Convict labor was prominent in the 19th century and chain gangs doing hard labor were not an uncommon sight. The leasing of convicts was a highly controversial practice in the late 1800s and the subject of much debate at the time. Convict leasing was the practice of “hiring out” prisoners as cheap labor and emerged in the wake of the end of slavery. It was very popular among labor intensive industries such as mining and the railroads needing large quantities of employees. The state governments liked the setup because it allowed them to make money on the leasing. This created an atmosphere were many African-Americans were disproportionately arrested for minor infractions then egregiously sentenced to time on a chain gang.
The convicts frequently were hired out to develop railroads by clearing the path to lay rail and by digging tunnels to pass through the mountains. The convicts on the chain gang were all handcuffed and shackled together in a line along a large chain. This made it virtually impossible for one convict to escape from the line.
On December 30, 1882, one of of these chain gangs made up of 30 convicts was loaded up on a boat in Dillsboro, NC, headed to work on the Cowee Tunnel for the Western North Carolina Railroad. They began to cross the Tuckaseegee River in the ferry-like boat on this cold Saturday morning when tragedy struck. The boat had iced over the night before and as the boat moved along the river some trapped water began to seep up. Mistaking this water for a leak on the boat, a couple of prisoners called out that the boat was sinking. Hearing the men shouting caused the other prisoners to panic and move to the other end of the boat. The resulting shift in weight caused the boat to tip over which dumped all the convicts and a guard into the icy cold water.
The men frantically attempted to swim ashore but their efforts resulted in them becoming more and more entangled as the chain wrapped them up like a spider web. Witnesses on the river bank were helpless to do much to save the drowning men and could only watch in horror. They described a scene of high-pitched screaming and thrashing in the water as the men were desperately fighting for their lives. Finally, the water grew quiet as one by one the men succumbed to the river. The guard and 12 of the convicts survived as the other 19 perished from drowning.
Once the bodies of the dead were recovered they were buried in an unmarked mass grave near the site of the tragedy. The capsizing was ruled an accident by investigators. The practice of convict leasing would continue for a short time afterward but was eventually abolished after labor unions became involved in the fight against it. There isn’t a memorial or marker of this tragedy that has been all but forgotten through the years. – Shane
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