Long, long ago mastodons frequented the banks of the Tuckasegee River. Or so suggests one old newspaper clipping. But this discussion requires some background before we investigate the evidence found in Dillsboro, North Carolina.
First off, mastodons and mammoths were two distinct creatures. Mammoths originated in Africa and migrated through Eurasia and North America. The woolly mammoth, which went extinct about 10,000 years ago, was closely related to the elephant.
Mastodons lived in Central and North America before their extinction, also about 10,000 years ago. Compared to mammoths, they were slightly smaller, with shorter legs and flatter heads. They were anywhere from seven to fourteen feet tall and covered in long, shaggy hair. Both animals were herbivores.
During the Pleistocene Era, 12,000 years ago, humans and megafauna (including mastodons) quite possibly encountered one another on the Great Smoky Mountains. Though glaciers did not reach this far south, the climate was much colder than today. The highest peaks must have been tundra-like environments with permafrost and few trees. The fossil record reveals many large mammals inhabiting the park region prior to the Quaternary Extinction: Jefferson’s ground sloth, Harlan’s ground sloth, tapir, horse, half-ass, long-nosed peccary, flat-headed peccary, stout-legged llama, helmeted musk-ox, bison, white-tailed deer, caribou, elk, giant beaver, black bear, Florida spectacled bear, giant short-faced bear, cougar, jaguar, saber-toothed cat, scimitar-toothed cat, coyote, dire wolf and mastodon.
Spear-points found in this area indicate that migratory hunters came to this area in search of mastodons and other large prey. A paleontological site near Nashville, Tennessee has provided abundant information about mastodon-hunting in the Southeast. The Coats-Hines-Litchy site has yielded portions of four mastodon skeletons, one of which was directly associated with Paleoindian stone tools such as blades and scrapers, signs of a successful hunt on one day 10,000 to 14,000 years ago.
This brings us back to Dillsboro and the year 1882. Construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad was underway and the “Cowee Tunnel” adjacent to the Tuckasegee River was posing many challenges for the convict laborers digging their way through the mountains.
An ominous note from “Sojourner” appeared in the September 18, 1882 issue of the Asheville Weekly Citizen:
I did not intend to convey the impression in my last letter that the entire Cowee tunnel had fallen in. The workmen on the west end of the tunnel came to dirt, and it has fallen in several times. Mr. Dick Wilson says they are having much trouble in bracing it up, the dirt falls in so fast. Many thousand yards of rock and dirt have been taken out, and some think the trees from the top will come through soon. It is a serious drawback in the work on the tunnel, and there is some talk of having to make it a cut, but that seems impracticable. If the dirt can be removed, and the hole walled in safely, the work will proceed on the tunnel as usual.
The ”big” story coming less than six weeks later, was reported in North Carolina newspapers and reprinted in papers across the country:
The skeleton of a full grown mastodon has been found in the Cowee tunnel on the Ducktown branch of the Western North Carolina railroad. When the monster was discovered the convicts fled in terror, and it was by hard work that they could be induced to return to their picks. It was found six feet below the surface of the earth. It was in a perfect state of preservation, and crumbled to dust as soon as exposed to the air. The mastodon is the Russian term of fossil elephant, and is extensively found in Russia and all over Europe. It became extinct, according to geology, near 10,000 years ago, died on the Pleistocene beds. In 1799, one was found in the icy districts of Russia, the hide of which was in a fair state of preservation, and was of such weight that it took ten men to support it a distance of 150 feet. The one found in the Cowee tunnel was stretched out a distance of forty feet – supposed to have been devoured by carniverous animals, and the bones disengaged from their original position. The largest mastodons range from fourteen to twenty-four feet in length, and from nine to twelve feet in height. - The Greensboro Patriot, Oct. 27, 1882
The temptation is to dismiss the story as fake news, something too preposterous to be believed.
On the other hand, as the earlier story reported, the tunnel was not cut through solid rock. Is it plausible that an unfortunate mastodon, grazing alongside the Tuckasegee River on a chilly day 12,000 years ago, was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was buried by a landslide?
