All of the passengers were cast into the icy waters, where they struggled in vain

Posted by | May 22, 2013

Please welcome guest author Gary Carden. Carden’s autobiographical “Mason Jars in the Flood” received the AWA Book of the Year Award in 2001.

Gary Carden

He received the NC Folklore Award in 2004, and an honorary doctorate by Western Carolina University in 2008. Last year he was awarded the North Carolina Literature Award….the highest honor awarded by the NC Arts Council to an individual.




On a cold Saturday morning in Dillsboro, NC (December 30, 1882), an accident occurred  which the Raleigh Observer would call “the most awful that has happened in any of the public works of this state.”

It involved the drowning of 19 convicts in the Tuckaseigee River. Prior to the accident, 30 convicts had been assembled on the  eastern bank of the Tuckaseigee River to await transportation across the stream to the Cowee Tunnel, where they had been working for several months.

Western North Carolina chain gang. No date. Courtesy Gary Carden.

Western North Carolina chain gang. No date. Courtesy Gary Carden.

The boat, flat-bottomed and capable of holding 50 passengers, had been pulled up on the bank, and the convicts, all shackled and chained, moved into the boat prior to being ferried across the river to their work site. These convicts were part of a large work force, which varied from 150 to 500 workers, that had been “leased” from the prison in Raleigh by the Western North Carolina Railroad which, in turn, was operated by the Richmond and Danville Railroad Company.

Many of these leased prisoners were veterans, having worked  on “the road” for the past three years, and had probably participated in the construction of one or more of the seven tunnels in Swannanoa, prior to the move across the Balsams and down into Jackson County. The convicts working at the Cowee Tunnel were under the supervision of Mr. J. M. McMurray and Mr. E. B. Stamps, who supervised all convicts in the state.

Following the drowning, Stamps was ordered by Governor Jarvis to make a “complete examination of the occurrence.”  Stamps’ report concluded that the drownings were not the fault of anyone. Regardless, the disaster was a great blow to the governor and all of the state authorities who were in charge of “leased prisoners.” In addition, Governor Jarvis had just returned from an inspection of the railroad the week prior to the accident; Jarvis had reported that he was pleased with railroad’s progress.

According to the two guards who were supervising the prisoners, a sturdy steel cable spanned the river at this point, and the daily journey was easily accomplished by a combination of poling and maintaining contact with the cable.

However, it had rained the night before and the bottom of the boat contained a sludge of ice and rain water. As the boat moved into the river, the trapped water flowed into the stern of the flatboat, frightening several convicts and causing them to shout that the boat was sinking. As a result, the prisoners  panicked and rushed to the front of the boat.

Although the guards shouted that the boat was not sinking, the convicts continued to press toward the prow, causing the stern to rise and capsize.  All of the passengers were cast into the icy waters, where they struggled vainly to swim.  Since the convicts were shackled and chained together, they became a tangled mass, locked in a deadly embrace.

According to later accounts, a large number of eyewitnesses stood helplessly by, unable to save the drowning men. A future investigation would note that the river is narrow at the point where the accident occurred and  it runs “still and deep.” A widely circulated newspaper account of the disaster stated that the witnesses stood helplessly “listening to the cries of drowning men and the gasping of able swimmers.”

However, there were 12 convicts and one guard who were swept down river and survived, either because they were not shackled, or they were pulled from the water by their unshackled brothers. Even so, the chilling effects of the water quickly rendered most of them unconscious. Indeed, many, if not all of the survivors, would have died had it not been for the vigorous efforts by guards and other convicts to revive them.

According to a senior thesis submitted by Homer S. Carson III (University of North Carolina at Asheville) several acts of heroism occurred.

Carson’s research of state records and documents revealed that William J. “Fleet” Foster, one of the guards aboard the boat, was pulled ashore by Anderson Drake, a young black prisoner. Normally, this was an act that would have justified a pardon for Drake; however, it was later discovered that Drake had stolen Foster’s wallet during the rescue – as a result, Drake received a lashing (10 strokes with a leather strap) which was administered by a “duly elected officer of the penitentary.”

According to the official investigation of this event by North Carolina’s Governor Jarvis, Drake also received “a small reward.”  In addition, another prisoner, Sam Pickett, “was credited with saving several men from drowning, and was given a full pardon from Governor Jarvis, and a gift of $100.” (The official records indicate that only one of the drowning prisoners was saved.)

