1882 Cowee Tunnel Disaster heroism, mistaken identity

Ranging from 15 to 55 years of age at the time of their deaths, the 19 men — who were all African American — were buried in a mass grave (or graves) on a ridgeline near the tunnel. Their names were Alexander Adams, Nelson Bowser, Orren Brooks, Moses Brown, Albert Cowan, Lewis Davis, David Dozier, Charles Eason, James Fisher, Jim McCallum, Thomas Miller, John Newsom, Robert Robinson, George Rush, Jerry Smith, George Tice, Allen Tillman, Sampson Ward, and John Whitfield.

“To shorten a bend in the Tuckasegee River just west of Dillsboro, the (Western North Carolina Railroad) planned Cowee Tunnel. Each day hundreds of convicts, camped along the east bank of the stream, were ferried across to the site of the cutting. … On that fateful morning (of Dec. 30, 1882) Guard Fleet Foster ordered his men on board (the boat) with no suspicion of the trouble ahead,” wrote Herbert Monroe in a 1949 issue of Railroad Magazine.

Monroe’s account of what was to come appears to have been based on an interview with former WNC Railroad employee Will Sandlin. In 1882, Sandlin was a 15-year-old who had just been hired by the railroad to work with his father, a grading foreman on the project. Young Sandlin had grown up in a house on Old Fort Mountain watching prisoners lay track and dig tunnels to bring the railroad into Asheville in the late 1870s.

The hundreds of prisoners who Sandlin had observed living in stockades along the railroad tracks had arrived in Western North Carolina from across the central and eastern parts of North Carolina by way of the State Penitentiary, which leased them to the railroad for the dangerous work detail. Most were young Black men imprisoned for petty crimes or wrongfully convicted.

The incident, as recalled by Sandlin, would come to be known as the Cowee Tunnel Disaster. It was billed by The Raleigh News and Observer as “the greatest disaster that has happened on the (WNC Rail)road.”

According to the article in Railroad Magazine, “(Fleet Foster’s) gang consisted of the more dangerous criminals in camp, so they wore heavy chains about their ankles. Shoving off (from the Tuckasegee’s bank), the group had traveled only a short distance when the rear end of the boat began to take water. Terrified, the 20 men moved as one toward the prow. The sudden motion and shift of weight lifted the stern high out of the water, and almost immediately the boat capsized.” (The state reported that there were closer to 45 men on board the vessel when it sank.)

“Arms and legs tangled as the convicts struggled desperately to return to the shore,” Monroe continued in the article. “Weighted by their chains, they were soon dragged below the surface of the river, still struggling. … The incident was closed several days later when divers disentangled the chains of the 19 drowned convicts and brought their bodies to surface for burial.”

Almost immediately upon hearing of the disaster, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution accusing the guards and overseers of having “a disregard of human life” for the incarcerated laborers and treating them in a way that was “much too rigorous” while not providing living quarters “of sufficient comfort.” They requested that the governor of North Carolina report on whether the House needed to pass legislation to protect the “unfortunate creatures from injustice or cruelty.”

To respond to the claims, the President of the North Carolina Penititiary’s Board of Directors, 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.”

Contrary to the account published much later in Railroad Magazine,the state’s 1883 report mentioned nothing about the men being chained together, instead stating that “the reason why so many were drowned was that they caught hold of each other” in a panic. Also, according to the state, the men’s bodies were located later that afternoon and buried the following day.

Ranging from 15 to 55 years of age at the time of their deaths, the 19 men — who were all African American — were buried in a mass grave (or graves) on a ridgeline near the tunnel. Their names were Alexander Adams, Nelson Bowser, Orren Brooks, Moses Brown, Albert Cowan, Lewis Davis, David Dozier, Charles Eason, James Fisher, Jim McCallum, Thomas Miller, John Newsom, Robert Robinson, George Rush, Jerry Smith, George Tice, Allen Tillman, Sampson Ward, and John Whitfield.

Their graves remain unmarked.

Heroic actions, discrepancies
Though the Cowee Tunnel Disaster is well documented in newspaper and government reports of the time, the men are rarely referred to by name. However, Railroad Magazine did identify in print the name of one of the prisoners who survived and whose heroic actions saved the life of another.

Sandlin told Monroe some 65 years after the disaster, “Splashing about helplessly, (Guard Foster) could make no headway against the current until Anderson Drake, a powerful young Negro, came to his assistance. Drake swam ashore with Fleet – saving his life – and then helped him up the steep bank.”

But after the commotion died down, when Guard Fleet’s “wallet and its 30 dollars were found concealed in Drake’s prison garb … Drake was treated to a severe whipping at the hands of the camp foreman.” Whipping was a common method of punishment to keep the incarcerated laborers in line as “the fact that they are more outdoors makes it more necessary to enforce perfect obedience.”

The dramatic story of Anderson Drake’s heroic actions in the frigid waters of the Tuckasegee River has been retold many times since first being published in 1949. But further research into Drake’s story reveals a number of discrepancies.

According to census records and newspaper articles from the time, Anderson Drake was born in Wilmington around 1855. In the late 1860s, on his own and homeless, Drake was frequently arrested by police for sleeping outside, quickly convicted of vagrancy and sentenced to work on the streets of the city.

