Swannanoa Tunnel

“Daylight entered Buncombe County today 
through the Swannanoa Tunnel.

The building of the mountain railroad came to a conclusion with the completion of the Swannanoa Tunnel near Ridgecrest. When this tunnel was blasted open, the work forces on both sides met in the center. On March 11, 1879, Wilson and one of his chief engineers wired the following telegraph message to Gov. Zebulon B. Vance: “Daylight entered Buncombe County today through the Swannanoa Tunnel. Grades and center met exactly.”

Work finally started on the Western North Carolina Railroad in 1866. The plan was to connect Salisbury 
and Asheville, and continue to Tennessee. From Salisbury to Old Fort, the route was not too difficult, 
but the route from Old Fort to Asheville was another matter, for in the path lay the mountains that form 
the Eastern Continental Divide. The route through the mountains was surveyed several times, and the 
final route involved laying track in a series of loops so as to maintain a grade of no more than 2.1 percent, or approximately 2 feet of rise in 100 feet of travel. While this grade is not significant to pedestrians or motor vehicles, it is about the limit for traditional railroad locomotives.
The linear distance from railroad milepost 113, just west of Old Fort, to milepost 122 is just 3 miles, but 
the distance by rail it is nine miles. In that same distance the railroad climbs almost 900 feet. Those 
nine miles of ever-curving track helps maintain a more reasonable grade. Those loops, or circles, are 
an engineering challenge in themselves. If all of the curves were added together, they would equal 
eight complete circles. Where the terrain would not permit this approach, tunnels were dug through the 
mountains. Between Old Fort and Swannanoa, there are seven tunnels totaling 3,589 feet. The longest 
tunnel is the one on the western end, the Swannanoa Tunnel, at 1,832 feet.
Building this railroad was not easy. In addition to the terrain, weather and remoteness of the area, the 
task of digging seven tunnels was immense. The new railroad was used to facilitate its own construction as it moved westward, especially during the removing the material from tunnel excavations. The 
only other alternative for moving materials was by cart pulled by ox or mule. To expedite the process, 

providing power on the west end in what would become Swannanoa Tunnel, the longest of the tunnels.
engineer James W. Wilson decided to take one of the locomotives around the mountain by road, thus 
Another challenge was the lack of black powder for blasting the rock to make both cuts and tunnels. 
Remember that the hostilities had ended in 1865, and there was still an element of distrust all around, 
as well as a real shortage of the material. To overcome the shortage of black powder, Wilson solved 
the problem in two ways. One approach was to have the laborers build large fires in the tunnel to heat 
the rocks. They would then pour water on the rocks to rapidly cool them.
While not efficient, it did work, and the cost of both labor and firewood was relatively cheap at the time. 

These are some of the modules made in the last few months.  Come down and 
join the fun.  No experience required, just some problem solving.  Learn from 
helping them get to the finish!June 2011 Vol. 40 No. 10 4
SRHA holds 25th Annual Convention  
at Spencer  
By Clinton H. Smoke, Jr.
(Continued on page 5)
A more effective alternative was to make a blasting mixture of nitroglycerine and corn meal. This mixture was poured into holes which had been hand drilled into the rock. Fuses consisted of reeds and 
pine needles. There were many dangers with this process, and many accidents resulted leading to injuries and fatalities.
Work was completed on the Swannanoa Tunnel, the last of the tunnels, on March 11, 1879, and according to a telegram sent to Governor Zebulon Vance, “daylight entered Buncombe County today 
through the Swannanoa Tunnel,” thus connecting Asheville with the rest of the state’s railroad system. 
Shortly after the telegram was sent, a collapse occurred in the western end of the tunnel burying 23 laborers.

