Valley Rewind: Convict labor on railroad to Asheville

Black Mountain News
In 1855, the North Carolina legislature issued a charter to the Western North Carolina Railroad to begin laying track from Salisbury to “beyond the Blue Ridge.” The outbreak of the Civil War delayed construction, and it wasn’t until 1869 that track was laid into Old Fort. The steep grade and corruption among those granted money to complete the line delayed the continuation of track into Asheville.  Finally, in 1875 in an effort to cut costs, the railroad corporation began leasing convicts, a few of whom are pictured in this historic postcard from the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center's extensive archive. The convicts were primarily African Americans imprisoned for petty crimes, who were forced to 
perform the brutal work required to cut embankments, culverts, arches and tunnels into the mountain. Because the railroad could simply lease another convict if one died while working, there was little incentive to keep the men healthy, and during the course of construction 125 workers died in tunnel cave-ins and other accidents. In 2016, the incredible story of North Carolina’s quest to lay track up the steep grade from Old Fort to Asheville will be featured in the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center’s fifth annual Historic Haunted House Tours on Friday, Oct. 28 and Saturday, Oct. 29. During the tour, visitors will encounter a few costumed “convicts” during a brief rest at one of their two daily meals.