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1967 novel sheds light on obscure mass drowning

bookIn recent years, I have become interested in an obscure incident that occurred in Jackson County in 1882 — the accidental drowning of 19 chain gang convicts who were working on Cowee Tunnel near Dillsboro. Who were they? Where did they come from? Where are they buried? The details are sketchy, and outside of a few basic facts, most of the stories have been passed down by oral tradition.

Recently, some of my friends have suggested that I should read John Ehle’s 1967 novel, The Road. In essence, they suggested, Ehle’s painstaking research defines the setting of an amazing event: the construction of the railroad in the Swannanoa Valley by the Western North Carolina Railroad — the same entity that constructed the Cowee Tunnel.

My friends were right. After reading Ehle’s epic novel, I know that this astonishing feat — the building of the Swannanoa Tunnel (which many had judged to be impossible) used hundreds of convicts, both male and female. The majority of the laborers were African-Americans. Poorly fed, working 12-hour shifts (24 hours a day) and subjected to inhumane working conditions, the work force was decimated by pneumonia, floods that burst through the tunnel walls and cave-ins that buried workers under tons of rock and soil. Many attempted to escape and were summarily shot. I also read a bit of One Dies, Get Another, by Matthew J. Mancini, which is a comprehensive history of the practice of “leasing” convict labor. The railroad companies, such as Western North Carolina Railroad, simply ordered convicts, much as they would order supplies like gunpowder and railroad ties.

The Road is more than a graphic account of a three-year ordeal in which the Western North Carolina Railroad struggled with daunting obstacles to complete seven tunnels. The novel’s protagonist, Weatherby Wright, a man obsessed with a mission, resembles other driven figures like Col. Nicholson (Alec Guiness) in “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” or Brian Sweeney (Klaus Kinski) in “Fitzcarraldo.” All are brilliant, gifted men who gradually become “unhinged” when their implacable obsessions lead them to commit acts that cannot be rationalized or forgiven. All are builders and shapers, determined to beat and mold the world into a shape that they have imagined. Weatherby Wright is driven to make “the road” a reality, even if it costs him his own sanity and possibly his soul.

Arriving in Henry Station near Swannanoa, Weatherby is charged with the responsibility of building a railroad that will pass through seven tunnels. He has inadequate funding, no housing for the labor force, no medical facilities and an inadequate food supply. Operating on credit and the good will of the natives, he attempts to become self-sufficient. He attempts to supplement the basic food (mush, coffee and fatback) by planting his own gardens and raising chickens, pigs and cattle. When he exhausts his supply of crossties, he begins to make his own; and when the use of gunpowder for blasting the tunnels proves expensive and inadequate, he “experiments” with a newly-developed substitute, nitroglycerine. It proves to be highly dangerous but very effective. When it becomes evident that he cannot meet his deadline for completing this three-year project, he doubles the work shifts. That means that the day crew of 150 chain gang workers finishes their shift and passes the “night shift” on their way home.

At some point, Weatherby begins to feel that the mountain that he is penetrating with his rails is a sentient thing — an old woman who has become increasingly angry at this intrusion and she marshals her forces to defeat him. When the ceaseless drilling and blasting injures her, drawing blood and breaking her bones, she unleashes floods and cave-ins. After nearly dying from an accident that left him with a broken leg, Weatherby becomes increasingly paranoid, watching “the old woman.” The work crews survive a devastating fire and a series of floods that springs from the walls of the tunnel. Weatherby is constantly threatened by Raleigh with cancellation of the project and the withdrawal of money and equipment as the railroad becomes unpopular, denounced by political opponents. Each time that the completion of the project is threatened, the beleaguered Weatherby conceives of yet another imaginative way to meet his deadline.

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Perhaps the most provocative decision is when Weatherby decides to literally haul an engine to the top of the mountain, position it on the opposite side of the tunnel and begin simultaneous drilling  from both the east and the west. At some point, Weatherby become a kind of folk hero. Convicts, mountain natives and local tradesmen are caught up in Weatherby’s dream: to complete this awesome project and send loads of produce out of the mountains and  into the world.  In effect, their hopes for a meaningful life is dependent on the railroad. Suddenly everyone is there, farmers, convicts, mules and oxen, all struggling up the mountain. Certainly, this tense ascent up a mountain turnpike is one of the most memorable events in The Road. But there are other remarkagle images: a burning boxcar filled with female convicts, careening down the mountain at midnight; an unforgettable Christmas program with convicts assuming roles in a Nativity scene; and a crucifixion with recently deceased convicts in fire-lit crosses; a cave filled with rattlesnakes; and a midnight orgy in the  in the dark woods surrounding the convict’s quarters.

However, the final obstacle to the completion of the Swannanoa tunnel proves to be insurmountable. When pneumonia and influenza sweep through the work force and the company doctor advises closing down the entire operation, Weatherby does the only thing he can do. He chooses to keep working. When the number of deaths steadily increases, representatives from Raleigh arrive to shut down the operation, return the surviving convicts to the prisons and, finally, to request Weatherby’s resignation. He agrees, packs his bags and goes home to Morganto, where he has a neglected wife and son. It seems of little consequence that a few months later this project is completed by other workers and engineers.

The Road contains a complex sub-plot that deals with Weatherby’s relationship with his wife and son, his neighbors, his assistant, a man named Cumberland, a perverse mountain man named Plover who seems to be part poet and part Old Testament prophet, and Plover’s daughter, a tantalizing mountain nymph named Henry Anna who seems to become a kind of muse for Weatherby.

Henry Anna bears a slight resemblance to a popular Appalachian stereotype — the innocent, intelligent and illiterate mountain girl who is “rescued” from a life of grinding poverty and ignorance by a well-educated “outlander.” It is to John Ehle’s credit that Henry Anna chooses to remain un-rescued. And what about Weatherby? At the end of this novel, he seems depleted or “used up.” He has definitely lost interest in “the road.”

Thanks to John Ehle  I have a better understanding of the victims who died in the cold waters of the Tuckaseigee in 1882. Some of them may have been with Weatherby in Swannanoa. They may have been there through no fault of their own since it was astonishingly easy to end up on a chain-gang in 1882. There were some new laws on the books that seemed to be designed to trap unsuspecting African-Americans. Loitering and vagrancy could send you to the chain gang. Having no visible means of support. There was even something called “destructive mischief” which sounds like vandalism.

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