Col. Alexander B. Andrews “Hero” of the WNC Railroad & Haunted Tours hosted by the Swannanoa Valley Museum and History Center

In just a couple oandrews-geyser_nc-collection_pack-library_round-knob-hotel_1895_11-570x456f weeks, the Swannanoa Valley Museum and History Center will feature their annual haunted house tours! This event is always a blast as costumed actors guide visitors through a large home decked out with historical decorations while they view scenes from before, during, and after the building of the WNC railroad. If you are at all interested in the railroad or have kids, I really encourage you to attend this event. The press release states,

More historic than haunted, the Museum’s Historic Haunted House Tours are lively, entertaining, and educational. Tours last approximately two hours and begin every half hour with the first tour at 5:30pm and the last tour leaving at 8:00pm on both Friday, October 28 and Saturday, October 29. Pre-registration is required and can be done through the Museum’s website at, by phone 828-669-9566, or in person until the beginning of each tour or until each tour is sold out. Please arrive at least 15 minutes before your tour is scheduled to depart

The coming of the railroad to WNC was of great importance to mountain people. The trains brought economic opportunity and promise to a region that had been for many years quite geographically and economically isolated. The people of the western region of North Carolina had decried the state government for internal improvements for decades and “their” governor, Zebulon Vance had finally spearheaded the movement to build a railway across the Blue Ridge in the late 19th century, but the process was wrought with controversy.

Below is a wonderful contribution from my friend Montana Eck who is pursuing his MA in Geography from Appalachian State University. This paper, “Colonel Alexander Boyd Andrews:


Montana Eck

“Hero” of the Western North Carolina Railroad” was submitted as his Undergraduate thesis in history at UNCA in the Fall of 2015. Go follow his outdoor adventures on twitter @moaleck

Full citations and source material can be found here




Colonel Alexander Boyd Andrews, “Hero” of the Western North Carolina Railroad

By Montana Eck

May Gov. Jarvis and Mr. Best and Col. Andrews, and Maj. Wilson say: When the history of North Carolina comes to be written, we would rather it should be said it was during our administration that the Western North Carolina Railroad climbed the mountains, penetrated the Blue Ridge and entered upon the beautiful section of Western Carolina. A monument should be erected to the true men who have worked so earnestly, so constantly, in the face of so many obstacles and so much slander and treachery, to carry on such work.1

On October 3, 1880, as the first passenger train in Asheville’s history slowly made its way up the winding road from Old Fort, citizens listened with excitement as the distant screeches of the locomotive drew near. The culmination of decades of work, the completion of the Western North Carolina Railroad and the arrival of the first train to Asheville signified a rebirth for the people of the region. However, despite the celebrations that surrounded the small mountain communities in the days following the engine’s arrival, much work still remained on the financially mismanaged project. Unaffected by the surrounding jubilance, Col. Alexander Boyd Andrews continued to work on ensuring the completion of the line to Tennessee. While the legacy and impact of the Western North Carolina Railroad is well established both in regional and state history, the story of the man responsible for its completion remains vague. Rocked by scandal, war, and worker shortages in the years preceding Andrews’ arrival, the W.N.C.R.R. became a project many viewed as unsalvageable. Despite numerous setbacks and opposition from powerful political figures in the state, Col. Andrews charged ahead with the project, ultimately completing the railroad that many believed could never be built.

From its humble beginnings in 1855, the Western North Carolina Railroad was a controversial project. In his 1976 master’s thesis, William Abrams addresses the difficulty of securing funding and support for the railroad project that took more than thirty-five years to complete. Whether the problems originated from opposition in Eastern North Carolina or the arrival of the Civil War in 1861, which halted construction “five and one half miles short of Morganton,” the W.N.C.R.R. faced a multitude of issues in its formative years.2 Similar to the work of Mr. Abrams, John Preston Arthur, a native of Western North Carolina, provides insight into the construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad in his book Western North Carolina: A History from 1730 to 1913.3 In this work, Arthur provides a detailed account on the importance of James W. Wilson as Chief Engineer during the railroad’s most challenging task of bringing the track from Old Fort to Swannanoa, a


Richmond and Danville Railroad Company, Birds-eye view of the Richmond and Danville Railroad 1893, Library of Congress

critical stretch of the railroad that paved the way for Col. Andrews’ future success.


