Convict Labor Constructed Swannanoa Tunnel

A train on the Western North Carolina Railroad in Jackson County.

On March 11, 1879, the Western North Carolina Railroad’s Swannanoa Tunnel opened. The tunnel opened the mountain region to growth and freed it from its relative state of isolation.

Authorized by the General Assembly in 1855, construction of the tunnel was spurred by a drought in 1845. The drought resulted in a total crop failure on mountain farms. Pack trains and loaded wagons were unable to provide frontier families with enough food to carry them through to the next crop.

By the beginning of the Civil War, all but 70 miles of the route into Asheville was complete. During Reconstruction, the state secured $4 million in bonds for the completion of the project, but construction was delayed after key players embezzled some of the funds. It did not resume until 1877.

The General Assembly approved the use of 500 convicts as laborers, and 125 men lost their lives in the course of the work. Though the tunnel was cut through in March 1879, it wasn’t until October 1880 that the tracks were clear and the first train from Salisbury reached Asheville.

Visit: The N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer tells the story of our state’s transportation history with a special focus on rail.

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