Valley Rewind: Swannanoa Tunnel, 1916
From 1875-1891, the Western North Carolina railroad forced an unknown number of imprisoned African American men and women to build seven tunnels for the ever-expanding railway. Many of these men and women had been convicted of petty crimes and imprisoned under unjust Jim Crow laws. Under the watch of armed guards, they carved their way through the mountains. Part of the Swannanoa Tunnel at Ridgecrest, shown here in this 1916 photograph, was 1,832 feet long. In 1879, newspapers treated the completion of the tunnel as a sign that progress and industry had come to Western North Carolina, and yet the building of the tunnels caused the death of hundreds of incarcerated men, killed in rock falls and explosions, worked to death, and shot by guards. By itself, the Swannanoa Tunnel claimed at least 120 lives. Today, the probable mass gravesite for the victims has been discovered. The Swannanoa Tunnel can best be viewed today at Point Lookout in Ridgecrest.