Cooperation essential for Swannanoa Gap convicts

“….We as a culture are more accepting of people of all races and backgrounds, and yet we’re not connected. You see a group of four or five people together and they’re all looking at their own individual cellphones….

“[By contrast, the convicts in the late 1800s who built the Swannanoa Gap tunnel showed] respect for each other at a time when you had to cooperate. Even when they were being transported from Central Prison to Henry Station [near Old Fort], they were connected, handcuffed on each side in groups of five and leg-shackled. They’re on a boxcar, and in one corner there’s a hole in the floor for ‘necessary purposes.’ It’s night and people are trying to sleep, and then you’ve got a guy who has to go to the bathroom. He’s attached to four other guys — they all got to go to the hole, whether they need to use it or not….

“This was horrible, just absolutely horrible. Yet they persevered.”

— From “How convicts conquered the Swannanoa grade; a chat with railroad historian Steven Little” by Max Hunt at Mountain Xpress (Sept. 23)

Little, author of Tunnels, Nitro, and Convicts: Building the Railroad that Couldn’t be Built,” performs the  one-man show “Railroad Convict.”


Chain gangs: ‘Good roads make good men’

“For [antebellum] Southern critics the notion of locking up white men and making them toil amounted to an intolerable inversion of a divinely ordained social hierarchy. ‘Under the Penitentiary system, the free-born citizen is made to labor directly under the lash as a slave,’ fulminated a North Carolina commentator in 1846. ‘Is this not worse than death?’…

“Border states and those with thriving commercial cities built prisons first… only Florida and the Carolinas held out beyond the Civil War….

“With their penitentiaries in ruins and criminal convictions on the rise, every Southern state handed over prisoners to for-profit contractors in the decades after the Civil War. In North Carolina, state officials stuffed convicts into padlocked boxcars and shipped them off to Appalachian railroad camps.

“In response to the powerful ‘good roads movement’ [of the early 20th century, states such as North Carolina] put prisoners to work on state chain gangs.

“The chain gang, in which thousands of prisoners, most of them black, were loaded onto cattle trucks and carted around the state to pound rocks and shovel dirt, was celebrated as a humanitarian advance…. ‘Good roads make good men,’ proclaimed Joseph Hyde Pratt, a geologist and convict labor advocate in North Carolina. ‘Life in the convict road camp… is more conducive to maintaining and building up the general health and manhood of the convict than when he is confined behind prison walls.’ ”

— From “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire” by Robert Perkinson (2010)