Though the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in the United States in 1865, a loophole allowed involuntary servitude to continue as punishment for a crime. Around the same time, restrictive laws known as “black codes” went into effect, which allowed Black people, particularly young, strong men and boys, like Anderson Drake, to be arrested for vagrancy and sentenced to work details across the state.

After yet another vagrancy arrest in 1869, The Wilmington Morning Star wrote of Drake, “This boy has experienced a hard time in the full sense of the word, and narrowly escaped drowning a few days ago by being thrown into the river by a drunken sailor.”

By the mid-1870s, Drake found himself serving a 10-year sentence working on a chain gang constructing the WNC Railroad between Old Fort and Asheville, near where Will Sandlin lived with his father. Then, on Friday, June 15, 1879, after serving four years of his sentence, Drake “eluded the guard near the (Swannanoa) tunnel and escaped.”

Nearby, at his home in Old Fort, Col. D. Alanson Salisbury locked his doors, shut the windows, and retired to his second-floor bedroom with his family. A couple of hours before daybreak, a noise woke him. As he got out of bed to investigate, he noticed that his pants, which he had placed over a chair beside his bed, were missing as was his wallet. He walked downstairs and found that his overcoat, vest, and hat were gone as well.

Looking around the house he noticed marks where the window had been pried open. The back door was unlocked and he found an axe propped against the house that he believed had been used to pry the window. He never saw the burglar.

Three days later, Hallyburton, the man in charge of locating escaped prisoners, knocked on the door of a house in Morganton. According to Hallyburton’s later testimony, Anderson Drake came to the door, allegedly wearing Col. Salisbury’s pants and vest.

Hallyburton screamed at him, “You are our prisoner!”

Drake slammed the door, jumped out a window, and fled.

Hallyburton and several others fired 10 to 12 shots at Drake’s back. Drake was not hit, but was eventually overtaken by the men and captured. They handcuffed Drake to the seat of their car, then took him by train back to the stockade at the Swannanoa Tunnel.

When tried on the charge of burglary for stealing Salisbury’s wallet and clothing, the jury found Drake guilty. The judge sentenced him to death by hanging. Drake appealed the conviction. And, months later, in June 1880, Drake was still being held in the McDowell County jail, his original execution date long passed.

It does appear that Drake’s appeal for his life was successful, though he remained imprisoned and on work detail for years to come. On Sept. 25, 1889, The Raleigh News and Observer reported, “Yesterday morning two of the penitentiary convicts, stationed at the Bledsoe farm, just south of this city, managed to make their escape. They were Pat Brewer and Anderson Drake. … It is thought that the prisoners some way got hold of citizens’ clothes or they would otherwise have been detected.”

However, despite a fair amount of newspaper and official government documentation of Drake’s criminal history from the late 1860s through the late 1880s, during the penitentiary’s investigation into the Cowee Tunnel Disaster in early January 1883 and in subsequent newspaper coverage, Drake’s name was never mentioned. Instead, another prisoner, Samuel Pickett, was commended for saving Fleet Foster’s life.

In a postscript to his official report, Captain Stamps wrote, “I am happy to state one agreeable feature connected with the accident; that is the heroic conduct of Sam. Picket, a colored convict, who swam out, got a small boat and rescued Mr. Foster, one of the overseers, and several of the convicts. His conduct is spoken of as heroic, and I would respectfully ask that for his heroism, your Executive clemency may be shown and he be pardoned.” No mention was made of any theft from Foster during the rescue. The governor rewarded Pickett with a pardon and $100 as a gift.

Did Will Sandlin confused Drake and Pickett and conflate their stories during his 1940s interview with Railroad Magazine or did Captain Stamps and others in charge misrepresent the disaster to protect themselves and the system for which they were responsible?

Sam Pickett was also one of 16 witnesses Stamps was said to have interviewed about the Cowee Tunnel Disaster for the official report. Pickett recalled, “The boat was as usual when (we) got in, in good fix. (I) walked from (one) end of (the) boat to the other when (I) went in. There was no water above the top floor. Was no more than usual on bottom floor. (I) stepped on the bottom floor between the planks and the water came but little over the sole of (my) shoe. There was no water in it to hurt.”

Pickett continued, “(We) had often crossed with as many men as on the occasion of the disaster, and the boat would stand right smart out of the water. The boat was nearly across when it sunk. (I) heard no one hollow that boat was sinking before (I) saw them rush to the rope. … (The) boat was not dipping when the rush was made, and if they had stood still, (we) would have gone safely across.”

“(I’ve) been running boats and rafts for twenty years on the Northeast river,” Pickett told Stamps. “(I) think nobody was in fault about the sinking, but the boys in the boat.”

All the witnesses that Stamps interviewed, prisoners – both white and Black, guards and overseers – all white, and citizens – also all white, led Stamps to 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 any one.”

Stamps also refuted all the charges of ill-treatment of prisoners set against the penitentiary by the House of Representatives, stating, “(the prisoners) are allowed more freedom in their intercourse with each other, and when off the works, in the quarters, they have sometimes their fiddle or banjo, which, with song accompaniment, reminds one strikingly of old plantation scenes in the South.”

Stamps concluded, “The whole of the work on this road is attended with danger. Blasting rock, digging deep cuts in treacherous soils, tunneling among loose and rottenstone, are all attended with more or less risk, and men engaged in such work become accustomed to disregard it, both for themselves and for those whom they control.”

Anne Chesky Smith is the executive director of Asheville Museum of History.