Black Lives Built Western North Carolina Railroad

Asheville Weekly Citizen” Oct. 17, 1878.


The North Carolina Room received a call from someone–with both musical and local history interests–asking if there really was a collapse of the Swannanoa Tunnel, as the song, “Swannanoa Tunnel” relates? I said I would send him an article about it, thinking in a free moment I would just slap the article on the scanner and have it off to him. Except that I couldn’t find an article in our collection on the collapse. All of the staff looked. We checked book sources. And then we turned to, but found no reportage there.


Swannanoa Tunnel at Swannanoa Gap

A few days later, while reading Darin Waters’s 2012 dissertation, Life beneath the Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900, I read that on March 13, 1879, on the same day as the opening of the tunnel, “a cave-in near the western portal of the tunnel took the lives of 20 convicts.” Waters, p. 64. Waters cites this information from the North Carolina State Penitentiary Reports 1882, in the State Archives, Raleigh, NC. Twenty lives lost, but no coverage of the accident, such as the 1879 article below, killing one!

“The Blue Ridge Blade” Morganton, NC, Sept. 13, 1879. ” . . .accidently fired was the trouble.”

Waters also quotes from The Negro in North Carolina, 1876-1894 by Frenise A. Logan: “The black prison population in North Carolina nearly tripled in the period of 1876-1894. In 1876 there were 676 Negro prisoners in the state penitentiary . . .and in 1890 there were 1,623 Negroes and only 408 whites.” Waters writes that “the continued demands for a cheap supply of labor, especially for railroad construction was a major reason for the increase in the number of black inmates in North Carolina.” And Logan concludes, “Without a doubt, Negro prisoners were responsible for most, if not all, of the 3,582 miles of railroad track laid between 1876 and 1894.” Waters, page 63.

“Stockade at Swannanoa Tunnel”. Railroad tracks run left to right with several buildings on the other side. About a dozen people are standing near the tracks, while two others are standing on a rooftop or tower, one holding a rifle over his shoulder. Man standing to far left also holds a rifle. Note also the man standing at far right and to the right up high above the two men. [enlarged detail from photo C488-5]
“Asheville Weekly Citizen” May 9, 1878.

Waters also sources Coleman Twining’s 1887 Report to the North Carolina Bureau of Labor Statistics, who “reported that the state’s convict labor crews were overwhelmingly dominated by black men who in most cases had only been convicted of minor infractions of the law.” He noted that by and large, most of the men who made up these crews had been found guilty of little more than petty theft, but yet they were generally sentenced to as many as ten years in prison.” Waters, p. 62.

To read, or be told that, Blacks built the railroads into Asheville, can be taken-in without much thought, or later turning over in one’s mind. To know the historic details behind the statement–Backs built the railroads into Asheville (whether as slaves or as convicts)–produces a much different effect.

Afro-American convicts working on a railroad, all standing in line down tracks with two men with guns standing at very back.

The warden of the State Penitentiary also reported in The North Carolina State Penitentiary Reports 1882 “that of the 537 convicts working on the WNC Railroad in 1879, 75 died in construction accidents, six were killed while trying to escape, and at least another 35 escaped.”

“Asheville Weekly Citizen” April 11, 1878

Western North Carolina Railroad’s Swannanoa Tunnel was the longest (1800 feet) of 7 hand-dug tunnels through the Blue Ridge mountains to Asheville. The project, completed in 1879, took 20 years and cost at least 300 lives.



A work train of the WNCRR on Big Fill* (aka High Fill) Trestle. Photo from F097-8. Estimated date 1880-1900.

Swannanoa Tunnel

Swannanoa Tunnel

1. I’m going back to that Swannanoa Tunnel,
That’s my home, baby, that’s my home.

2. Asheville Junction, Swannanoa Tunnel,
All caved in, baby, all caved in.

3. Last December, I remember,
The wind blowed cold, baby, the wind blowed cold.

[From: “Remembering The Old Songs: Swannanoa Tunnel” by Lyle Lofgren.

For previous HeardTell post on Buncombe County Slaves and the Western North Carolina Railroad click here.

Post by Zoe Rhine, North Carolina Room Librarian


  1. I think the relevant color is green. If the oppressed of the day had been magenta that would have been perfectly fine for the evil RR barons and the politicians in their pockets.

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