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Lost or forgotten no more: Incarcerated Black laborers that built WNC railroad memorialized

Matt Bush
The railroad tracks almost encircle Andrews Geyser near Old Fort, where a memorial to the laborers that built the railroad now sits. A train came through during the ceremony to dedicate the memorial Oct. 17, 2021

Outside of Old Fort, the Western North Carolina railroad bends around Andrews Geyser.  The man-made fountain is named after the vice president of the company that owned the railroad, built in the 1870’s. 

Now, the thousands of laborers who did the work are finally memorialized at the site too.  

As so many places are in the mountains of Western North Carolina, Andrews Geyser is especially picturesque in October.  The bright fall sunshine lit up a day when the latest step took place in trying to heal one of the region’s most painful and horrific tales.  

Credit Matt Bush
Marion mayor and railroad historian Steve Little spoke at the dedication ceremony.  He's holding a flat rock, which he told the crowd was the lone tool given to the incarcerated laborers when work began on the railroad.

“Andrews Geyser is right in the middle the largest loop of what is known as the Old Fort loops,” explains Steve Little.  He's the mayor of Marion, and a historian whose written books about the Western North Carolina railroad.  Little calls this stretch of tracks the most significant engineering achievement in the United States during the time it was built from 1875 to 1879.  “The straight line distance from Henry Station to the western portal of the Swannanoa Tunnel is 3.4 miles.  But the track is 9.4 miles.  It loops so it can climb 1,002 feet.”

Who built this marvel?

Credit Matt Bush
The names of some of the laborers that built the railroad are listed on the memorial

Thousands of incarcerated laborers built this railroad – and nearly all of them were African American.  Dr. Dan Pierce is an historian at UNC Asheville and the president of The Railroad and Incarcerated Laborer memorial or RAIL Project which pushed to build the memorial.  “It’s important to recognize the individual sacrifice and the gift that they all gave us," he said after reading some of the names of the laborers, which are listed on one side of the memorial.

Once completed, the railroad finally connected Western North Carolina to the rest of the state, helping to build a new industry here – tourism – which more than 140 years later remains the region’s chief economy.  The laws that incentivized the arrests of all those incarcerated African American laborers that built the railroad -those still linger to this day too.

“In many ways states just revamped the slave codes and turned them into what is known now as the Black codes," says Dr. Darin Waters, North Carolina’s state historian.  He's also a director for The RAIL Project and co-host of BPR's The Waters & Harvey Show.  He says the Black Codes essentially criminalized vagrancy. 

“It really was a way for states to continue to control the labor, especially of Black men.  You could be convicted of being a vagrant, put into jail for x number of years, for something as simple as not being able to show that you were gainfully employed.  And then the state would contract with private employers to use that labor on work crews throughout the state," Dr. Waters says.  

The disproportionate arrests and incarcerations of African Americans that still exist in 2021 – that can be traced to the Black Codes.  “This has had a tremendous impact on Black families.  We have to have the courage to face that.”

Of the more than 3-thousand laborers forced to build the Western North Carolina railroad in the late 1870’s, approximately 98% were African American according to The RAIL Project website.  And until this month, they weren’t recognized at Andrews Geyser.  But the vice president of the company that owned the railroad - Colonel Alexander Boyd Andrews - is the site's namesake.  “In this country, there’s a need to recognize that there’s been an ongoing conversation between capital and labor.  And capital always seems to win out.”

Credit Matt Bush
Andrews Geyser is named for Colonel Alexander Boyd Andrews, the vice president of the company that owned the railroad.  The memorial to the incarcerated laborers who built the railroad is at the bottom left by the parking area

Now that the labor has finally been recognized, the next step is to find some of the graveyards where the close to 300 laborers believed to have died working on the railroad are buried.  Easier said than done according to Steve Little.

“When rock would fall in the tunnel, it would sometimes fall on the incarcerated laborers.  They’d be killed.  There was no formal graveyard.  They would bury them right there where they worked.  The whole railroad is sort of a graveyard.”

The construction of the Western North Carolina railroad also spawned a popular song that has long been misunderstood.  Read more about that here from The Bitter Southerner

Matt Bush joined Blue Ridge Public Radio as news director in August 2016. Excited at the opportunity the build up the news service for both stations as well as help launch BPR News, Matt made the jump to Western North Carolina from Washington D.C. For the 8 years prior to coming to Asheville, he worked at the NPR member station in the nation's capital as a reporter and anchor. Matt primarily covered the state of Maryland, including 6 years of covering the statehouse in Annapolis. Prior to that, he worked at WMAL in Washington and Metro Networks in Pittsburgh, the city he was born and raised in.
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