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The Cowee Tunnel Disaster - In Story And Song

Cory Vaillancourt
Dr. Enrique Gomez (left) and storyteller Gary Carden address the Jackson County Branch of the NAACP April 11

There’s no marker or memorial to commemorate the victims of one of Western North Carolina’s biggest tragedies, but Haywood County musicians Buddy Melton and Milan Miller have immortalized the Cowee Tunnel disaster through song.

Anderson Drake was a convict back in 1883

A two-timin’ felon with a shady disposition and a troublesome history

Every morning he crossed the Tuckasegee River with a boatload of other inmates

Spent his days on a chain gang building railroads for the state

The story of Anderson Drake may be shrouded in myth, but the incident Balsam Range frontman Buddy Melton sings about with Milan Miller on their 2010 album, Songs from Jackson County, is real.  In the post-reconstruction South, many industries like the Western North Carolina Railroad utilized convict labor. Slaves in all but name, African-Americans from down east convicted of minor crimes were subject to harsh and unforgiving working conditions, like at Jackson County’s Cowee Tunnel.

Cowee Tunnel

They say that you‘re cursed to this day

Cowee Tunnel

Thanks to old Anderson Drake

During a recent meeting of the Jackson County NAACP at Liberty Baptist Church in Sylva, storyteller Gary Carden related the events of Dec. 30, 1882, when the 30-man chain gang that had been carving out the tunnel 2 miles west of Dillsboro tried to cross the raging Tuckasegee River.

“It scared the hell out of those guys,” Carden said. ‘They thought the boat was sinking and there was a hole in the bottom of it and they got up and began to retreat from it and the guards tried to force them back and the consequences were, they capsized the boat.”

19 men shackled together met their maker on that day

No they never stood a chance in the icy water as they were swept away

“No monument, no marker and no attempt to notify anybody, and of course this was an age when all of those prisoners were unable to read or write,” said Carden. “When they arrested them, they vanished. There was not a trace of them left. Somewhere, there was a mother saying, ‘What happened to Roger?’ And she died never knowing.”

Tradition says convict Anderson Drake saved himself and a guard, but stole the guard’s wallet and was given another 30 years on the chain gang.  Tradition also says that the frozen corpses of the dead were pulled from the river and buried in mass graves atop the tunnel, their tears condensing on its walls, falling on its rails.  Carden says they’re buried elsewhere, but either way, Franklin resident Selma Sparks wants them to be remembered.

“Well, I would like to see a monument, that would make people aware of them. Something to let it be known that their lives did matter,” said Sparks. “When they tell me a 15-year-old was part of that chain gang, and these men were arrested for misdemeanors and they were probably very small because black men were arrested – if you looked at a white woman you could be arrested, you could be hanged – so these are things that are important.”

Any monument is part of a larger discussion, says Jackson NAACP President Dr. Enrique Gomez.  “Certainly a memorial would be wonderful. The thing about this is that memorials at the end should be conversations that help tell deeper stories about who we are as a people,” said Gomez. “Something that would advance the conversation about how we should treat each other and everybody in our community from this point forward.”

Until that happens, the 19 convicts buried in unmarked mass graves near the Cowee Tunnel will only be remembered through story, and through song.