Railroads in WNC: the perils, the people, and the profit
by Rob Neufeld
Written in conjunction with exhibit, "How The West Was Won," in Rural Heritage Museum, Mars Hill University
PHOTO CAPTION: The entrance to the railroad show at the Rural Heritage Museum is commanded by a mock-up of Climax engine No. 3, used in logging operations between Canton and Sunburst in the 1910s and 20s, and now ensconced at the Cradle of Forestry.
There are easier ways to make money than building railroads. It’s true in the game of Monopoly; and it’s true in the world of mountains and machines, including the political kind.
You get a sense of the riskiness of the business while viewing a video at the Rural Heritage Museum’s “How the West Was Won” exhibit at Mars Hill University
“We’re standing at the top of Saluda grade, the steepest main line grade in the United States,” Ray Rapp, the producer of the exhibit, announces in one segment.
He’s telling about how safety had fallen to the wayside when the Asheville & Spartanburg Railroad had dropped its financial bottom line to a desperate level on the interstate route.
Back at the entrance to the exhibit, Rapp, as tour guide, had pointed to a Climax locomotive—or rather, a mock-up of one created by museum director Les Reker to face the door on simulated tracks—and said, “See, it’s number 3. I like to use that to point out that there are three ways to get into the mountains by rail.”
One way is “to go straight up and over, as they did in Saluda...Another way is to build loops,” as on the road to Murphy and on the Clinchfield route through Altapass; and a third is “to follow the river, as along the French Broad and Nantahala.”
Full steam ahead
“In railroading,” Rapp says, “engineers do not want more than a 2% grade.” That was also what Asheville & Spartanburg’s engineers had felt in 1878 when they’d reached Tryon and surveyed the way ahead.
But a 2% solution there would have to involve not only loops but also tunnels, and the builders had neither the greenbacks nor the green light for that. Up and over it would be—and on July 4, 1878, flags waved as a train chugged to the top of Saluda Mountain.
Not long afterward, Cary Poole notes in “A History of Railroading in Western North Carolina,” “the first fatalities occurred. In 1880, 14 men died on Saluda,” as a train lost its breaks and sped to a crash, “and other deaths quickly followed. In 1886 nine more died; in 1890 three died; and in 1893 another three lost their lives.”
It wasn’t until 1903 that someone came up with a way to abate the carnage.
Joining the birds
“The idea of truck runaway ramps was pioneered on Saluda Mountain,” Rapp relates.
“There was an engineer who took a train down the Saluda grade in July of 1903. His name was William Pitt Ballew, from West Asheville. He lost a train going down that 5% grade. You lose a train, you’re not going to stop it. You jump. And he jumped.”
They called that “joining the birds.”
Ballew was in the hospital in Asheville for about four months after the accident.
“But at the end of July,” Rapp says, Ballew “woke up in the middle of the night and he was shouting, ‘I got it! I got it!” And the nurses came running in. They thought he was in a fevered state and there was something wrong with him.
“What he had was the idea for safety tracks on the mountain.” Ballew then called the superintendent in the Asheville yard, who advised him he needed to heal, and could then come back to work.
“August, they had a second wreck on Saluda,” Rapp continues. “September, they had a third. And the superintendent called Pitt Ballew and said, ‘What was that idea you had about those safety tracks?’ By December 1903, two safety tracks were installed on Saluda Mountain. This is in Melrose. You can see the 10% grade.
“Now, you can never stop a runaway train. But the whole idea was to minimize the damage in destruction.”
The Asheville & Spartanburg Railroad became part of the Southern Railway in 1894, which functioned as a huge engine in our economy until 1982, when it merged with Norfolk & Western to become Norfolk Southern. The other big rail transportation provider in the region today is CSX, into which the Clinchfield Railroad had merged in 1983 when CSX had been called Seaboard System Railroad.
Today, we see railroads and yards closing down, such as Norfolk Southern’s roundhouse in Asheville; and CSX’s terminal in Erwin, Tenn.
But from the 1830s through World War II, the competition for lines and connectors had been epic. And then, after 1950, when ridership went from its zenith to its nadir, the business became cutthroat again.
