The tears of these poor men: Victims of Cowee Tunnel disaster deserve recognition

In a region as rich in local lore as this, it may seem like every story’s been told to death, including that of the infamous Cowee Tunnel disaster. 

North Carolina, though, is also home to the old-world tradition of telling stories through song and has an ample supply of musicians like Balsam Range frontman Buddy Melton and his buddies, Haywood native Milan Miller and Piedmont bassist Mark W. Winchester, who on their 2010 album Songs From Jackson County relate the incident about as well as anyone else ever could.

Antique toy museum moves into Cowee School

Jim Geary has been collecting toys since he was a boy in 1950. The fascination and hobby that has stuck with him throughout his life all started with a 1911 Rolls Royce model car kit.

Joint initiative to create Nikwasi-Cowee corridor

Much of Western North Carolina’s native history is hidden in plain sight along the Tennessee River Valley from Otto to Bryson City.

Growing Season: New farmers markets to bring local focus to Cowee, Maggie Valley

out frThe grassy field is empty and the playground vacant as the sun sheds evening beams across the grounds of Cowee School. But when Susan Ervin looks at the unoccupied asphalt track and pavilion bare of coolers and tablecloths, she sees the busy community scene she’s hoping to experience on the long-awaited May 13. 

It’s the day that will kick off the new Cowee Farmers Market, a goal Ervin and a core group of eight others have been working toward for months. In the empty field of the decommissioned school-turned-community-center, she sees vendors setting up displays of fresh produce, crafts, preserves, meats and plants. She sees a local band playing in the pavilion, tip jar open. She sees children playing on the swing set, teenagers tossing a football around in the field — just people having fun. 

Cowee Pottery School forming

art coweeschoolA group of friends have come together to create a non-profit entity to operate a new pottery school in the Macon County Heritage Center at the old Cowee School. 

One door closed, but many more opened with rebirth of Cowee School

fr coweeschoolAn old closed-down elementary school in the rural Cowee community in Macon County will soon reclaim its role as a community focal point and gathering place.

A moving ‘Liar’s Bench’ performance

op cardenEditor’s note: Marie Cochran attended the production of the “Liar’s Bench” on June 20 at the Mountain Heritage Center on the WCU campus and wrote this review for The Smoky Mountain News.

I am very familiar with the term “the Liars Bench” in its practice of casual storytelling among Southern men sitting in the courthouse square and at barbershops; yet I was skeptical to hear this lighthearted phrase associated with the account of 19 Black men who drowned on a chain gang only decades after the Civil War.

As a disclaimer, for the last month I’ve been a witness to the assemblage of information and a participant in debates that raged about the proper way to engage a diverse audience. Yet, I waited like every other audience member wondering whether “Tears in the Rain” would be told as a gruesome ghost story, a sorrowful tale of faceless men who perished in an unfortunate accident, or an insightful portrayal of a human tragedy.

1882 Cowee Tunnel disaster comes into 21st century spotlight

coverCharged with stealing, 15-year-old Charles Eason was sentenced to work on a prison chain gang.

It was 1882, and the teenager from Martin County soon found himself side-by-side with other convicts, many two and three times his age. Mostly from the eastern part of the state, the gang was sent to construct the railroad lines in Western North Carolina.

Parrying continues over Cowee School

fr coweeNow that the children are gone, and art projects sit abandoned next to overturned desks and emptied cupboards, community members have a vision to bring life back into the old Cowee school outside of Franklin. But the community’s path to reclaiming the schoolhouse is facing growing opposition in the Macon County government as to how the initiative should be funded.

Scenic highway designation extended along Little Tennessee River

The historic significance of the Cowee Valley corridor received a national boost this month following the designation of N.C. 28 as part of the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway.

“We had to make our case for the project, document the project and show its scenic and cultural importance,” said Ryan Sherby, who works for the Southwestern Commission, a group charged by the state with spearheading regional planning and administration.

The N.C. Board of Transportation voted this month to extend the byway designation by 20 miles. Jeff Lackey, state coordinator for the Scenic Byways program, dubbed N.C. 28 “a natural fit” because of the environmental and geographical qualities of the area it runs through.

The corridor passes by historic West’s Mill Village and through the ancient village of Cowee, once the principal commercial and diplomatic center of the Cherokee Indians. West’s Mill was the site of a gristmill built by a family of that name. Stores, schools, churches and barns were built in the 19th and early 20th century near the mill. Many of those buildings remain today.

The new segment of this scenic byway will get official state signs and be included in the Scenic Byways Guide, which provides information on all 55 such byways in the state. The promotion as a scenic highway could help fuel additional tourism in the area.

Indian Lakes Scenic Byway starts at the far tip of Fontana Lake. It snakes around the lake, through Stecoah and ends at the Nantahala Gorge. It now continues along N.C. 28, paralleling the Little Tennessee River and ending in downtown Franklin.

Sharon Taylor, deputy director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, a Franklin-based conservation group that focuses on the Upper Little Tennessee and Hiwassee River valleys, said the designation is more than just a nice appellation — it helps underscore the importance of the area, and the work being undertaken to preserve its heritage.

“There is real significance,” Taylor said. “There is just so much going on.”

Most recently, community members attended a public workshop to discuss the future of Cowee School. The school will close in two years and be replaced by Iotla Valley Elementary School. County leaders and the Cowee Community Development Organization will review a report on suggestions gathered at the workshop. The Cowee organization is a particularly active community group, and has been instrumental in such initiatives as helping to gain the Scenic Byway designation.

In practical terms, being dubbed a scenic byway doesn’t limit any development except for new outdoor advertising, such as billboards, which can’t be placed within 660 feet of the nearest edge of the highway’s right of way, said Julia Merchant, a spokeswoman for the transportation department.

State law specifically states there is no required modification in local land-use regulations or restrictions, or in commercial or agricultural activities, future highway work, development, or road maintenance or improvements.

For more information, access the state’s Website at www.ncdot.gov/travel/scenic.

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