The iron horse throbbing on the ribbons of steel

Posted by | March 19, 2014

Tim Hall portraitPlease welcome guest author Tim “Seanachai” Hall. On most days, you can find him telling stories, giving living history demonstrations on cooking—planting crops— musketry, or broadcasting his Saturday morning radio program. He is in the process of restoring multiple buildings and antiques, which are part of the heritage of the south that he is striving to preserve. Tim’s driving passion is to restore The Citizens Bank Building in Bryson City, NC that will house “The Storytelling Center of the Southern Appalachians in Bryson City”. Tim has a storefront in Bryson City containing museum exhibits of the Southern Highlands, an area for storytelling, a place for craft demonstrations, and a gallery of Southern Appalachian crafted items.

Haunted Cowee Tunnel. Courtesy the author.

Haunted Cowee Tunnel. Courtesy the author.

Do you hear it?
The plaintive sounds of the steam whistle caressing the senses.
The iron horse throbbing on the ribbons of steel.
The shovel scraping against the coal in the tender.
The shouts of the engineer for more steam.

Thus is the heritage of the Western North Carolina Railroad…

The Murphy branch of the WNC RR began in Asheville, made it to Pigeon River (present-day Canton) in January 1882, and Waynesville later the same year. Balsam Mountain then challenged the railroad’s trek west. Abandoning plans to tunnel through the mountain, engineers laid the tracks along a dangerous and difficult grade up and over the Balsams. At 3100 feet, Balsam Gap became the highest railroad pass east of the Rockies. From there the WNC RR dropped into Dillsboro and proceeded to Bryson City and Andrews, finally reaching Murphy in 1891. Murphy celebrated by laying the cornerstone of its new courthouse on the same day the railroad made its first scheduled stop in the town.

Every trestle constructed…
Every rail laid…
Every railroad tie formed…
Every tree cut…
Every rock turned…
Every tunnel dug…

Performed by convict labor…

A. B. Andrews, an honest and highly respected man, was the driving force behind the construction of the Murphy Branch. Asheville boasted a mainline to the east, a route to Charleston to the south, and a newly completed rail line to Painted Rock, to the north. Andrews envisioned a “temporary” rail line to the west that would open the Western North Carolina mountain region to new economic wealth, developed from tourism and industry. It was quickly to earn a reputation as a rail line steeped in hardship and unparalleled tragedies in mountain railroad construction.

The saddest episode in the construction of the WNC RR occurred when workers were constructing the 863-foot Cowee Mountain Tunnel, just about a mile west of Dillsboro. On December 30, 1882 one of the most horrible of railroad tragedies occurred.

All accounts state that it was a cold, blustery day. The Tuck (Tuckaseegee River) was flowing hard, rain had fallen over the past several days and had caused the Tuck to be high and turbulent. In order for the convict workers to get to the western end of the tunnel worksite for a day of crushing granite rock with 10 lb. hammers, they had to cross the fierce river.

Goin' home. Courtesy the author.

Goin’ home. Courtesy the author.

A flat bottom boat was used to ferry the convicts across to the work site. On board: 19 convicts, shackled together with leg and wrist irons, 1 trustee (a convict with no leg or wrist shackles), and one guard.

The flat bottom boat was pushed off from the northern bank of the Tuck. The convicts began tugging on the rope that was tied to both sides of the river, giving them a means by which they propelled the boat across the rough water. Water splashed into the boat, it began to flow back and forth as the boat rode the waves, the convicts thought that the boat was in peril of sinking, that it might have a leak, and they panicked! They moved as one, gathering together in one end of the boat, causing the boat to capsize. Shackled together by wrist and leg, bound together in death as in life, the 19 inmates sank to the bottom of the river, and drowned.

The trustee saw that the guard was floundering, weighted down by his guns and the keys to the shackles of the convicts. He swam to the guard, removed the keys attached to the guard’s belt, threw off the guns, and pulled him to the bank of the river. His deed of heroism was banished, though, for it was found that during the saving of the guard, he had removed $30 from the guard’s pocket and put it in his own.

The convicts who had drowned were buried in unmarked graves on a hill overlooking the river and tunnel.

The drowning cast a shroud over the Cowee Tunnel that exists to this day. If you venture into the tunnel you will find that it is always wet. Water drips from the ceiling of the tunnel, down its walls, coursing to the opening at the western end of the tunnel. It is said that there is no explanation for this fount of water, no spring, no creek, and no rivulet is found to be the source.

Ela Trestle. Courtesy the author.

Ela Trestle. Courtesy the author.

Yet, those who tell the story say that there is an explanation. The answer lies in the tears of the convicts buried on the mountain. The water that flows into the Cowee Tunnel comes from the tears of those whose graves have never been found, the tears of those who have never been taken home, the tears of those who drowned, building the Murph, from Asheville to the west.


A Postscript:
No accurate count has ever been given as to the number of convicts who died building the Murphy Branch of the Western North Carolina Railroad, but, by some accounts, the number is in excess of 400 men. They were all buried where they died.

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