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Historians want to honor convicts’ contributions to WNC railroads

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    OLD FORT, N.C (WLOS) — It’s an idea to honor a group of people who contributed to Western North Carolina’s history but have largely gone unrecognized — those who built the railroad system across the mountains.

Because of a lack of funds at the end of the Civil War, the state needed cheap labor to finish a plan to have a railroad system connecting the North Carolina Coast to Tennessee. Its solution was to use convicts to make rail system happen.

“There’s just not words to describe the level of brutality and severity of their treatment,” Marion Mayor Steve Little said.

Aside from his duties as mayor, Little is a historian of the railroads across WNC. Most of the tracks that run through the mountains were carved out by convicts. There’s more to the area’s history in the late 1800s.

“At least 90%, and I’d say it’s probably closer to 95% or 96%, of the convicts were Black males who did this work,” Little said.

These laborers spent hours and days carving rocks by hand and dug tunnels to lay the framework for the tracks. It was strenuous labor, and many did not survive.

“The estimate is at least 139 died on the project,” Little said.

Little and a group of other historians noticed the lack of recognition for this group of laborers and are now working to change that. They have started a project called the Railroad and Incarcerated Laborer Memorial Project to place a memorial at the site of Andrews Geyser, just outside Old Fort.

“It recognizes an element of our society that has been just ignored for centuries, of the African-American men who did horrible labor that nobody else would do,” Little said.

The memorial is still in the planning phases. Old Fort’s alderman already approved the memorial’s location. The committee is working on the design, which relies heavily on funding.

“Our off-the-cuff prediction is that we are looking at costs in the neighborhood of $12,000,” Little said.

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