Wednesday, July 21, 2010

One Dies, Get Another - Part Three

Throughout 1882 and 1883, convict labor crews were at work in Jackson County, grading the rail bed and cutting tunnels.


At Cowee Tunnel, ca. 1892

Several work camps between Balsam and Dillsboro housed a total of more than 450 prisoners. Rebecca Harding Davis, writing in Harper’s Magazine, described a similar work camp near Asheville:

In a moment half a dozen camp fires started into light, and the gorge swarmed with hundreds of wretched blacks in the striped yellow convict garb. After their supper was cooked and eaten, they were driven into a row of prison cars, where they were tightly boxed for the night, with no possible chance to obtain either air or light.

The fires smouldered dimly, the guards squatted asleep about them, their guns at half-cock; beyond the half-lighted pass the wooded heights rose darkly tier on tier to the steely blue dome where Arcturus burned like fire.

Mr. Morley stood behind Miss Davidger’s chair.

“There certainly is a singular sense of liberty in the breath of the mountains – ‘of old, dwelt Freedom on the heights,’” he said. “Oh? Those poor devils? Following her glance downward. “Don’t be afraid of them. No criminals among them, Chicken thieves for the most part. Petit larceny is punished with virtuous rigor here now. One negro was sentenced to life in Georgia the other day for stealing a mackerel. Before the war he would have had a dozen lashes. But the South must have convict, if not slave labor, to finish her railways. Ham is still kept in his proper place in the tents by his brethren.


Nineteen shackled convicts drowned in the Tuckasegee when their barge capsized near the work site at the 836-foot Cowee Tunnel. Two passengers on the boat survived, guard Fleet Foster and trustee Anderson Drake. At first, Drake was hailed as a hero for rescuing Foster from the river. However, when Foster’s wallet was found in Drake’s duffel, he was whipped and sentenced to hard labor in the tunnel. Prisoner Sam Pickett saved several men and was rewarded with a pardon from the Governor and $100.


The Tuckasegee River near Dillsboro

In response to the accident, the state House requested an investigation of circumstances leading up to the event. After a visit to the camp near Cowee Tunnel and interviews with convicts and staff, an investigator reported no improper conduct. He described prison fare for the workers as “bacon or beef, vegetables, unlimited bread, coffee, and molasses,” but added, “It has been impossible to entirely prevent scorbutic infection,” suggesting that the prisoners were suffering from dietary deficiencies.

Years later, one railroad official recalled a more limited diet:

The standard food was navy beans and corn bread. For Sunday breakfast, there was the luxury of biscuits. Sometimes there was fat pork, cabbage, potatoes, and black-eyed peas. Blackstrap molasses was a treat.

One foreman’s report (that I’ve not verified to my satisfaction) claimed that the winter of 1885 was so harsh that 150 convicts were stranded in quarters above the Nantahala Gorge and that 19 of them died before supplies arrived from Andrews.

From 1875-1892, 3644 prisoners were sent to work on the WNCRR and most of them survived. If not for convict labor, the railroad would have been delayed or, perhaps, never completed. But the railroad reached Murphy by 1891 and it changed everything.

Outside interests were soon extracting timber and mineral resources from the mountains, with little concern over the impact of their activities.

Around the time the Murphy branch was completed, Tennessee sent convict labor crews into the mountains of that state, and the situation exploded. That’s another story for another day, though.


At Balsam Gap

Immediately after the Cowee Tunnel disaster, the News and Observer (Raleigh) published this:

Eighteen Convicts Drowned at Once
A Flat Boat Sinks With Them In The Tuckaseegee River.


"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

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