In the late 1800s, North Carolina was trying to build a railway system through the Western part of the state. In December of 1882, something went wrong. The Raleigh News and Observer called it “too horrible to chronicle without a shudder.”

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00:01:11You're right on the edge of the Smokies.
00:01:14You're in the country that is just on the verge of being primitive and remote but it's going rapidly to the tourist to the real estate people and the air is not as pure as it was when I was a kid when I used to sit on that porch at night with my grandparents.
00:01:36Etiwanda sound and the sat there in the dark. I had no idea at the time that that was badass, but it was
00:01:46Gary Carden has lived in this exact house in the mountains of Western North Carolina for almost his entire life. He's 84 years old his grandparents built the house and raised him here. I sat with him in the front room. He told me that I was sitting in the same spot where his grandfather's cough and was placed because he's been here in this small town for so long. He knows stories that others have forgotten like what happened in December of 1882 something the Raleigh News & Observer called too horrible to Chronicle without a shutter. I'm Phoebe judge. This is Criminal.
00:02:36In the late 1800s North Carolina was trying to build a railway system through the western part of the state. They wanted Bill quickly. They wanted to cool in Timber and hopefully make a lot of money but there was no easy way to Tunnel through a mountain you're talkin about manual labor people using picks and and karting near the debris away Carolina University archivist been historian George Frizzell. They're not going to have got a mechanized equipment that people are used to today. We're not talking about heavy machinery earth-moving equipment bulldozers. That's the reason the labor so strenuous.
00:03:25In 1877 the state came up with a plan that they thought would both save money and speed things up and I ran in prayers to the railroad.
00:03:38And the idea of being of course, you have to feed them $0.06 a day and you have to keep him about a map for the night and it one trash get away. You can shoot them.
00:03:57And if one dies will give you another one.
00:04:01the presence or turned into a business
00:04:09not far from where Gary Cardin lives a group of African-American prisoners released to the Western North Carolina railroad company and they were building a new rail line in the mountains along the Tuckasegee River.
00:04:23They had to manually bore through 700 feet of stone to make a tunnel big enough for a train to pass through it would be called the cowee tunnel.
00:04:33The men were change one another while they worked and to get to the tunnel each morning the men had to get on a boat in their chains to cross the river.
00:04:45One morning at the end of December in 1882 would have been snowing and raining heavily. The river was very high. But the guards instructed the prisoners to board the boat and I started to cross the river. Okay, the bottom of that flat bottom boat is full of slush its water icicles mix and then it's a couple inches deep cuz it's been snowing all night.
00:05:16And as I go that slush goes to the front of the boat and then it comes to the back of the boat and it's just going back and forth. They think the boat sinking and that's the water coming up through the hole and I got up and I said about singing about singing in the garden said no, it's not sit down sit down and they push the guards to the back of the boat and when they're all in the back of the boat capsizes.
00:05:43And the end of the river Lego and that course it's freezing cold. But because they were chained Gathering, you know, because I'm changing to you when I go. I'm going to bring you and you will bring the next one because you're chained to them and it just went from from from and all 19.
00:06:09There were people on the show her that said that the most pitiful sight that ever Witnesses when they're forced their head above the water and then call for help. And I said they heard them call for wireless for mother for God for everything and then very quiet one local paper wrote. It was one of those accidents that seems unavoidable to the sudden Panic which sees the convicts in the boat.
00:06:43The st. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the convicts were drowned by clasping each other like knots of serpents and swept down to the lower Rapids below which they were found by twos and threes tightly Quest together in their Deathlok.
00:07:0019 bodies are pulled from the Tuckasegee River so loud floating hardwood.
00:07:15Vermaelen that sled and filled it up the top of the hill and I dug little three tranches and then they just kept them in there. There was no ceremony nothing.
00:07:26The youngest was 15 years old. The oldest was 52. Gary says the 19 bodies were dumped in unmarked Graves and forgotten what bothers him is that it's likely that the men wouldn't have died if they hadn't been chained together. Why do I have the shower?
