Buncombe County Slaves and the Western North Carolina Railroad

The Western North Carolina Railroad was chartered in 1852 by the North Carolina General Assembly. A railway was to be constructed from Salisbury to some point on the French Broad River beyond the Blue Ridge. By 1859 the road had reached Morganton, a distance of 84 miles. [Asheville News July 14, 1859.]

View of the Western North Carolina Railroad at 17 Points, showing various elevations of the road. The loops were needed to keep the grade of the mountains to a minimum. Round Knob Hotel (1880-1903) and Fountain at lower left.

The Western North Carolina Rail Road (WNCRR) was important to Asheville and all of Western NC because it opened up the region to the eastern seaboard. As we saw in a previous post “Some Notes on Slavery in Asheville and Buncombe County,” many slave owners in Buncombe County “hired out” their slaves. Initial work included work in mines and on the Buncombe County Turnpike. As plans were underway to cut through the mountains from Morganton to Asheville and beyond, the demand for slave labor increased far beyond previous work in mines.

This ad ran in the Asheville News on February 10 & 24, 1859. In Mountain Masters, Slavery, and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina, John Inscoe places it as an ad that was soliciting slaves for railroad construction. Inscoe wrote that “Buncombe County’s largest slave owners, Nicholas W. Woodfin (1810-1875; Woodfin Street was named in his honor) and James W. Patton (1803-1861; son of James Patton who Patton Avenue was named for), were also actively involved in the construction of an independent section of railroad through Asheville. These men all hired other slaves and some white labor to supplement their own black labor force on these projects.” Apparently, according to this ad, there was such a need for slave labor that they also found it profitable to purchase more slaves. Insoce reports that Patton had four hundred hands, black and white, working for him in 1861. Inscoe, p. 79-81.

This ad in the Asheville News on August 5, 1858 shows Messrs. Patton of Asheville ready to send 60 “negroes” to work on Spartanburg road.


Woodfin had become associated with the railroad as a director and legal adviser after it was first organized. He died before seeing the completion of the WNCRR. Woodfin, a large landholder and owner of 121 slaves, lost extensive value of his property after the Civil War. His estate being worth $165,000 in 1860 was valued at $36,000 in 1870, as well as the loss of $50,000-60,000 worth of slaves.   [Dictionary of North Carolina Biography and “Nicholas W. Woodfin” by Charles R. Haller, published in A Lot of Bunkum, Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society Newsletter, August 2007.]

This 1859 (partial) ad from the Office of the WNCRR Company Office at Statesville shows Patton and others’ involvement.

“Asheville News” October 13, 1859

Inscoe also points out that it was contractors from outside the WNC area “who provided local masters with the best opportunities for hiring out their slaves.” He refers to ads such as the one below, published even after the Civil War had begun. Inscoe, p. 79.

“Semi-Weekly State Journal, Raleigh” January 1, 1862


The WNCRR ran into many difficulties and its completion was disrupted by the Civil War. The next post will look at how, following the Civil War, the use of convicts, almost all black, were used as the main labor force.


Post by Zoe Rhine, North Carolina Room Librarian


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