At Monday’s meeting, the Old Fort Board of Aldermen gave permission for the creation of a new memorial at Andrews Geyser. It will be erected to commemorate the thousands of state inmates who labored under extremely harsh conditions to build the railroad over the mountain in the 1870s.
Like the meetings for May and June, the August meeting of the Old Fort Board of Aldermen is available on YouTube.
During the regular meeting for August, the Old Fort Aldermen heard a presentation from Marion Mayor Steve Little, who is also a railroad historian, and Professor Dan Pierce of the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Little and Pierce are the co-chairmen of an 11-person committee seeking to prepare and install a memorial to the inmates from the N.C. State Penitentiary who performed the vast majority of the work on the construction of the Mountain Division of the Western North Carolina Railroad from 1875 to 1879.
The inmates were about 3,000 African American men and a few hundred African American women. All were former slaves. Even though they were free, many of them were convicted of crimes on scant evidence and all received longer sentences than others convicted of the same offenses. So they were essentially re-enslaved by the system at that time.
The inmates worked year-round under harsh conditions. They cleared trees and pounded away at solid rock to make open cuts in the mountain. They also used black powder and nitroglycerine to blast the rock for the tunnels.
“They labored under unbelievably difficult conditions,” said Pierce. “The hazards were extreme.”
The records are incomplete, but the calculated information available is that at least 139 inmates died on this project, according to Little and Pierce. Some of them died of sickness, some from construction accidents, some from fighting, and some from being shot by guards.
The total number of deaths may be as high as 300. When an inmate died, he was buried essentially where he was.
Little and Pierce told the aldermen that a memorial should be placed at Andrews Geyser to commemorate these forgotten inmates who did the labor. The Old Fort Depot has a marker commemorating Major James Wilson, who was the superintendent and chief engineer for the Mountain Division. Andrews Geyser is a memorial to Col. A.B. Andrews, the first vice president of the Southern Railway.
“It is time to acknowledge the huge contribution by the thousands of incarcerated men and women who labored to build this railroad under harsh conditions that we could not tolerate today,” reads a proposal from Little and Pierce.
The memorial would be made out of stone and would be similar to an older one that is already at the geyser park.
“We will submit our plans, including the wording on the plaque, to the Old Fort Aldermen for approval before doing the work,” reads the proposal from Little and Pierce. “This project will not cost anything to the taxpayers of the town of Old Fort.”
They estimate the cost for the memorial to be around $3,000. Alderman Andrew Carlton said he would be willing for the town to put some money toward the project but the aldermen would have to take a look at the budget first.
Little said that would be very generous but added “It is our hope we would not be a burden to the taxpayers of Old Fort.”
After a discussion, the Old Fort Aldermen granted permission for the group to erect the memorial. They also agreed to look at possibly putting some money towards this effort.
In other business, Mayor Rick Hensley gave an update on the town’s Fourth of July fireworks show. He said the fireworks show was “awesome” and the town received many compliments about it.
The mayor also recognized the work last month by Old Fort Forward and the Old Fort Community Forum to beautify the area around the Depot.
Town officials also talked about the plan to draw water from the river for Andrews Geyser.
Carlton gave an update on his health. He has recently battled leukemia but it is now in remission. He has had to retire from his job but this gives him more time to devote to the town. Carlton will serve as the town’s representative on the board for the McDowell Economic Development Association.
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