Incarcerated Laborers (Q-61)

Many arrested under Jim Crow laws; leased from the state to build WNC Railroad. Many died, including 19 who drowned near Cowee Tunnel, 1882.

Location: Intersection of US 23 and Haywood Rd. in Dillsboro
County: Jackson
Original Date Cast: 2023

Though the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in the United States, there was a loophole: involuntary servitude could continue if used as punishment for a crime. Throughout the South in the decades following the Civil War, state governments disproportionately subjected Black citizens to extremely harsh prison sentences for even the most minor of crimes. Criminal courts sentenced young, strong men and boys—some as young as 14—to work on the railroad, for example, for as minor an infraction as stealing a newspaper. So-called “Pig-Laws” made the theft of any farm animal worth a dollar or more punishable by up to five years hard labor, and “Black Codes” imprisoned those accused of vagrancy.

North Carolina was no exception to this practice. The State monetized the labor of those they held incarcerated by employing them on public and private works projects and, in later decades, leasing them out to farms and companies engaged in infrastructure projects. Early on, however, railroad construction received priority consideration. Between 1870 and 1890, an average of sixty-five percent of the state’s prison population worked to construct the Western North Carolina Railroad. The goal of this transportation project was to open a more efficient means of transporting travelers and supplies into Asheville and locations further west—otherwise, reaching western North Carolina would require one to scale and laboriously traverse the steep Blue Ridge escarpment and mountains on foot, on horseback, or by wagon or stagecoach.

Temporary prison camps to house the incarcerated labor force sprang up along the proposed route. Minimal care by prison officials and railroad employees typically resulted in brutal living conditions within the camps. During the nights, incarcerated laborers were confined to retrofitted rail cars or, in later years, rolling steel cages that featured minimal comforts, typically limited to a stove, bunks, and iron rings for the convicts’ chains. The quarters were often filthy, subjected to the harsh elements, and often covered with little more than a thick canvas tarp in adverse weather conditions.

The greatest threat to the safety and wellbeing of the incarcerated however came during daylight hours, as they toiled on dangerous construction projects under the supervision of often negligent foremen. Blasting could cause rockslides, cave-ins, or impact injuries to those left exposed. Disease was common, arising from a triad of unsanitary conditions, poor nutrition, and exhaustion. Simple lack of care for the lives of those incarcerated on the part of “overseers” and foremen often resulted in entirely preventable injuries and deaths. Pushed to their breaking points, many men opted to escape, sometimes being killed by guards in their attempts.

The brutality and racial inequity of the convict labor leasing system in North Carolina is perhaps best illustrated by the December 1882 Cowee Tunnel disaster, in which nineteen Black men drowned near Dillsboro while being shuttled across the Tuckasegee River to engage in the work required to construct the Western North Carolina Railroad. The boat capsized during the river crossing and the prisoners, shackled with leg irons, were unable to swim to shore. The Raleigh News and Observer billed the incident as “the greatest disaster that has happened on the (WNC Rail)road.”

Less than a week after the disaster, the President of the North Carolina Penitentiary’s Board of Directors, former Confederate captain E.R. Stamps arrived at the tunnel to investigate both the causes of the drownings as well as the “general condition and treatment of the convicts.” Stamps reported interviewing witnesses, prisoners (both White and Black), as well as White guards, overseers, and citizens, who had witnessed the incident.

Based on these interviews, Stamps published the following conclusion: “I think highly certain from the evidence, and that there were more in the boat than could safely be carried over…that the accident would never have occurred had it not been for the panic among the men…. I can fix no criminal negligence to anyone.” Stamps’ conclusion was repeated in contemporary newspaper accounts of the accident. Consequently, the public narrative of the incident firmly placed blame on those who drowned. New convicts soon arrived to replace the nineteen who had died, and work resumed on what was and remains one of the more treacherous railroad tunnels in western North Carolina.

Though incarcerated laborers continued to build North Carolina’s railroad system through the early years of the Progressive Era, prioritization of the rail network soon gave way to the construction of a road system and other largescale infrastructure projects, such as the building of dams in support of hydroelectric power. Good Roads advocates successfully lobbied for the reassignment of incarcerated laborers to the construction of a burgeoning network of highways throughout the state, North Carolina’s manifestation of the “chain gang” depicted in films like Cool Hand Luke. Able-bodied prisoners across races participated in this labor force.

By 1933, road construction and maintenance and incarcerated labor had become so intertwined that the General Assembly consolidated the state’s prison system and the highway commission. To better support the use of incarcerated labor on North Carolina roads, the State renovated the various county labor camps and constructed new, permanent, and conveniently situated road camps throughout the state. Operations continued this way until the General Assembly separated the prison system from the State Highway and Public Works Commission in 1957.


“An Awful Accident. Eighteen Convicts Drowned at Once. A Flat Boat Sinks with Them in The Tuckaseegee River,” January 3, 1883. Raleigh News and Observer..
Homer Carson, “Penal Reform and Construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad 1875-
1892.” Journal of Appalachian Studies (Spring/Fall 2005): 205-225.
Robert Ireland, “Chain Gang”, NCPedia. Available at
Robert E. Ireland, “Prison Reform, Road Building, and Southern Progressivism: Joseph Hyde
Pratt and the Campaign for "Good Roads and Good Men,” North Carolina Historical Review (April 1991): 125-157.
Alex Lichtenstein. “Good Roads and Chain Gangs in the Progressive South: ‘The Negro Convict is a Slave’,” The Journal of Southern History (February 1993): 85-110.
Matthew J. Mancini, “Convict Labor,” NCPedia. Available at
Herbert G. Monroe, “Murphy Branch.” Railroad Magazine 46, no. 2 (1949): 32-59.“The
Drowned Convicts,” Raleigh News and Observer, Feb. 7, 1883.
North Carolina Penitentiary. Biennial Report of the Board of Directors, Architect, Deputy
Warden, Steward, and Physician, 1872-1892.Jesse F. Steiner and Roy M. Brown, The North Carolina Chain Gang: A Study of County Convict Road Work (1927). “Treatment of Convicts – Response of the Governor and President Board of Directors to House Resolution,” North Carolina Executive Department, 1883.

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