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1875: Black Prisoners Worked to Death on the Railroad, Raleigh, NC

Updated: May 10, 2023

October 18, 2021


On October 17, 1875, 35 African American men were marched in shackles from the North Carolina State Penitentiary in Raleigh to the nearby North Carolina Railroad station. Upon arrival, they were put in a boxcar with nowhere to sit and no facilities other than a hole cut in the floor near one corner of the car. Two days later, they arrived at Henry Station on the Western North Carolina Railroad, just west of the present-day town of Old Fort, and the base camp for the railroad's assault on the Blue Ridge. Thus began one of the most sordid - and least told - episodes in the history of this state. Over the next four years, more than 3,000 African American men and several hundred African American women were shipped in boxcars from Raleigh to work on constructing the Western North Carolina Railroad between Henry Station and the top of the mountain at Ridgecrest. A head count on November 1, 1877, illustrates the point vividly. On that day, there were 558 at work on the mountain; 501 black men, 22 black women, and 35 white men. Many of these incarcerated laborers had been convicted on false or flimsy evidence or sentenced to terms much longer than any crime might have merited. Accurate records were not kept of the convicts' names or the number who died on the mountain. Many were buried in unmarked graves beside the tracks. However, we know the names of 139 who were killed building the railroad. Historians and others familiar with the project estimate the number killed is closer to 300. The entire section of track between Henry Station and the top of the mountain at Ridgecrest is a graveyard.

It was indeed an honor for me, on behalf of NC Speaker of the House Tim Moore, to join Drew Christy, Director of Governor Roy Cooper's Western Office, and other assembled dignitaries and guests at today's dedication of the RAIL Memorial Project (RAil and Incarcerated Laborers) at Andrew's Geyser Park, Old Fort NC. While many are responsible for today's dedication, it simply would not have happened without two key individuals' hard work and diligence. Those two are Dr. Dan Pierce, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and Mayor Steve Little of Marion, attorney, and rail historian. Norfolk Southern, now the owner and operator of the rail line, paid particular tribute to those being memorialized today by scheduling a westbound train to pass the site and give a horn salute during the ceremony. That train is visible above the assembled crowd in the pic below, as well as pics of each side of the memorial, one of which includes the names of the 139 killed that we do know. Today we began to tell a story that hasn't been told nearly enough. I'm honored to help tell this story.

The stockade, consisting of a series of wooden bunkhouses, was one of several that were built along the steep mountain terrain between Old Fort and Ridgecrest to house more than 500 incarcerated laborers sent to the mountains from the State Penitentiary in Raleigh to construct the railroad line into Asheville.


At the time of the attempted poisoning, the Round Knob stockade housed at least 150 prisoners – nearly 95% of whom were Black men. Incarcerated women at the stockade, all of whom were Black, were tasked with cooking and cleaning for both prisoners and guards, giving the unnamed poisoner ample opportunity to spike Griffin’s coffee with sulfuric acid, which she had likely acquired from another prisoner who used the acid to manufacture nitroglycerin on-site.


Life at the stockade was brutal. Incarcerated men worked seven days a week, 10 hours a day, using rocks, shovels, wagons, rail cars, pick axes, and nitroglycerin to cut tunnels and lay track. Rations consisted of cornbread and beans; bacon, and cabbage when available. The prisoners were chained together at night and forced to endure bitter winters and sweltering summers with little protection from the elements. When a prisoner died, he was most often unceremoniously buried beside the track, and another prisoner was sent from Raleigh to take his place.


Using incarcerated laborers, however, had not been the state’s original intention. Before the railroad was completed, travelers and supplies could only reach Western North Carolina by scaling the mountains on foot, horseback, or by wagon or stagecoach. This relative isolation became an emergency when a drought in the 1840s resulted in a total crop failure in the region. Soon after, the state of North Carolina earmarked funds to hire workers to bring the railroad westward.


But the project stalled at the foot of the mountains with the onslaught of the Civil War and again faltered when the men in charge of construction embezzled the funds earmarked for the railroad and skipped town. Though the state apprehended the criminals, they did not recover the funds, nor did the men, who were wealthy, white, and well-connected, serve any prison time. Instead, the state found a new solution to its financial woes. Rather than pay workers, they sent a steady stream of men from the penitentiary in Raleigh and forced them to construct the railroad.


Though the 13th Amendment had outlawed slavery in the United States, there was a loophole; involuntary servitude could continue if used as punishment for a crime. And when North Carolina needed free labor, even petty crimes carried highly harsh sentences. Young, strong men and boys – some as young as 14 – were sentenced to work on the railroad for as little as stealing a newspaper. Many were wrongfully convicted. The incarcerated laborers resisted their imprisonment despite being chained, watched by armed guards, and weakened by the harsh climate, brutal working conditions, communicable illnesses, and lack of food and sleep.


The Asheville Citizen reported that on April 8, 1877, 150 prisoners at Round Knob Stockade ran as a group into the night. The woods surrounding the stockade were dense, and it seemed likely that some of the prisoners would find freedom. But, according to the Citizen report, no prisoners escaped. Armed guards killed nine. Fourteen were wounded.

Days later, the Citizen and the numerous papers across the state that had rerun the story printed retractions. To assuage fears about using “convict labor,” Major James W. Wilson, the railroad president, denied the escape story as a hoax. Wilson said no one had been killed, and there had been no escape attempt. Still, in its biannual report, the penitentiary noted that 42 incarcerated individuals had escaped from the Western North Carolina Railroad between November 1, 1876, and November 1, 1877; 34 had died.


By the time the first passenger trains traveled to Asheville from Old Fort in late 1879, nearly 150 prisoners had escaped, and more than 150 had died on the tracks of disease, exposure, accidents, and escape attempts. Both those numbers would more than double over the next four years as work continued.


In 2020, a small group of volunteers from Buncombe and McDowell counties founded The RAIL Project to recognize the sacrifice of the incarcerated men and women who were forced to do the backbreaking work to bring the railroad into Western North Carolina. In October, thanks to the generosity of donors from across the state, the group erected a memorial at Andrew’s Geyser in Old Fort, the site of the Round Knob stockade. In 2022, the group was working to identify potential grave areas on the mountain and erect informational panels about the people who constructed the railroad. To learn more or donate to the project, visit therailproject.org.



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