Completion of the Western North Carolina Railroad, which connected towns like Statesville and Charlotte at the center of the state to the mountains, and eventually the Tennessee border in the West, was a torturous process in more ways than one. The line was first chartered in 1855, but the outbreak of Civil War cut short early attempts to push the line to completion. North Carolina’s Reconstruction-Era government threw money at the project, only to have those in charge squander the money investing in dead-end railroad projects in Florida. A traveler through the region in 1875 rued how “the unfinished embankments, the half-built culverts and arches of the Western North Carolina railroad” were, “monuments to the rapacity and meanness of a few men in whom those counties placed confidence.”
It was only after the heavy use of convict labor that the road was completed. Railroad building was invariably an expensive and labor intensive task, and in an effort to cut costs, companies short on capital turned to convict labor to construct the bulk of southern railroads after Reconstruction. Destitute southern state governments were more than happy to lease out convicts, who were mostly African-Americans imprisoned for petty crimes, to corporations. This alliance of state and business may have pushed roads like the Western North Carolina Railroad to completion, but it was brutal for workers. Corporations had little incentive to keep workers healthy – in the cruel calculus of the system they could simply lease another for the same price if a convict died.
The high human cost of the convict labor system was exemplified by the construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad. By 1878, over 500 convicts were working on the Western North Carolina line, sent there by Governor Zebulon Vance. The most formidable obstacle was Swannanoa Tunnel, which was the longest of seven tunnels along the route. Over 20 workers died in a series of cave-ins at the tunnel, and in all 125 workers died of various accidents, maladies or perhaps just outright violence, while building the road.
These anonymous deaths in isolated North Carolina mountains would have been largely forgotten, were it not for the fact that the tragedy at Swannanoa Tunnel survived in song, passed from worker to worker in railroad camps, and eventually collected and disseminated to the wider public. The version here comes from Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the “Minstrel of the Appalachians,” a collector of folk songs from Western NC. The song references how the tunnel was ”all caved in,” names Asheville junction, the eventual destination of the line and relates the howling wind, deaths of other workers and constantly falling hammer of the workers. John Henry makes an appearance as well, as the narrator claims the work killed John Henry, but not him. The relatively simple banjo arrangement becomes much more haunting when the listener knows the tragic history of the site.
In a recent appearance of this region in song, North Carolina-based indie folk/country band Mount Moriah harkens back to Swannanoa on their excellent new album. To be honest, I am not sure if the song was inspired by the tunnel (it may just reference the town or the mansion that shares the name), but the mysterious nature of the song certainly brought the old folk song to my mind, and at any rate, the band deserves the plug.
Mount Moriah – Swannanoa
On a more self-promotional note, a piece I wrote about yet another deadly calamity on this line, an 1891 wreck outside Statesville, will be appearing soon in Southern Cultures. So stay tuned for another chapter of this railroad’s dark history…
 Quote from Edward King, The great South; a record of journeys in Louisiana, Texas, the Indian territory, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. (Hartford, 1875) , 506.