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Incarcerated Laborers Who Built Western North Carolina Railroad to be Featured on N.C. Highway Historical Marker

The hard labor responsible for the construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad soon will be recognized with a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker.


The marker commemorating imprisoned laborers who cleared the way and built much of the Western North Carolina Railroad will be dedicated during a ceremony Saturday, May 4. The marker will be unveiled at 3 p.m., with a reception following at the Innovation Station in Dillsboro (40 Depot St., Dillsboro, N.C.).


The practice of leasing prisoners, many of whom were sentenced for minor crimes and were disproportionately African American, was common in the South following the Civil War. North Carolina was no exception. The state monetized the labor of those they held incarcerated by employing them on public and private works projects and, in later decades, leasing them out to farms and companies engaged in infrastructure projects.


From 1870-90, an average of 65% of the state’s prison population was used to build the Western North Carolina Railroad, opening a more efficient method of transporting travelers and supplies into Asheville and locations further west.


Temporary prison camps offered squalid living conditions. During the nights, incarcerated laborers were confined to retrofitted rail cars or, in later years, rolling steel cages that featured minimal comforts, typically limited to a stove, bunks, and iron rings for the convicts’ chains. The quarters were often filthy, subjected to the harsh elements, and often covered with little more than a thick canvas tarp in adverse weather conditions.


The brutality and racial inequity of the convict labor leasing system in North Carolina was illustrated by the December 1882 Cowee Tunnel disaster, in which 19 Black men drowned near Dillsboro. A boat carrying them across the Tuckasegee River capsized, and the prisoners, shackled with leg irons, were unable to swim to shore. The Raleigh News and Observer billed the incident as “the greatest disaster that has happened on the [WNC Rail]road.”


Though incarcerated laborers continued to build North Carolina’s railroad system through the early years of the Progressive Era, prioritization of the rail network soon gave way to the construction of a road system and other large-scale infrastructure projects, such as the building of dams in support of hydroelectric power. By 1933, road construction and maintenance and incarcerated labor had become so intertwined that the General Assembly consolidated the state’s prison system and the highway commission. This continued until the General Assembly separated the prison system from the State Highway and Public Works Commission in 1957.


For more information about the historical marker please visit https://www.dncr.nc.gov/blog/2024/01/23/incarcerated-laborers-q-61, or call (919) 814-6625.

The Highway Historical Marker Program is a collaboration between the N.C. departments of Natural and Cultural Resources and Transportation.


About the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural ResourcesThe N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (DNCR) manages, promotes, and enhances the things that people love about North Carolina – its diverse arts and culture, rich history, and spectacular natural areas. Through its programs, the department enhances education, stimulates economic development, improves public health, expands accessibility, and strengthens community resiliency.The department manages over 100 locations across the state, including 27 historic sites, seven history museums, two art museums, five science museums, four aquariums, 35 state parks, four recreation areas, dozens of state trails and natural areas, the North Carolina Zoo, the State Library, the State Archives, the N.C. Arts Council, the African American Heritage Commission, the American Indian Heritage Commission, the State Historic Preservation Office, the Office of State Archaeology, the Highway Historical Markers program, the N.C. Land and Water Fund, and the Natural Heritage Program. For more information, please visit www.dncr.nc.gov.

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