Tunnels, Nitro and Convicts

30 pages.     A regional history telling how the main trunk-line railroad penetrated the tall Appalachian mountains in western McDowell County, North Carolina, climbing the eastern continental divide and bringing life to Asheville, NC and all the rest of the western NC mountains.  Contains 25 photographs, several from the 1800s.

In 1875, a person could ride a train across the US from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.  But no one could ride a train from the North Carolina coast to the NC-Tennessee border.  The rails stopped at the base of the eastern continental divide in McDowell County.  The mountain was too steep for trains to climb.  At least that’s what everyone thought until Major James W. Wilson took charge!

Using convicts from the NC State Penitentiary as the labor source, Major Wilson started in 1875 to wind and loop the tracks all the way from Henry Station (down in the valley just west of Old Fort, NC) to the top of the mountain at what is now called Ridgecrest.  Five years later, after some absolutely amazing accomplishments under unbelievably severe conditions, the mountain had been conquered and the tracks were in place.

  • Six tunnels had to be constructed through solid rock, the longest one being longer than 6 football fields end to end.
  • The first use of nitroglycerine (“Nobel’s blasting oil”) in the southeastern United States was used to help dig the tunnels.
  • Dozens and dozens of convicts lost their lives during tunnel excavations.
  • The convicts, helped by oxen, spent about two weeks pushing a full-size steam locomotive along the dirt wagon road (the tracks had not yet been laid) from the valley up to the top of the mountain to help speed up tunnel excavation.
  • The civil war had just ended 10 years earlier, and there was not enough money to buy a lot of tools.  How did the convicts do the work?  What did they use for tools?
  • How did the convicts make open cuts in areas where the huge, thick walls of solid rock were not tall enough for a tunnel?

Steve Little tells this history in an easy-to-read manner in Tunnels, Nitro and Convicts. There are many photographs that bring to life the text.  You will be informed and entertained by this book!

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