Kenneth Cecil Brown discusses the importance of Western North Carolina in the completion of a state operated railroad trunk line system in his dissertation “A State Movement in Railroad Development: The Story of North Carolina’s First Effort to Establish an East and West Trunk Line Railroad.”4 Among the oldest studies found on the W.N.C.R.R., Brown’s thorough descriptions of the original design remains one of the most detailed investigations on the line’s history. Brown also makes reference to outside entities that played a crucial role in the development of the railroad including Governor Zebulon Vance, an early ally and later adversary to Col. Andrews. Similarly, in 1975, Margaret Morris published an article in the North Carolina Historical Review entitled, “The Completion of the Western North Carolina Railroad: Politics of Concealment.”5 In this article, Morris details the political motives behind the construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad and the animosity towards the project from some state politicians. Motivated by their desire to broaden North Carolina’s economic horizons, legislators in Raleigh advocated for the construction of a line capable of opening new trade routes with the agriculturally rich Midwest. While the majority of the impacts of the railroad were felt in the mountains, the completion of the track also provided an opportunity for North Carolina to become a bigger player on the national stage.

In 2001, Gordon McKinney, a professor of history at Berea College, published an article entitled “Zeb Vance and the Construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad” which discusses Governor Zebulon Vance’s political involvement in the construction of the W.N.C.R.R.6 McKinney suggests that the relationship between Vance and executives of the railroad played a crucial role in the ultimate success of the project. Adding to the complex history of the W.N.C.R.R., in 1995, Cary Franklin Poole published A History of Railroading in Western North Carolina.7 This book provides an overview of the railroad’s construction and long-term impact on the region as a whole. Along with a thorough description on the construction of the railroad from Old Fort to Asheville, Poole provides insight on the extensive work done to improve the railroad following its completion and the lasting legacy of the railroad in Western North Carolina.

In one of the most recent works discussing the Western North Carolina Railroad, Homer Carson’s 2005 thesis “Penal Reform and Construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad 1875-1892” focuses on the excessive use of convict labor in the line’s construction.8 Carson successfully utilizes newspaper articles, penitentiary reports, and letters to Governor Jarvis to highlight the use of convict labor as another form of slavery. The argument that the use of convict labor was a continuation of slave practices also rings true for Dr. Darin Waters, who in 2012, published his dissertation “Life Beneath The Veneer The Black Community in Asheville,

North Carolina from 1793 to 1900” .9 In this dissertation, Dr. Waters explains the importance of black labor in the construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad. Following the Civil War, the railroad continued with a vengeance leading to harsh working conditions and the deaths of 461 African American convicts, so says Waters.10 Dr. Waters also highlights the economic advantages brought forth by the railroad including a population increase of more than eight thousand in the first ten years after the railroad’s completion.

Scholarship involving the men responsible for the completion of the railroad, namely Col. Alexander Andrews, was lacking until 2010, when lawyer Stephen Little published his book Tunnels, Nitro, and Convicts: Building the Railroad That Couldn’t Be Built, a work solely dedicated to the construction of the Swannanoa Grade of the W.N.C.R.R.11 Mr. Little provides context to the various construction methods utilized on the track, many of which were unique to this engineering marvel. In 2012, Mr. Little published another book entitled Andrews Geyser: Star of the Mountain Railroad, one of the only published documents that describes the impact of Col. Andrews on the construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad and the monument left behind in his honor.12

While the lack of published material on the life of Col. Andrews is disappointing, the railroading expert remains memorialized at Andrews Geyser in Old Fort, North Carolina, a monument to the success of the Western North Carolina Railroad. Although the focus of this research surrounds Andrews’ lasting impact on Western North Carolina, it would be inappropriate not to mention the accomplishments of his predecessors. A closer examination of men like Maj. James W. Wilson, whose convict labor system and ingenuity in the rugged mountains near Old Fort paved the way for Andrews’ later achievements, allows for a better understanding of the complicated history surrounding the W.N.C.R.R. Andrews’ ability to overcome numerous political and economic obstacles during his tenure as President of the Western North Carolina Railroad has come to define his legacy. Through this extensive research, this thesis aims to truly scrutinize the successes and failures of the railroading hero known as Col. Alexander Boyd Andrews.