Sample Images to be used for research for the  center panel of the mural

The Eastern Continental Divide, in conjunction with other continental divides of North America, demarcates two watersheds of the Atlantic Ocean: the Gulf of Mexicowatershed and the Atlantic Seaboard watershed. Prior to 1760, the divide represented the boundary between British and French colonial possessions in North America. The ECD runs south-southwest from the Eastern Triple Divide in Pennsylvania to the watershed of the Kissimmee River, which drains via the Lake Okeechobee and the Okeechobee Waterway to both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

The reorganized railroad Board elected civil engineer James W. Wilson President 
and Supervisor of the road. Wilson had a history with the road starting before the Civil 
War and was a large stockholder in the project. After his election, construction activity 
increased significantly. During 1877, the prison sent 353 additional inmates to the camps, 
adding to the 252 already there. Of those, 99 were discharged or pardoned, 30 died, 4 
were killed, and 42 escaped. On average, 351 prisoners were available each month.
Major Wilson wrote Governor Vance frequently on railroad matters. Shortly after his 
election, he asked the governor to talk to J. W. Hicks, the warden of the penitentiary, 
about disagreements with the penitentiary supervisors. He predicted the road would reach 
   Zebulon B. Vance to Penitentiary Board, Vance Papers, 9 July 1877, NCAH 5652, 210. 
  Zebulon B. Vance to Penitentiary Board, Vance Papers, 10 November 1877, NCAH 5779, 330. 
  Penitentiary Report 1878, 24. 14
Asheville in twelve months (April 1878) if a more cooperative Penitentiary Board 
delivered the specified quota of inmates.
 Wilson’s company held the contract for excavation of the Swannanoa tunnel. In 
order to speed this work and meet deadlines, he decided to work the east and west portals 
simultaneously. Since having a locomotive on the western side would facilitate not only 
work on that side of the tunnel but also aid in laying track to Asheville, he solved the 
problem in a novel way, as witnessed by Burke Blade reporters. “We went up last week 
to see Wilson’s niggers pull that engine over the Blue Ridge—and they did it.” Convicts 
pulled the seventeen ton “Salisbury” over the top and to tracks on the western side by 
dragging three ropes, laying track in front and removing track from behind as they 
traveled along the stagecoach road. This creative maneuver made the “Salisbury” the first 
locomotive “west of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina.”
 Shortly after this extraordinary endeavor, Wilson complained to Vance that the 
General Assembly authorized five hundred convicts to “work on the Western North 
Carolina Railroad.” In a clever interpretation of this wording, he noted that twenty 
percent of the convicts labored with “getting wood, cooking, and washing,” and thus 
could not be considered part of the specified work force of five hundred. He wanted to 
speed the work and wished that more prisoners had arrived “before the severe weather.”
He later repeated his contention that the General Assembly intended an actual force of 
five hundred in addition to support workers. He also said he wanted to send one hundred 
  James W. Wilson to Zebulon B. Vance, Vance Papers, 28 April 1877, NCAH 5555, 143. 
  Salisbury Carolina Watchman, 22 November 1877, 1. 
  James W. Wilson to Zebulon B. Vance, Vance Papers, 1 December1877, NCAH.  15
workers to Buncombe County. “With this number, I will call for no more, please get them 
for me.”
 Engineering problems and convict labor shortages slowed progress. Prompted by 
allegations of mismanagement from Wilson’s political enemies, the legislature directed 
an investigation of the railroad in January 1879 by two legislators and a civil engineer. 
The investigation exonerated Wilson and the railroad management. The engineer’s report 
summarized the delays and difficulties caused by various landslides, especially the 
famous “Mud Cut” slides. After removing 69,000 (of a total of 77,000) cubic yards from 
an excavation, landslides later deposited a total of 110,000 cubic yards into the area. The 
engineer also explained the savings gained from the local production of the 18,000 
pounds of nitroglycerine, used for the first time in southern engineering projects.
  The inspecting team found 604 convicts working six different locations on 1 
February 1879. They reported the convicts were “well fed, well clothed, …have very 
comfortable quarters; hospitals are well supplied, the sick cared for and physicians 
 The daily diet as described by the overseer at Lick Log quarters consisted of 
“1/2 pound bacon or beef, 22 ounces of cornbread, 1/3 pound of peas, 1 pound of Irish 
potatoes, onions, molasses, and coffee morning and night.”
 Rebecca Harding Davis, a prominent regional writer, apparently did not 
appreciate the “very comfortable quarters” mentioned in the committee report. On a visit 
to the convict quarters during this time, she reported that the inmates “were driven into a 
  James W. Wilson to Zebulon B. Vance, Vance Papers, 17 December 1877, NCAH 13363. 
  Legislative Documents, Report of the Committee of Investigation on the Western North 
Carolina Railroad and the Western Insane Asylum, Document No. 27, 1879, 10-15. Also Asheville North 
Carolina Citizen, “Mud Cut,” 20 March 1879. 
  Ibid., 6. 
  Ibid., 30. 16
row of prison cars, where they were tightly boxed for the night, with no possible chance 
to obtain either air or light.” The conditions in the camps were “squalid and horrifying.”
 During these troubled times, Wilson reported to Governor Vance that the difficult 
eight miles (three miles airline distance)  from Henry Station to the western portal of the 
Swannanoa tunnel should be completed in January 1879.
 The remaining eighteen miles 
to Asheville would be finished by mid 1879. He recorded a work force of 350 convicts in 
1877, and 500 in 1878, twenty percent of whom were “cooks, wood-cutters, washwomen, and etc.” According to Wilson, convict maintenance cost $0.30 per day, $0.07 
for food, $0.10 for guard salaries and support, and the “remainder for clothing, medical 
attention, and etc.”
 However, food and maintenance reports varied. Penitentiary reports 
recorded food costs at $0.10 per day, while W. C. Sandlin, a railroad employee who 
worked on the road during this period, recalled in an interview in 1932 that: 
  The standard food was navy beans and corn bread. For Sunday breakfast,  
  there was the luxury of biscuits. Sometimes there was fat pork, cabbage,  
  potatoes, and black-eyed peas. Blackstrap molasses was a treat. Six and  
  one-quarter cents per day was the average allowance to feed a convict. 
 He also spoke of “several hundred prisoners…about fifty of them were women” arriving 
to work on the railroad in 1872, when in fact the railroad first contracted for prisoners in 
1875 (during that first year, according to state records, sixteen women were sent). Sandlin 
also recalled that, “these women were a constant source of worry. They could never be 