One of the legendary figures who emerges from this outsized story is Dennis William “Bill” Brosnan, Southern Railway general manager in 1947; and president and then board member from 1962 to 1983.
“Between 1949 and 1954,” Rapp says, “Southern completely dieselized. They eliminated steam locomotives. Brosnan said, ‘We don’t have steam locomotives, we don’t need firemen’; and he began the layoffs.
The union sued him and won in court, and Brosnan responded by hiring janitors to sit on the firemen’s seats and do nothing. Eventually, Brosnan and the union renegotiated the role of the firemen, but it was clear: labor-saving was going to be a ruthless strategy.
“When all the other railroads were going belly up in the 60s and 70s, the one profitable railroad was Southern,” Rapp relates. Brosnan invented a tie replacement machine that trimmed a 17-man track crew down to three.
Brilliant and hard
Brosnan had a place on Fontana Lake, in Almond, to which he would bring his superintendents every fall to review performance and technology.
“He had a siding by his house out there on the Murphy branch,” says Rapp, “and he would bring new equipment out there.”
One time, he brought a cherry-picker, just invented, to see how it might be integrated into railroad operations.
During cocktails, Rapp recounts, “a couple of his superintendents were standing there, watching this operator move the bucket. This is in Charles Morgret’s book, ‘Brosnan: The Railroads’ Messiah.’ One superintendent said to the other, ‘I bet you Brosnan doesn’t have the guts enough to get in that bucket.’ He didn’t realize that Brosnan was standing right behind him.”
Brosnan ordered the bucket to be lowered at his feet, climbed in, had the arm extended to its full height, and then had it lowered at the superintendent’s feet.
“You didn’t think I had guts enough to get in there,” he told his superintendent. “And you don’t think I have guts enough to fire you. Get your ___ off Southern Railway property.” The guy had to hitchhike back to Asheville to catch an airplane home.
The labor of unsung heroes
You don’t build a $12 billion aircraft carrier unless you plan to gain from 21st century world domination. You don’t build giant dams and turbines unless you’re about to bankroll World War II and a revolution in living standards.
And, in the 19th century, you don’t build a railroad system unless there’s enough coal, timber, minerals, and ready-to-be-exploited wealth to justify a nearly unjustifiable expense.
When you’re ready to think big—real big—you pony up; and you also muscle up, the muscles being the kind of workers, like “Al,” featured in the song, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
“Once I built a tower to the sun...Once I built a railroad, now it’s done.”
Some of the heroes of Western North Carolina railroads were the civil engineers who had to figure out how to get rails over and through mountains without machines and within budgets.
Other heroes were the mostly African-American convicts, drafted without consent from Central Prison in Raleigh to blast and grade the landscape, and build tracks, trestles, and tunnels from Salisbury to Asheville and beyond in the late 1800s.
After being fed supper, journalist Rebecca Harding Davis reported about the convicts, “they were driven into a row of prison cars, where they were tightly boxed in for the night, with no possible chance to obtain either light or air.”
Many laborers died of disease and in escape attempts, as John Ehle chronicled in his novel, “The Road.” The Swannanoa Tunnel killed 23 in a collapse shortly after completion. In 1882, 19 black prisoners drowned, chained together, in the Tuckaseegee River on the way to work on the Cowee Tunnel.
Matt Bumgarner, railroad historian, has identified the Cowee 19. They ranged in age from 15 to 52, and had been originally incarcerated for larceny.
No monument exists for these victims. The route to prosperity, however, is lined by hundreds of unmarked graves.
Getting a lift
When Les Reker talks about the black laborers represented in the exhibit, “How the West Was Won,” he also refers to later “positive developments for African-Americans” on the railroad.
“The largest single employer of African-American men in the U.S. from the 1870s through the 1960s was the Pullman Company,” he notes. Tens of thousands worked as sleeping car porters.
“We have placed on view in the exhibition a jacket once worn by Mr. Tolbert Haynes, Sr.,” a Pullman porter based in Asheville, “thanks to a loan from his granddaughter, Fatimah Shabazz.”
The jacket was a symbol of pride in a professional career that facilitated luxury travel. The merits of the job extended beyond service, as the porters brought back news of jobs in the North; formed a union; and became leaders in the Civil Rights movement.