Born on July 23, 1841 in Franklin County, North Carolina, Alexander Boyd Andrews enjoyed early childhood surrounded by his seven siblings.13 In 1852, following the death of his parents, Andrews came under the supervision of his uncle, Philemon B. Hawkins, a railroading mastermind in South Carolina. In 1859, through his relationship with Hawkins, Andrews secured his first job in the railroading industry as a Purchasing Agent for the Blue Ridge Railroad.14

Later that same year, the B.R.R. promoted Andrews to the position of General Superintendent. The arrival of the Civil War signified a brief interlude in Andrews’ railroading career. On September 22, 1863, while serving in Company E of the First North Carolina Cavalry, Andrews suffered a gunshot wound to the chest, ending his time in Confederate Army.15 Despite the near fatal encounter, Andrews twice attempted to rejoin his comrades on the front line. His bravery caught the attention of many on the battlefield, including the Adjutant of the regiment, who noted that he served with “No braver or better man” than the “gallant Capt. Andrews.”16 Eager to put the violence of war behind him, Andrews returned home to marry Julia Johnston, with whom he fathered five children.17

Following the conclusion of the Civil War, Andrews hastily returned to positions of power in railroad companies across the South. In July 1867, the Raleigh and Gaston R.R., one of the most prominent railway companies in North Carolina, designated Andrews as Superintendent.18 This new position gave Andrews his first access to railroading in North Carolina. Soon after, Andrews began seeking alliances with other railroad executives, including those in power on the Western North Carolina Railroad. Correspondence between Andrews and Samuel McDowell Tate, then President of the W.N.C.R.R., suggests that business relations between the men and their railroads were well underway. In a July 1867 response to Andrews, Tate assured that once the “slow moving” delays in Salisbury were resolved he would fulfill all of Andrews’ transaction requests by no later than the fall.19 While these exchanges between Andrews and Tate may seem trivial, the relationship forged by these men in the W.N.C.R.R’s formative years were crucial to Andrews’ later prominence in the railroad’s affairs.

Andrews’ steady success and rise to fame in North Carolina quickly caught the attention of the Richmond and Danville Railroad Company of Virginia. In November 1875, looking to capitalize on his potential, the R&D.R.R. Company appointed Andrews Superintendent of the Charlotte to Goldsboro line of their railroad.20 Through the late 1870’s, Andrews continued to gain assets and esteemed positions in many other railroads, including numerous lines in the state operated North Carolina Railroad.21 Having staked a claim in a majority of North Carolina’s railroading interests, Andrews’ reputation rapidly grew across the state as his name became synonymous with the industry.

Thanks to his service and dedication to North Carolina, in January 1877, Governor Zebulon Vance awarded Andrews the rank of Colonel.22 A lifelong Democrat, Andrews fit in well with Vance and the established political arena of the time. Following his 1879 appointment to Vance’s “Commander and Chief Staff,” Andrews secured commissioner positions within several prominent legislative committees, including the commission created to “Provide a Suitable House for the Governor.”23 Propelled by his prominent status within Vance’s inner circle, Andrews established political alliances to advance himself even further in the railroading industry.



Postcard featuring Andrew’s Geyser, Pack Library


Long before Andrews’ arrival in the western region of the state, the only viable route to the mountains of North Carolina from the east was through the local stagecoach. Driven daily by John Pence from Old Fort to Asheville, the stage took more than three hours to cross into modern day Buncombe County and became notorious for its dangerous and deadly trek.24 Just one of the many drawbacks of Western North Carolina in this time period, the lack of a suitable transportation system only aided in the creation of an isolated society. Largely ignored by the rest of the state, the remote mountains were of little concern to a government so close to realizing its own state run trunk line dreams. Notwithstanding the near completion of the North Carolina Railroad in 1855, which connected the state North to South, there lacked a true route in the state East to West. Without a direct link to the western United States, North Carolina risked falling behind its neighbors Virginia and South Carolina economically. 25 Despite these mounting economic concerns, eastern politicians continued to be inconsiderate to the plight of the poverty stricken western people. An exception to these government officials were men like Samuel McDowell Tate, who since the early 1850’s had aspired to construct a line that penetrated the impassable mountains to the west.26

In spite of opposition from some in the eastern region of the state, many politicians in Raleigh realized the necessity of building a railroad in the mountains. In 1855, North Carolina’s General Assembly officially chartered the Western North Carolina Railroad.27 Immediately following its approval, the charter of the W.N.C.R.R. company specified that construction should commence immediately in Salisbury with its first objective to reach Morganton by the following year.28 Although construction began unabated and perpetuated a positive outlook, chaos soon consumed not only the railroad company but the state of North Carolina as a whole.29

The arrival of the Civil War brought construction to a halt and summoned Andrews, like so many other North Carolinians, to the field of duty. This violent conflict caused immense destruction to the bodies of both Andrews and the Western North Carolina Railroad and it was only after the conclusion of the war that either were able to heal. Despite reconstruction efforts, North Carolina continued to face internal conflicts that further postponed the railroad’s completion. In 1868, the State Constitutional Convention authorized the issuance of bonds in hopes that with public backing the project could be expedited from Morganton to Asheville.30 In a fateful move in the history of the W.N.C.R.R., North Carolinians George Swepson and Milton Littlefield purchased more than half of the issued bonds, giving two men control of the railroad’s affairs.31 Despite falling under new leadership, construction continued to lag throughout the Reconstruction Era. The railroad in its entirety came under fire following the discovery of the duo’s dispersal of fraudulent bonds.32 As a result of their scheme, the W.N.C.R.R. flirted with bankruptcy and new questions about its validity and purpose began to rise across the state once again.