00:07:46Kind of wild a railroad says that's because they're dangerous man. Wow, those dangerous men were charged with misdemeanors every one of them they were there because they committed crimes like they walked on the highway after dark, you know, are they working found gambling or like around and behind the store with two other guys drinking was not a serious criminal in the whole crowd after the Civil War the so-called Black Codes were passed across the South lost designed to control newly freed enslaved people. These laws made it easy to rest black men and women then charge them with felonies for misdemeanor crimes. They could survive your prison terms for minor offenses, like stealing a pig or chicken or the dollar.
00:08:38Vagrancy statutes made it a crime to be unemployed standing on the street became loitering and walking at night became breaking curfew that will call hours for call the black code and when a little research is done you find out or just Reinventing slavery. It has a different name. It has a sanction of the government.
00:09:06But it's actually anymore on ethical practice 1870. The prison population in North Carolina was a hundred and twenty one by 1890 that number of grown to 1302. The state didn't have the resources to manage the incredible influx of prisoners in prison official as the legislature to just let some of these men go but instead the state put them to work on the railroad. It was called convict Leasing and it happened all of the South.
00:09:44The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, but the amendment left an exception slavery shall not exist except as punishment for Crime instead of being sent to prison people convicted of crimes could be leased to businessman plantation owners and corporations professor. Matthew Mancini writes about the history of convict leasing in his book one dies get another he writes that more than 90% of the convicts were black and describes the lease system as one of the harshest and most exploitative labor systems known in American history.
00:10:24From 1877 to 1891 more than half of North Carolina's prisoner population was working on the railway, but sometimes committed suicide they worked on measurable work until they defended.
00:10:39And they knew what I could do if they just couldn't take it anymore. You just dropped your hammer.
00:10:46And started walking away and the guard with you.
00:10:50I'm at work. But you going to have story. I don't know if it's true about two brothers who just looked at each other's you ready James. Yeah, I'm ready. Let's go and they drop their Hanna Andersson walked and I were shot.
00:11:04The railroad companies promised quote very comfortable quarters meals and clothing but conditions were incredibly harsh one local reporter who visited the living quarters wrote that the prisoners were driven into a row of prison cars where they were tightly boxed for the night with no possible chance to obtain either air or light is at the conditions in the camps were squalid and horrifying.
00:11:34After the Cali tunnel disaster the Western North Carolina Railroad Company went back to work new prisoners are brought in and construction of the tunnel was completed Jerry Carden cuz they grew up hearing the story as a sort of Legend a ghost story about dangerous felons.
00:11:55That's the way a lot of people in Jackson County talk about it. We're out of you drives Rosa.
00:12:01Market go down today Hillsborough, and I've got this tourist trap little town down here. They have a train and it's called the road Smokey Mountain train. And of course, it's a tourist trap to a notorious get on it and ride through the tunnel. Wow. I come through that tunnel and there's always somebody on that train that says you are now coming through Callaway Channel 19 men died working on this like drowned in the river down there and they brought him back up here in bed on top of the tunnel up here and that's their tears falling through here that you see now as we go through there's a lot of water falling as tears of those Deadman.
00:13:09We'll be right back.
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00:14:371963 the Asheville citizen-times published an article called some believe cowee tunnel. There's a curse.
00:14:46The article goes on to say death a company that's building trains have wrecked in it cavins have played it from the beginning.
00:14:56There are many stories about trains inexplicably stalling in the cowee tunnel stories about train derailments end of the tunnel caving in and trapping trains people in Jackson County say they've heard the sounds of pickaxes on Stone clanking chains and splashing water.
00:15:15We learned about the tunnel from a listener. His name is Al Fisher. He sent us an email saying he recently moved to the area from Georgia and realized he was living right up the mountain from a train tunnel that people said was haunted.
00:15:32We are style if we could come visit I said I pick him up.
00:15:37We didn't hear a restaurant called the foragers canteen and drove a few miles before he told me to pull over just off the road so we could start walking. So you'll see the the river is down off the side of the road here on the left and the river runs right along the railroad tracks are the railroad tracks run along the river and this is the river where the men drowned. Yes, correct.
