Source: The McDowell News
By Mike Conley
In the 1870s, the state of North Carolina set out to build a railroad across the steep mountains between Old Fort and Ridgecrest. The job would be done with convict labor, dangerous nitroglycerin and incredible determination. Many thought the railroad could not be built.
But the railroad would be built, even if many lives were lost along the way. Today, long Norfolk Southern freight trains travel up and down on what was constructed more than 130 years ago.
Marion Mayor Steve Little has long been fascinated by the story of the construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad, now considered an engineering marvel. He wrote his college thesis about it and for years has given talks to civic groups and schools.
Now, Little, who is also a Marion lawyer, has written a new book about the construction of the rail line. It is titled “Tunnels, Nitro and Convicts: Building the Railroad that Couldn’t Be Built.” It is published by Author House in Indiana.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” said Little. “This has been a goal of mine for years.”
As a student at Wake Forest University, Little wrote his history major thesis about the building of this railroad in the 1870s. It was a very detailed work, which included a lot of technical information. Little did a great deal of research unearthing the story about the railroad. And in May 1976, the young Little, who was still a law school student, gave a speech about it at the rededication ceremony for Andrews Geyser.
“That was a real honor,” he said adding he was not even a McDowell resident at that time.
Since then, Little has often spoke about its construction for various audiences, including the Railroad Day celebration in Old Fort. When he gives those talks, he condenses the story down and makes it more understandable for younger folks.
“I thought I would write down the story I tell,” he said. “Everything in there is true.”
The book is also illustrated with color photos taken by Little of the rail line between Old Fort and Ridgecrest and the seven tunnels that were carved out of solid rock, using mostly convict labor. It also features vintage photos from the 1870s.