Black Mountain endorses memorial project for railroad workers

Ty Roush
Black Mountain News
An estimated 139 workers died during the nearly four-year construction of the 1,823-foot long Swannanoa Gap.

The Railroad and Incarcerated Laborer Memorial Project has received an endorsement from Black Mountain.

Dan Pierce, a UNC Asheville history professor, told the Board of Aldermen that his project will honor the workers who aided in bringing the first trains over the Swannanoa Gap. Pierce is joined by Steve Little, mayor of Marion, as co-heads of the project.

"It was a construction project that lasted about three and a half years," Pierce said. "I don't think anything remotely tops it in terms of the impact it had on this area and the obvious impact it had on Black Mountain."

The former Black Mountain Middle School teacher connected the arrival of the railroad with the establishment of the town.

The RAIL Project was most recently endorsed by Old Fort, which is planning to install a memorial plaque at Andrew's Geyser.

Pierce described the "ill-clothed, ill-fed and ill-housed" railroad workers facing dangerous work conditions, noting how he won't "go near the railroad without thinking about the price that was paid to build that up the mountain."

Zebulon Vance, former North Carolina governor, and president of the then-WNCR James Wilson urged for a 17-ton train be carried over a mountain by laborers.

Pierce showed an 1878 clip of the Asheville Weekly Citizen that states the "supply of convicts at the penitentiary" was insufficient, requiring state prosecutors to bring more potential offenders to the court.

"It's an invitation for prosecutors to go round people up, and that's what happened," Pierce said. "Many of these people were arrested for minor offenses they may or may not have committed, and they were generally sentenced to three years of hard labor even for very minor offenses."

The project's 11-person committee is planning to seek funding from the General Assembly with the aide of State Rep. John Ager. "He believes it's the most important infrastructure project in the history of Western North Carolina, and I would be inclined to agree," Pierce said.

An estimated 139 workers died during the nearly four-year construction of the 1,823-foot long Swannanoa Gap. The location of the worker remains is unknown, though Pierce suggests "that stretch of railroad from Ridgecrest to Old Fort is essentially a mass graveyard."

Pierce said it should be necessary to recognize the laborers, who he focuses on describing as "incarcerated" and not "convict."

"There is no public recognition of the over 3,000 incarcerated laborers who built that railroad," Pierce said. "More than 90% of them were African American, and many of them former slaves."

To complement its fundraising efforts, the RAIL Project is working to raise awareness for its initiative. Costs for the memorial are expected to total close to $3,000, with an estimated dedication date in April.