The Cowee Tunnel disaster received extensive coverage in newspapers throughout the Southeast. Accounts in papers as varied as The Raleigh Observer, the Augusta Chronicle and the Huntington Gazette in Huntington, AL all dutifully repeated the basic facts, but with occasional mistakes.  The number of victims varied from 18 to 20, and several articles noted that the drowned convicts were not removed from the river for several days; others noted that the retrieval and burial occurred on the same day.

According to most accounts, the burial took place “above the tunnel in a mass grave,” while local oral history says that the unmarked graves (three of them) are located on a hill near the tunnel.

There is a poignant tragedy here.  Not only do we not know the location of the gravesite; there is no appropriate marker to indicate where and why 19 human beings died building a railroad through our county…we do not have their names. Those 19 men have been erased as though they never lived.

A standard response might be that while their deaths are unfortunate, they were, after all …criminals.  Were they? An investigation into who they were and how they came to be standing on the banks of the Tuckaseigee on a cold winter morning in 1882 reveals some disquieting details about chain gangs.

For example, three significant books – one that has been developed into a film by PBS – have much to say about how easy it would be to end up on a chain gang in 1882.  ‘Slavery by Another Name,’ by Douglas Blackmon, reveals how southern states managed to create a replacement for slavery.  In effect, the chain gangs enabled people (and railroads) who were in need of a cheap (or free) labor force. After the Civil War large numbers of African Americans were rootless, confused and struggling to adjust to their new-found freedom.

There were numerous misdemeanors, such as larceny, vagrancy, loitering  … laws that if strenuously enforced, could pack the prisons. At some point, an agreement was reached in the majority of Southern states. Prisons entered into profitable agreements with farmers, plant owners and town governments.  They would “lease” workers.

‘One Dies, Get Another,’ by Matthew J. Mancini,  is a brutal account of how chain gangs were housed, fed and exploited. It is a shameful history of a practice that was prevalent throughout North Carolina. ‘Worse Than Slavery,’ by David M. Oshinsky, provides accounts of chain gang abuses with an emphasis on the worst offenders – especially Mississippi’s Parchman Farm.

So, who were those nineteen convicts?  Well, after a bit of determined research, I contacted Matt Bumgarner, who is currently working on a book on the Western North Carolina Railroad.  He sent me the following list:

NAMES            COUNTY                AGE
Moses Brown        Warren                25
Oren Brooks        Orange                22
Charles Eason        Martin                15
Sampson Ward        Onslow                55
Allen Tillman        Anson                18
Robert Robinson        North Hanover            27
Thomas Miller        Chesterfield, S. C.        30
James Fisher        Polk                    18
Nelson Bowser        Hertford                30
John Newsom        Hertford                20
George Tice        Iredell                21
Jerry Smith            Wilson                33
George Rush        Richmond                44
David Dozier        Edgecomb                52
Jim McCallum        Gaston                18
Albert Cowan        Rowan                22
Louis Davis        Vance                29
Alex Adams        Washington            25
John Whitfield        Wayne                20

The average age of the victims is 28.  All had been charged with the same crime – larceny, which is defined as the taking someone else’s property.

According to local legend, the Cowee Tunnel has always been plagued by disaster. Cave-ins were prevelant during construction. The interior is dark, and even today, moisture continues to drip from the ceiling, giving rise to the imaginative idea that this persistent dripping is the tears of convicts who died in the Tuckaseigee River.

At the present time, the Liars Bench, which operates out of the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University, is developing a series of programs that deals with the history and folklore of western North Carolina. The Cowee Tunnel disaster will be the subject of a program in the near future. The topic of all Liars Bench programs are developed with storytelling, music and poetry.

Stay tuned.

One Response

  • Wanda says:

    This was a touching story. PBS is showing a story on trains and the history. And the tunnel made by these prisoners was shown. Being black in this day and age I still find the unfair justice of blacks is an ongoing occurrence. Many blacks were sentenced to harsher treatment than white prisoners for the same crimes. The black prisoners were given this hard sentence for larceny. While no white prisoners was put on this hard work. Your article was very enlightening on an event in history.

Leave a Reply

9 + = 18

↑ Back to top

This collection is copyright ©2006-2018 by Dave Tabler. All visuals are used in accordance with the Fair Use Law (Per Title 17—United States Code—Section 107) and remain the property of copyright owners. Site Design by Amaru Interactive