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.”


Swannanoa Gap tunnel cost more than dollars

On this day in 1879: Workers approaching from both sides complete 1,832-foot Swannanoa Gap tunnel, longest in western North Carolina. Master builder Thad Coleman wires Asheville that the “grades and centers met exactly.”

Later the same day, however, a slide at the tunnel kills 21 laborers. (In all, some 400 workers, most of them misdemeanor convicts, will die in bringing the railroad through the mountains to Asheville.)