The GSMRR and the Cowee Tunnel Story

When I wrote about our trip to Dillsboro on the GSMRR steam engine, I mentioned the dark tunnel we went into that prisoners help build and that I wanted to research some on it further. I have researched it to a dead end. I need your help. I found out that a NC writer by the name of Gary Carden had found the gravesite where the 19 prisoners were buried. Let me wander for a second in case you don’t know the story of the Cowee Tunnel. In the days of the Southern Railroad, as it was called when it was being built, prisoners from the “chain gang” were used to build the railroad. They had to be brought in to work on the tunnel by boat across the Tuckaseegee river. One winter day in 1882, the water was choppy and the prisoners got scared and rocked the boat, causing it to tip over. Since they were all chained together at the ankles, 19 of them sank to their deaths. One prisoner survived and saved the life of the warden, but because he stole the warden’s wallet in the process, he was sentenced to 30 more years. When they drug the bodies up from the river, they buried them in a mass grave and that was the end of it for many years. There were ghost stories and folklore about the moisture running down the walls inside the tunnel being the dead prisoners tears. In 2013, Gary Carden found out where these prisoners had been buried and started out to try to figure out their names, ages, and where they were from since they had been a big part of the history of the railroad being successfully built and the tunnel being their last “job” for the railroad. He wanted to try to get permission to dig them up and find their families so they could be buried in proper places. He thought surely people would be proud to have ancestors that worked on such an important part of history. I found where he listed their names, ages, and where they were from. After that, I found nothing else. No mention of any monument erected near the tunnel or whether or not he was able to find their families or even get permission to remove them from the mass grave. It’s like the story ended all over again. I know it took a lot of research and time to find out their names and everything, considering Carden was working with next to nothing in the beginning, but I was hoping after he got that far, I would find out the rest of the story too. If anyone out there knows any further news on this, let us know. We enjoy history, especially anything involving folklore (mountain, Indian, or otherwise). We have visited sites we gathered information from reading ghost stories and such and found actual historical significance involved. It amazes us how people had such explanations for things back then and what we know today about things. We know from riding in the tunnel on the train how extremely hot it was from the steam of the engine. Could that have been the moisture on the walls? Or was the moisture there before the tunnel was completed? Fun and interesting things to ponder are everywhere. But we also like to find out how people of today try to “rectify” the wrong doings of people from the past. Like final resting places for the workers of the railroad, or a monument. Or proper acknowledgements for American Indians who helped fight our enemies. Looking at history through present day eyes just amazes us around this area at least. I will put the link below where you can go see the information I gathered on the 1882 tunnel project. It is also where I got the names of the prisoners that perished that I will list here as well. Let us know if you got any further on information than we did on this. Thanks for all the support everyone. More fun to come in the next few days!

19 Cowee Tunnel Railroad Prisoners that died in the Tuckaseegee River in 1882:

Charles Eason, Martin Co., NC Age 15

Allen Tillman, Anson Co., NC Age 18

James Fisher, Polk Co., NC Age 18

Jim McCallum, Gaston Co., NC Age 18

John Newsom, Hertford Co., NC Age 20

John Whitfield, Wayne Co., NC Age 20

George Tice, Iredell Co., NC Age 21

Albert Cowan, Rowan Co., NC Age 22

Oren Brooks, Orange Co., NC Age 22

Alex Adams, Washington Co., NC Age 25

Moses Brown, Warren Co., NC Age 25

Robert Robinson, New Hanover Co., NC Age 27

Louis Davis, Vance Co., NC Age 29

Nelson Bowser, Hertford Co., NC Age 30

Thomas Miller, Chesterfield, SC Age 30

Jerry Smith, Wilson Co., NC Age 33

George Rush, Richmond Co., NC Age 44

David Dozier, Edgecomb Co., NC Age 52

Sampson Ward, Onslow Co., NC Age 55

website information on Gary Carden and the Tunnel Project:


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