him directly at

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