The public is invited to honor the incarcerated workers who died during construction of the mountain division of the Western North Carolina Railroad at the unveiling of a memorial plaque in Black Mountain on Sunday, October 22, 2023.
The plaque, attached to a granite boulder like those that were blasted away to create the railway route, is part of a local group’s ongoing eﬀort to uncover and highlight some of the tragic history of the railroad that opened and transformed western North Carolina, but at a huge human cost.
“It’s important for us all to begin to understand the scale of human exploitation that occurred to connect western North Carolina to the rest of the state by rail,” said historian Anne Chesky, a member of the RAIL Project board and director of the Asheville Museum of History.
Post-Civil War Slavery
Thousands of incarcerated laborers—most of whom were African Americans—labored under dangerous, brutal, and unhealthy conditions to lay track and cut seven tunnels through the mountains from Old Fort to Ridgecrest in the late 1870s. As has been documented in other historical studies, many Black men were unjustly arrested and charged as felons under Jim Crow laws that had been put in place as an extension of slavery.
This was done to evade the requirement of the 14th Amendment that states “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” By charging and convicting—by “due process of law”—southern Black men for such “felonious” crimes as vagrancy, which might mean walking on a public street but having no money, southern states were legally allowed to imprison tens of thousands of African Americans and then require them to work for free for the state. The labor was often contracted out to well-connected corporations that paid the state pennies for their work—of which the prisoners received nothing, becoming de facto slaves once again.
“For a signiﬁcant portion, this turned into a death sentence,” said RAIL Project Chair Dan Pierce, Mountain South Distinguished Professor of History at UNC Asheville.
Recalling the forgotten
Though the exact number may never be known, it is likely that hundreds of incarcerated laborers died of exposure, disease, overwork, accidents—or by being shot as they tried to escape. Blair Tormey, a research scientist at Western Carolina University, used ground-penetrating radar and historic human remains detection-dog teams to try to locate possible burial sites of the many people who died during railroad construction.
The memorial boulder, placed not far from the western portal of the Swannanoa Tunnel, is the most recent eﬀort to memorialize the incarcerated laborers. It represents part of the ongoing work of the historians, community members, archaeologists, and geologists involved with the RAIL Project.
An additional memorial is already installed at Old Fort’s Andrews Geyser, where visitors can see the railroad tracks looping above the site. On it are engraved the names of incarcerated workers discovered in census records. An informational kiosk will be installed later this fall at the intersection of Yates Avenue and Old Highway 70.
To remember and honor these men whose lives were taken to benefit the white residents of WNC, the memorial plaque will be a permanent monument to them and a reminder of official, state-sponsored injustice. The plaque will be unveiled at 3 p.m. on Sunday, October 22, 2023, and parking will be available along Yates Avenue and Tripoli Trail. The public is invited, and a few folding chairs will be available, though attendees are urged to bring a camping chair.
For more information, visit www.TheRAILProject.org.