“THE TRAIN HAS MISSED THE TUNNEL!”
Altapass, located in the northern tip of McDowell County, was so named because at over 2,600 feet it was the highest point on the Clinchfield Railroad. For a time, the network of tunnels and switchbacks that took the trains across that rugged wilderness to bring coal to South Carolina from Kentucky and West Virginia was considered to be the pennacle of 20th century engineering.
Bill Carson of the Orchard at Altapass is a gifted teller of stories about the area, and many of those are railroad-related. In this video, he shares some awe-inspiring facts about how the rail line was brought through Altapass, talks about the spectator sport of caboose racing, and explains how a deadly feud between neighbors brought about the first female station master on the Clinchfield line:To hear more stories from Bill Carson, click here.
OLD FORT AND THE RAILROAD
The march of the railroad across North Carolina was well underway by the mid 1850s, but it took over 25 years to complete the line from Salisbury to Asheville. The stretch that posed the biggest challenge was the one from Old Fort up the mountain to Ridgecrest, and it took countless men, mules, horses, and ingenuity to complete it. Finally in 1879, a telegram was sent to the governor of North Carolina declaring, “Today, daylight entered Buncombe County through the Swannanoa Tunnel”. Terrell Finley of the Mountain Gateway Museum in Old Fort tells the story:
AN OVERVIEW OF THE BUILDING OF THE RAILROAD THROUGH McDOWELL
Steve Little is an attorney in Marion and was elected Mayor of the city in November 2009. He’s also an authority on the history of the railroad in McDowell County and is frequently invited to talk about the subject before school and civic groups. In the summer prior to his election, he was kind enough to meet us at the historic Old Fort depot to have his presentation recorded for the oral history project. He brought along some great photos to share as well.
We’ve also collected some rare railroad photographs from other folks we’ve interviewed for the oral history project and we’ve included quite a few of them, especially in Part 3. These additional photos are courtesy of Peggy Silvers, Mildred Kelly, Dee Daughtridge, Everette Clark, Tina Thompson, The Carson House Library, the UNC Chapel Hill Library Collection, and The NC Collection at Pack Memorial Library.
In Part 1, Steve talks about the effect of the Civil War on railroad-building through western North Carolina, the role of prison inmates in the project, and living conditions among the laborers.In Part 2, Steve gives us details about the building of the tunnels.In Part 3, Steve describes the construction of the Swannanoa Tunnel and the impressive feat of engineering, hard work, and perserverance that brought about its highly successful completion.Steve Little also talked extensively about Andrew’s Geyser, one of McDowell County’s major landmarks. You can hear that segment here.
We received the following letter from Mrs. Gladys Avery Cooper:
“Avery Station on the CC&O Railroad is a long forgotten part of the North Cove Valley of McDowell County. The railroad right-of-way was purchased from my grandfather James D. Avery where the rail line was built through his farm. In 1908 right-of-way was deeded to the rail line for the building of a coal tipple and water line for the water tank. There is also a culvert there with the 1908 date carved in the concrete. I’m 91 years old and my hearing is very bad, so I will not talk for the (project). But Avery Station is a part of history that is over 100 years old.”
Mrs. Cooper sent us a wonderful article she wrote about Avery Station that was published in The McDowell Independent in 1998. We encourage you to read it by clicking here: Avery Station.
(To hear more about North Cove and the impact of the railroad there, check out “North Cove Conversation” by clicking here.)