When the Sylva Board of Commissioners meets next week, they will consider a resolution in support of erecting a state highway Historical marker to recognize the contributions of African-American Prison Laborers to the development of North Carolina’s Economy and to acknowledge the price they paid for that work, according to the agenda released this week.
The request to consider the resolution was made by the Jackson County NAACP Branch, who sponsored the application for the marker.
North Carolina’s Historical Marker Program was established to designate places, events, or persons of statewide historical significance and according to an item on Sylva’s agenda for next week, the Cowee Tunnel Nineteen meet that definition.
According to the resolution, much of the modern transportation infrastructure – primarily railroad tracks – were essential for the development of the entire state’s economy. During the last half of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century, most of that infrastructure was completed due to leased prison labor.
“The conditions under which those prisoners labored were fraught, uncompensated, and publicly unrecognized,” reads the resolution. “The vast majority of those workers were African-Americans, often convicted of Jim Crow era pseudo-crimes, and forced to work in areas of the state foreign to them.”
The resolution states that Dillsboro is home to one of the largest single day loss of life in the state’s history when 19 shackled convicts died after a barge transporting them to work on the Cowee Tunnel capsized mid-river on December 30, 1882. The men were then interred in unmarked graves and remembered primarily today as part of the Great Smoky Mountains Train Tour, whose guides repeat a local and erroneous legend that their graves are atop the tunnel.
A Jan. 5 1883 newspaper account printed in the Raleigh News-Observer recounts the incident, with details varying slightly from those mentioned in the resolution:
“Lieut. Gov. Robinson reported the particulars of a horrible disaster at the crossing of Tuckaseege river on the Western North Carolina railroad by which eighteen convicts were drowned. It appears that the camp of the convicts that is the stockade in which they are quartered is on the bank of the Tuckaseegee river, opposite the Cowee Tunnel. The river is at that particular point deep, with a current somewhat sluggish as compared with parts immediately above and below, where it breaks into rapids and rushes with swiftness peculiar to those mountain torrents. The means of ferriage across the stream has been a large barger or float boat, capable of containing fitty convicts, a rope stretched across being grasped by the hands and the boat then pulled over. On Saturday, while thirty convicts were being transferred, they became alarmed on seeing some water and ice in the boat, an despite the fact that there was no danger, rushed panic-stricken to one end of the boat, which was at once capsized and all the men thrown into the cold river, there deep, though not more than fifty yards wide. A white guard who was on the boat went down with the rest. A terrible scene followed as the men struggled to get out, each man looking only after his personal safety. Many of the convicts swam ashore or after being washed down a short distance reached the bank ere they came to the swift water. Twelve thus saved themselves, but eighteen clasped each other so closely that they became a struggle mess and were all drowned. The guard was taken from the water to all appearance dead, and it was only by dint of great and long continued efforts that his life was saved.”
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 the railroad’s progress.
According to a senior thesis submitted by Homer S. Carson III (University of North Carolina 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 penitentiary.”
The number of victims from the December 30 incident has been reported and varied from 18 to 20, with several articles noting 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. A consensus as to where the men were buried is also uncertain as 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.
The Jackson County NAACP Branch sponsored the application to give recognition that has otherwise been nonexistent to the contributions of prison leased labor to the economic development of the state and noting the tragic deaths of 19 African-Americans in Dillsboro in 1882.