  Cary Franklin Poole, A History of Railroading in North Carolina (Johnson City, TN: The 
Overmountain Press, 1995), 6.  

  The other tunnels were Burgin, High Ridge, McElroy, Lick Log, and Jarrett’s. 

  Legislative Documents, Report of Jas. W. Wilson, President of the Western North Carolina 
Railroad, Document No. 14, 1879, 1-2.  17
satisfactorily handled in the camps. They often ran away and paid little attention to the 
camp rules.”

 No female convicts were sent to the railroad camps after 1882.

 The two crews working the Swannanoa tunnel met on 11 March 1879. In 
Asheville, the North Carolina Citizen proclaimed, “Hail to the Chief! Hurrah for Major 
Wilson and the Western North Carolina Railroad. Day-Light through the Tunnel.”
Many years later, reports appeared describing the deaths that same day of twenty convicts 
and a guard in a sudden cave-in near the western portal of the tunnel.

 However, no 
mention of the accident appears in the biennial Penitentiary Report for 1880, Major 
Wilson’s reports, or any other noted primary or state document. The 1880 report shows 
an average of 537 convicts for 1879. Of those, 75 died, 6 were killed, and 35 escaped.

The lack of state or primary documentation of any kind at the time of the alleged accident 
casts doubt on the accuracy of the recollections of those interviewed.  
 Wilson’s Mountain Division performed most of the primary construction from 
Old Fort to the Swannanoa tunnel from 1877 through 1879. During that time, losses for 
all the contractors working convicts on the road totaled 139 deaths (9.7 percent for the 
three years, based on the average number of workers per month).
  Asheville Citizen-Times, “Andrews Man Has Built Many Miles Of Railroad,” 10 April 1932. 
Recollections and perceptions of times past tend to take on a life of their own. Sandlin was born in 1867. 
His memories of the early 1870’s must be suspect or secondary in nature. Dykeman’s passage on this 
subject comes from this 1932 interview, as does Abrams’ description of the same. Dykeman, The French 
Broad 162. Abrams 37-38. Penitentiary Reports, 1874-1876. Public Laws, An Act in Relation to the 
Western North Carolina Railroad, chap. 150, 1875, 172-176. 
  Penitentiary Reports, 1884-1892.  

  Asheville North Carolina Citizen, “Hail to the Chief!” 13 March 1879. 

  Herbert G. Monroe, “Murphy Branch,” Railroad Magazine (June 1949), 42. Also Abrams, 44. 

  Penitentiary Report 1880, 22. During this time period, the reporting of those killed grouped 
together accidental deaths and escape attempts. Later reports listed them separately. Neither Monroe’s or 
Abrams’ secondary accounts are footnoted or referenced. 

