On a sunny, beautiful October afternoon, a memorial was finally dedicated to the thousands of men and women who labored under brutal conditions — and some of whom gave their lives — to build a railroad through the mountains more than 140 years ago.
The long-awaited dedication of the RAIL Memorial took place Sunday afternoon at Andrews Geyser, west of Old Fort. The memorial honors the convict laborers, their work and their sacrifices, during the building of the Western North Carolina Railroad between Old Fort and Ridgecrest. The vast majority of them were African Americans who were convicted to long and harsh sentences in prison for minor offenses.
Ray McKesson, president of the McDowell County chapter of the NAACP, was the master of ceremonies for the dedication, which drew around 100 to 200 people. Marion Mayor Steve Little, who has written books about the railroad’s construction, talked about the history of the incarcerated laborers.
The construction of the Mountain Division of the Western North Carolina Railroad took place in the 1870s following the Civil War. This section of railroad between Henry Station, just west of Old Fort, and the Swannanoa Gap at Ridgecrest, was and still is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest human accomplishments in both engineering and construction in the entire United States at the time it occurred. The railroad provided the first dependable access to and from all of North Carolina, opening up the western part of the state to the flow of commerce and people.
At least 97% of the labor that built the railroad up the mountain were inmates from the North Carolina State Penitentiary in Raleigh. They were transported while shackled in crude boxcars to the work site near Old Fort. From October 1875 through October 1879, approximately 3,000 incarcerated African American men and a few hundred African American women were compelled to work on this massive project. All were former slaves. Many were convicted on scant evidence, and all received longer sentences than others who were convicted of the same offenses. The work they did to build the railroad was extremely brutal, said Little.
Accurate records were not kept of the convicts’ names or the number who died while working on the railroad. But the best estimate is between 139 and 300 convict laborers died on this project. When a convict died, the body was simply shoveled into the earth and covered with dirt as the work pressed forward.
“This track is, in essence, a graveyard,” Little told the crowd. “It was brutal, brutal work. Their lives were miserable. They were treated with no dignity at all.”
Little spoke about how the convict laborers pounded and blasted through solid rock to create the tunnels and how a steam locomotive was moved through backbreaking labor up the mountain to speed up the process.
Over the past 140 some years, their efforts have never been recognized until now.
“This is not about us,” said Little. “It’s about them.”
Dan Pierce, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, spoke about the effort to build this memorial and how it received support from McDowell County commissioners, Buncombe County officials, the Old Fort Board of Aldermen, the town of Black Mountain, the Western North Carolina Historical Association and the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
“The Round Knob stockade (where the laborers were confined) was just around the bend,” said Pierce. “This is sacred ground.”
Alderman Wayne Stafford was present for the ceremony on behalf of the Old Fort Board of Aldermen while Commissioner Patrick Ellis was there on behalf of the McDowell County Board of Commissioners.
During the middle of the dedication ceremony, a Norfolk Southern freight train made its way around Andrews Geyser and traveled up the mountain as its horn echoed above the crowd. The train coming through proved to be a perfect tribute to this special gathering and its purpose.
RoAnn Bishop, director of the Mountain Gateway Museum, recognized Paul C. Twitty, designer and rock mason, and Jimmy Logan, rock mason, for the work they did to build the memorial.
Kevin Kehrberg and Jeffrey A. Keith, both of Warren Wilson College, provided railroad music and gave a brief history of the ballad “The Swannanoa Tunnel.” They played a 1939 recording of this song, which is similar to those sung by railroad gangs. They talked about how by dedicating this memorial we are acknowledging the history of racism in North Carolina.
Ashley McGhee Whittle, archivist with UNCA, said the RAIL Committee has two future projects: placing wayside markers at the site and locating the burial sites of the convicts along the railroad.
In addition, the RAIL Committee was able to find more than 100 names of the convicts who built the railroad and those names are inscribed on the memorial. The committee members hope to find more names.
Anne Chesky Smith, executive director of the WNC Historical Association, thanked the donors and the Rev. Tami Forte Logan gave the benediction and sang “Amazing Grace.”
At the conclusion, the RAIL Committee members; Paul C. Twitty, a fourth-generation rock mason whose family has deep involvement with the railroad; and his assistant Jimmy Logan unveiled the memorial as the crowd applauded.
The 11 volunteers who formed The RAIL Memorial Project Inc. are Dr. Dan Pierce of UNCA; Ray McKesson of the McDowell NAACP; Mayor Steve Little; Anne Chesky Smith; Dr. Darin Waters, deputy secretary of the Office of Archives and History for the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources; RoAnn Bishop of the Mountain Gateway Museum; Chief Eric Boyce, chief of police at UNCA; Jeff Futch, regional supervisor of the western office of N.C. DNCR; Chief Melvin Lytle of the town of Old Fort; Jim Stokely of the Wilma Dykeman Legacy; and Ashley McGhee Whittle of UNCA.