“A Pullman Porter named E. D. Nixon helped plan the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955-56,” the exhibit states. “Pullman Brotherhood Union leader A. Philip Randolph pressured President Franklin Roosevelt into issuing Executive Order 8802 in 1941, barring discrimination in defense industries and creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee.”
Romance of the rails
There is romance in train travel. Frank Mulvaney, a Southern Railway clerk from 1913-1959, waxed nostalgic about old-time passenger service in a 1976 interview with UNC Asheville’s Dr. Louis D. Silveri.
The railroad man, Mulvaney said, provided an important service, made good wages, shared his good fortune with the community, and was very visible.
“Every boy,” he recalled, “seemed to be attracted to the casual way that a railroad man in full brass-buttoned uniform boarded trains and started on long journeys, filled with excitement.”
Then, there’s the taste of that sausage, procured by the Manager of Dining Cars from local markets—and more: stately porters, china dishes, fresh fruit vended by “news butches,” strolls to the water fountain, nights in Pullman cars. You could leave Asheville in the early evening and arrive the next morning in Washington D.C., Jacksonville, or Cincinnati.
“I have often said,” Mulvaney reflected, “that passenger train traveling was the most comfortable of any…I have thought that...in the future people would come back to rail passenger service.”
The dream of passenger service returning to the mountains continues to be pursued today, despite financial constraints.
Ray Rapp, expert consultant for the Mars Hill exhibit, had, when he was a state legislator, met with the president of AMTRAK to show that the mountain region could generate about 72,000 passengers a year.
“He pointed out,” Rapp relates, “that in an era of data-driven decision making, we’re not even close. Their threshold was 240,000.”
Long hours, dangerous work
This brings us back to the economy of railroading, and its impact on labor.
Ira Waters, a veteran at Asheville’s roundhouse before Norfolk Southern started closing it down, recalled, in a 2002 interview with Pat Berkley for the YMI, how his father, James Waters, a maintenance worker, had had to work sixteen hour days seven days a week.
Before Norfolk Southern started sending big engine jobs to Philadelphia, many people were getting hurt. Waters’ team had to raise engines up on four jacks without tipping them. They removed brake pads, released with a powerful force. They worked on pitted dirt ramps in poorly lit areas.
Railroad work was even more dangerous fifty years earlier.
Stonewall Jackson “Jack” Fortune had been a brakeman for the Southern Railway in the first decade of the 20th century when the air hose broke on a train he was on, and it came barreling down Saluda Gap. He avoided a crash, Jack’s son, Albert Fortune, told me in 1992, by climbing atop the train and turning the manual brake on each car.
Applying hand brakes on mountain grades put brakemen in grave danger. Trains barely cleared the tunnels that had been blasted through Appalachian rock, and the railway had to hang “dead man’s” warning ropes a distance before tunnel mouths to help the brakemen avoid decapitation.
A few years later, Fortune was switching freight cars in the Old Fort Yard when a gravel-jammed switch pitched him under the wheels of a moving engine. He lost both legs. He acquired prosthetics, went to business school, married, started a family, and founded Ideal Paint and Hardware in West Asheville.
Clayton Harmon told me in 1999, how, when he was in training in the 1930s, he was approaching the Ridgecrest Tunnel with the engineer and fireman when a “red board” made them stop. It was a signal that someone had to walk the train through to avoid collision with another train stalled within the tunnel.
“We started off from a dead stop going into that tunnel,” Harmon recalled, “and the fireman’s getting up steam and putting coal in the box and here comes all of that black smoke...burning my lungs. Listen, I tell you, I thought I was going to die!
“When we come out on the other side, I looked at that engineer, and he was just sitting there as unconcerned as if it were an everyday thing.”
Later on, Harmon learned that the engineer and the fireman had masks that supplied them air during the passage. You can see one of those masks in the exhibit.
How The West Was Won: Trains and the Transformation of Western North Carolina,” an exhibit of films, artifacts, images, and text, can be seen in the Rural Heritage Museum, Montague Hall, Mars Hill University, through January 31, 2016. For group tours, call (828) 689-1400. Museum hours are daily (except Mondays), 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and by appointment. Admission is free. Also visit www.mhu.edu/museum.