  Penitentiary Reports 1876-1880.  18
 Construction continued on all phases, especially the eighteen miles from 
Ridgecrest to Asheville, and rail service to Asheville began on 2 October 1880, nineteen 
months after opening the Swannanoa tunnel.

 Major Wilson later commented on the considerable advantages to the region of 
finishing the railroad both to Paint Rock and to Murphy, North Carolina. He favored 
retaining state ownership and management of the railroad to maximize state income from 
the company, this more than counterbalancing the increased short term state costs in 
completing the project to connecting lines in Tennessee.

 However, resources to complete the road meant further burdening the taxpayers of 
the state. News of rising discontent in the western mountains reached Governor Thomas 
J. Jarvis in 1879. With a history of large monetary outlay, poor management, fraudulent 
bond transfers, and slow construction, the state appeared unable to provide the needed 
east-west transportation link. Facing an important election in 1880, politicians, 
businessmen, and ordinary citizens felt that the Democrats would be voted out of office 
unless the Jarvis administration could secure speedy completion of the railroad through a 
sale to outside capitalist interests. On 19 December 1879, Zebulon Vance wrote from 
Washington, D.C., enclosing a detailed proposal from W. J. Best of New York to 
purchase the state’s interest in the railroad. He supported the proposal and suggested that 
the governor call a special session of the legislature to consider the proposal.


Tunnels, Nitro and Convicts

Building The Railroad That Couldn't Be Built
  • Published: December, 2010

Still suffering the devastation of the Civil war that ended only ten years earlier, North Carolina shipped prison inmates from Raleigh to build the Mountain Division of the western North Carolina railroad. Some amazing and astonishing events occurred from 1875 through 1879 as this mountain railroad (3 miles straight-line distance, requiring 9+ miles of track) was pushed up the eastern continental divide. Six tunnels were excavated, from 89 to 1,800 feet long, each 15 feet tall. For open cuts, solid rock was cracked by dousing cold mountain water on roaring fires. The first use in the southeastern U.S. of a new product called Nobel's Blasting Oil (now called nitroglycerin!) was on the project. It was mixed with sawdust and corn meal, making nitroglycerin mash. A very heavy wood-burning locomotive was picked up off the tracks by the convicts and pushed several miles overland to the top of the mountain to help dig out the longest tunnel. The most common tool used was a flat rock held in the strong hands of the convicts to dig and spread dirt as they prepared the flat path needed to lay crossties for the rails. Tunnels, Nitro and Convicts condenses the incredible history of the most ambitious earth-moving, mountain-conquering project in the United States as of the 1870s into an engaging, easy-to-read story. The fascinating and compelling intertwining of long dark caves, blasting and cracking of massive rocks, the first use of nitroglycerin in the southeastern United States, and pushing a big locomotive several miles through the woods up a mountain ... all by hundreds of convicts who worked under severe conditions with the most basic tools ... makes this true account of post-civil war railroad history a story you must read!

While a camper and staffer at Camp Ridgecrest in western North Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s, Steve Little heard the trains at night when everything else was quiet. The sound of their engines downshifting to climb to the quarter-mile-long Swannanoa tunnel is a vivid memory. In 1972, Little walked the railroad's 9 miles of tracks in western McDowell County, North Carolina, through all 6 tunnels, taking pictures as he went. This experience was helpful as he wrote an in-depth thesis of the railroad's construction for his history major at Wake Forest University. Three years later, he met John Ehle, author of The Road, and the two swapped stories of their railroad research and their love of the western North Carolina Mountains. Steve Little was born and raised in the flatlands of Smithfield in eastern North Carolina and chose to move to Marion in the foothills-mountains of western North Carolina after graduating from Wake Forest University School of Law in 1977. Little is an experienced transactional and trial attorney, a previous teacher of survival camping, an active church member, a current or former trustee of several North Carolina Baptist institutions (Wingate University, Baptist Children's Homes of NC, NC Baptist Hospital of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center), a regular speaker at professional continuing education seminars on estate planning and estate administration, the 2010-2011 state moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, and the mayor of Marion, North Carolina. He is married to the former Alice Hobbs and has two adult daughters, Mary and Sally.