00:16:04He'd never been to the tunnel himself, but said he did some research and he was sure we would be able to find it hard to get to.
00:16:26let me
00:16:28become a hat.
00:16:31Play the hat. Is it really going in here? Yeah, so if you if you aren't up for this we don't have to assume that we would but it would be a paid through I wasn't prepared to go hiking we made our way down a steep bridge to the railroad tracks below. The brush was dents with hot housing prepared with a backpack. I would have been surprised if he brought a first aid kit and extra water. All I had was for extra batteries in my back pocket in case the recorder. We walked for about a quarter-mile down the track before we came to the river.
00:17:14So now we're kind of coming around a curve here across the river right here. And then right on the other side of the river is the tunnel.
00:17:27an hour
00:17:30We're going to cross the River on the tracks. So then you can see the tunnel. That's that's the mouth of the tunnel right there in the curve there and get dark.
00:17:42You don't.
00:17:44You break your ankle on this thing. I'm glad there's not a train coming. Can you imagine the Run we'd have to do it. So we're crossing the river on the train ties, which
00:17:57sexy butt
00:18:02So on the other side of the bridge here the tunnel starts.
00:18:09Okay, so we made it.
00:18:14The Other Side there's the entrance of the tunnel.
00:18:19If we were frightened people we might think this was a little scary.
00:18:28It looks dark, doesn't it?
00:18:31The tunnel looks barely big enough for a train to pass through it's pretty amazing that it was dug by hand. Will here we go into the tunnel.
00:18:40The minute you go inside the temperature drops. You can feel it the light from the opening season with you for the first 50 feet or so and that it starts to get dark gosh.
00:18:57Will you hold that light light? Wow?
00:19:04It's getting dark very quickly in here.
00:19:08But it's amazing to look at the rock that you can see.
00:19:16Can a wild?
00:19:18Did they really chiseled this rock out and now we're kind of so we can still see the light behind us.
00:19:29But that will go away.
00:19:31To the train were to come right now. We just get along the side of the wall. I guess after a couple hundred feet the tunnel begins to curve and all the light disappears.
00:19:45We soft L turn off the small flashlight. He was carrying. So it's pitch-black in the sound of the dripping water came from all around. I asked him to turn the light back on the chilling like a spotlight on the rough ceiling of the tunnel above us. You can see all these small dents in the stone. I wondered if they were created by the men. We've been forced to work here every day. I've wondered if maybe
00:20:12The story is is worse than Mountain trying to remind us what happened to your remind me has I'm just a reminder of the past that was forgotten for a long time forgotten for a long time.
00:20:34And there's the daylight again.
00:20:41Today the Cowley tunnel disaster lives on four people riding the tourist train and for those who love to tell ghost stories their folk songs, but what happened but Jerry Carden says that's not good enough. We owe those 19 man more than that. She wants to find other ways for people to remember what really happened. He's been researching the ends and with the help of various colors, he now has a list of the names and ages of the 19 men who died free and tear them in a grave in Dillsboro. And that would be a little Museum there of the history of what happened to those nineteen men.
00:21:28It's unlikely that the bodies will be disinterred and given a proper burial in part because there's confusion but exactly where they are.
00:21:38There has been talk of putting a plaque near the tunnel, but Gary doesn't think anyone will hike up to the woods to look it up black men having been in those woods and I have to agree. He wants something in town something. The people of Jackson County will see and talk about the best memorials. He says our conversations.
00:22:12Criminal is created by Lawrence poor and me media will soon as our senior producer says that a Roberson is our system producer by Robb Byers from Sayre Julian Alexander makes original illustrations for each episode of Criminal. You can see them at this is Criminal. Com or on Facebook and Twitter at criminal show Criminal is recorded in the studios of North Carolina public radio wunc. We're proud member of radiotopia from PRX a collection of the best podcasts around. I'm Phoebe judge. This is Criminal
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