Steam locomotive emerging from Cowee Tunnel, ca. 1892
But isn’t it almost too convenient that the bones of the Dillsboro mastodon practically vanished into thin air before the discovery could be verified? It turns out that long-buried bones can crumble fairly quickly when exposed to the air. That issue was broached in a 2017 newspaper report of mastodon bones unearthed at a Michigan construction site:
Eagle Creek Homes, the developer behind the Railview Ridge housing project, reached out to University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology Director Dan Fisher. Fisher has 40 years of experience investigating claims of prehistoric remains found in the region….
Most remains of mastodons and mammoths found in Michigan, Fisher said, are somewhere in the range of 11,000 to 15,000 years old.
"That was at a time that humans had found their way to North America," Fisher said. "These were some of the animals that they were sometimes lucky enough to bring down or otherwise get access to. So people butchered them, ate them and stored their meat."
As glaciers moved through Michigan several thousand years ago, they created lakes, ponds and swamps that became surrounded by vegetation attractive to the American mastodon and Jefferson woolly mammoth. Fossils of both are prevalent in the southern two-thirds of the state.
The age of the bones means they are often very fragile, and can sometimes disintegrate when exposed from the sediment that has been preserving them all that time.
"They dry, shrink, crack and sometimes they literally fall to pieces," Fisher said.
But not completely.
If workers actually found a mastodon skeleton in Dillsboro, why haven’t I heard about it until now?
One reason could be that the event was overshadowed by a tragedy that occurred two months later, on December 30, 1882. As convict laborers were crossing the river to start another day’s work on the Cowee Tunnel, their barge capsized. Nineteen men, shackled together, drowned in the Tuckasegee.
Is it any wonder that some crumbling bones of an ancient animals were soon forgotten? On January 3, 1883, the News and Observer in Raleigh reported on the accident:
"A few days since we published an account of the trip of Governor Jarvis to the Western North Carolina Railroad, and gave an account of the operations at the Cowee tunnel, which is near the bank of Tuckaseegee River, in Jackson county. On that section of the road are employed about 200 convicts. Yesterday Lieutenant-Governor James L. Robinson, who came down from his home in Macon county, brought the news of a horrible disaster at the crossing of the Tuckaseegee River, the news of which he received from Mr. W.B. Troy, the officer in charge of convicts on the Western North Carolina Railroad.
" It appears that the camp of the convicts, that is, the stockade in which they are quartered, is on the bank of the Tuckaseegee river, opposite the Cowee tunnel. The river is at that particular point deep, with a current somewhat sluggish as compared with parts immediately above and below, where it breaks into rapids and rushes with the swiftness peculiar to those mountain torrents. The means of ferriage across the stream has been a large barge or flat boat, capable of containing fifty convicts, a rope stretched across being grasped by the hands and the boat then pulled over.
On Saturday, while thirty convicts were being thus transferred, they became alarmed on seeing some water and ice in the boat, and despite the fact that there was no danger, rushed panic-stricken to one end of the boat, which was at once capsized and all the men thrown into the cold river, there deep, though not more than fifty yards wide. A white guard who was on the boat went down with the rest.
A terrible scene followed, as the men struggled to get out, each man looking only after his personal safety. Many of the convicts swam ashore, or after being washed down a short distance reached the bank ere they came to the swift water. Twelve thus saved themselves, but eighteen clasped each other so closely that they became a struggling mass and were all drowned. The guard was taken from the water to all appearance dead, and it was only by dint of great and long continued efforts that his life was saved.
" The gang of convicts at this particular place, or rather section of the road was in charge of Mr. J.M. McMurray. Yesterday afternoon Capt. E.R. Stamps, chairman of the board of Penitentiary directors, left for the scene to make investigation of the disaster, which as, he state to a reporter, fairly appalled him. It was one of those accidents which seem to be unavoidable, and due to the sudden panic which seized the convicts in the boat, which it is said was in no danger of sinking, the water having fallen in it from the rains. Some of the drowned men were found some distance below, locked together in a last and fatal embrace. Many who could swim were hampered by others, who clutched them in a death grip.
"This is the greatest disaster that has happened on the road. A portion of the Cowee tunnel was of so treacherous a character that it caved in on a number of convicts, and they narrowly escaped death. The utmost precautions were used to prevent a repetition of the occurrence, an immense “cut” being made and arched over. The dirt was replaced, and all made secure. The tunnel is eighteen miles from the Balsam mountains, and thirty-four miles from Pigeon River, and is on what is known as the Ducktown branch of the Western North Carolina Railroad.
- News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), January 3, 1883