Dillsboro on the route

Following Wagon Trails - 1890s: Dillsboro

Jackson County
Altitude: 1,988 feet

This picture from the 1897 book by Heinrich Ries, Clay Deposits and Clay Industry in North Carolina, gives perspective on the size of the kaolin mining operations located near Webster, N.C., in the 1890s. The caption reads “Kaolin Mine, Harris Clay Co., Near Webster. Showing method of sinking pits in the soft kaolin.” While the kaolin mines were close to the town of Webster, N.C., the closest rail station was at Dillsboro, N.C., some four miles distant. Mule and horse-drawn tram cars were used to haul the clay to the Dillsboro station, where large amounts of the high quality kaolin were shipped to potteries in the Midwest. The Harris Clay Company also maintained its offices in Dillsboro. Ries provided a more detailed description of the mining operation and the open pits it employed:

“Most of the North Carolina kaolin deposits are vein formations whose depth is comparatively great as related to their width. In such instances the method of sinking pits is adopted. This consists in sinking a circular pit in the kaolin about 25 feet in diameter. As the pit proceeds in depth it is lined with a cribwork of wood, as shown [above] . . . . This lining is extended to the full depth of the pit, which varies from 50 to 100 or even 120 feet. When the bottom of the kaolin has been reached the filling-in of the pit is begun, the cribwork being removed from the bottom upwards as the filling proceeds.”

Convict Labor and Western North Carolina Railroad Construction

Convict labor was utilized extensively during the construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad from the Blue Ridge Mountains east of Asheville, N.C., to its terminus at Murphy, N.C., in the far west of the state. The state of North Carolina leased the convicts to the rail company, and over three and a half thousand men would eventually labor on the rail line. The great majority of these men were African-Americans. The work, fraught with dangers, included laying the rail line, grading, and the excavating tunnels. Over four hundred and fifty men died during the railroad's construction.

An Awful Accident
Eighteen Convicts Drowned at Once
A Flat Boat Sinks With Them In The Tuckaseegee River.

"A few days since we published an account of the trip of Governor Jarvis to the Western North Carolina Railroad, and gave an account of the operations at the Cowee tunnel, which is near the bank of Tuckaseegee River, in Jackson county. On that section of the road are employed about 200 convicts. Yesterday Lieutenant-Governor James L. Robinson, who came down from his home in Macon county, brought the news of a horrible disaster at the crossing of the Tuckaseegee River, the news of which he received from Mr. W.B. Troy, the officer in charge of convicts on the Western North Carolina Railroad.

" It appears that the camp of the convicts, that is, the stockade in which they are quartered, is on the bank of the Tuckaseegee river, opposite the Cowee tunnel. The river is at that particular point deep, with a current somewhat sluggish as compared with parts immediately above and below, where it breaks into rapids and rushes with the swiftness peculiar to those mountain torrents. The means of ferriage across the stream has been a large barge or flat boat, capable of containing fifty convicts, a rope stretched across being grasped by the hands and the boat then pulled over. On Saturday, while thirty convicts were being thus transferred, they became alarmed on seeing some water and ice in the boat, and despite the fact that there was no danger, rushed panic-stricken to one end of the boat, which was at once capsized and all the men thrown into the cold river, there deep, though not more than fifty yards wide. A white guard who was on the boat went down with the rest. A terrible scene followed, as the men struggled to get out, each man looking only after his personal safety. Many of the convicts swam ashore, or after being washed down a short distance reached the bank ere they came to the swift water. Twelve thus saved themselves, but eighteen clasped each other so closely that they became a struggling mass and were all drowned. The guard was taken from the water to all appearance dead, and it was only by dint of great and long continued efforts that his life was saved.

" The gang of convicts at this particular place, or rather section of the road was in charge of Mr. J.M. McMurray. Yesterday afternoon Capt. E.R. Stamps, chairman of the board of Penitentiary directors, left for the scene to make investigation of the disaster, which as, he state to a reporter, fairly appalled him. It was one of those accidents which seem to be unavoidable, and due to the sudden panic which seized the convicts in the boat, which it is said was in no danger of sinking, the water having fallen in it from the rains. Some of the drowned men were found some distance below, locked together in a last and fatal embrace. Many who could swim were hampered by others, who clutched them in a death grip.

"This is the greatest disaster that has happened on the road. A portion of the Cowee tunnel was of so treacherous a character that it caved in on a number of convicts, and they narrowly escaped death. The utmost precautions were used to prevent a repetition of the occurrence, an immense “cut” being made and arched over. The dirt was replaced, and all made secure. The tunnel is eighteen miles from the Balsam mountains, and thirty-four miles from Pigeon River, and is on what is known as the Ducktown branch of the Western North Carolina Railroad.

- News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), January 3, 1883

To the West: Wilmot


To the East: Sylva

Dillsboro in the 1910s  |  Dillsboro in the 1930s

Return to the Southern Railway Map for the 1890s

Sources & Readings

  • Abrams, William Hutson, “The Western North Carolina Railroad, 1855 – 1894,” M.A. thesis, Western Carolina University, 1976.
  • Carson III, Homer S. “Penal Reform and Construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad, 1875 – 1892.” Journal of Appalachian Studies, Spring - Fall 2005, vol. 11, no. 1 – 2, pp. 205 – 225.
  • George, Michael. Southern Railway’s Murphy Branch. Collegedale, Tenn.: College Press, 1996.
  • Gray, Minnie Dills. A History of Dillsboro, North Carolina. Asheville, NC: Stephens Press, 1959.
  • Jackson County Genealogical Society. Jackson County Heritage, North Carolina, 1992. Cullowhee, NC: JCGS, 1992 (Volume 1) and 2000 (Volume 2).
  • McRorie, J.D. Knowing Jackson County: People, Places, and Earlier Days. Sylva, N.C.: Jackson County Historical Association, 2000.
  • Page, Stephen Leon. “Mining and Mineral Production in Jackson County, North Carolina.” M.A. thesis, Western Carolina University, 1973.
  • Poole, Cary Franklin. A History of Railroading in Western North Carolina. Johnson City, Tenn.: Overmountain Press, 1995.
  • Ries, Heinrich. Clay Deposits and Clay Industry in North Carolina, A Preliminary Report. Raleigh: G.V. Barnes, Public Printer, 1897.
  • Williams, Max R., ed. The History of Jackson County. Sesquicentennial ed. Sylva, NC: Jackson County Historical Association, 2001.