As Andrews continued to gain prominence in railroading affairs across the Southeast, North Carolina politicians continued to persist in their attempt to recover from the Swepson and Littlefield scandal and the subsequent railroad bankruptcy. 1872 brought forth new demands to end the wasteful project but supportive legislators eventually prevailed.33 Attempting to ensure the continued construction of the project, the General Assembly agreed to purchase the Western North Carolina Railroad.34 However, unbeknownst to many in Raleigh, some of the most difficult terrain for the railroad still lay ahead. The town of Catawba Vale, later renamed Old Fort, presented immense challenges to the railroad’s engineers.35 Unchartered territory for the railroading industry, the mountains of McDowell County ascended 1100-feet in less than three miles, forcing Maj. James W. Wilson to envision a radical and innovative design for the newly coined “Mountain Division.” Through the creation of a series of loops, tunnels and switchbacks, Wilson proposed a track that slowly climbed up the mountains, rather than tackle the ascent all at once.36 While Wilson’s plan provided a solution to past construction woes, his radical techniques carried deadly risks.

Despite the ingenuity of Wilson’s engineering schematics, he required a substantial labor force to see his vision realized. Therefore, following his 1877 election, Governor Vance issued a plea to the North Carolina legislature requesting that the “entire available force of the penitentiary” be sent to the mountains for the “heart-broken Western people.”37 Vance’s vindication and expedition of convict labor helped in securing a larger workforce for Wilson in the railroad’s formative years and established a dangerous precedent for the railroad’s future. Vance and Wilson’s decision to expedite convict labor met its first test in 1879 with an accident involving nitroglycerin in the Swannanoa Tunnel, which resulted in the deaths of twenty-one convict laborers.38 Despite this setback, the Mountain Division reached its pinnacle in March of 1879 with the completion of the 1800’ long tunnel.39 Following this accomplishment, many across the state anointed Maj. Wilson a hero, including Vance who praised him for his ingenuity, claiming: “No one but Jim Wilson would have thought of or executed such an idea.”40

Although Wilson attained success on the Mountain Division, a summer of drenching rain, mudslides and financial mismanagement stalled the project’s momentum. By 1879, twenty-four years after the project had begun, the first rail lines still failed to reach Asheville and support for the project once again began to wane.41 These mishaps and constant shortcomings in construction ultimately led to the arrival of railroading expert Alexander Boyd Andrews. Having already won the trust of Sen. Zebulon Vance and Gov. Jordan Jarvis through his service in the Civil War and his well-known railroading success, Andrews had the political connections and railroading knowledge to take over the daunting task at hand. The arrival of Andrews did little to combat the anger of national railroad companies, many of which Governor Jarvis dealt with on a regular basis. In a reply to the President of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, Jarvis promised that once the line reached “Asheville by the 1st of Feb’y or March” that the construction of the line to Tennessee would be swift, proclaiming that the grade to the state border was “comparatively easy.”42 Unfortunately, Jarvis lacked understanding of the complex nature of the construction project. His promise, however, reassured the people of North Carolina that once the railroad reached its completion it would signify “the beginning of closer relations commercially with people across the nation.”43

Even with the arrival of Andrews in Western North Carolina, construction continued to lag as a harsh winter delayed the line towards Asheville. Far over budget and long overdue, criticism of Andrews and the railroad company itself only continued to grow. It was through this pessimism towards the project that Andrews chose to work with Governor Jarvis to devise a plan to sell the railroad, a decision that suggested a complete removal of state involvement in the project.44 This notion gained traction following correspondence between Gov. Jarvis and William J. Best, a New York tycoon who displayed a clear desire to purchase part of the railroad.45 Enthusiastic over Best’s proposal, Governor Jarvis called a special session of the General Assembly to discuss the potential sale of the railroad. Ultimately approved by legislators on March 20, 1880, there were several conditions Mr. Best had to agree to before considering the transaction complete. Namely, Best had to guarantee the completion of the W.N.C.R.R. to Ducktown, Tennessee by January 1, 1885 or forfeit the railroad.46

While confidence existed in the agreement between Best and the General Assembly, as the payment deadline approached, investors left Best stranded with little hope of making the payment in time. Fearing the outcry that would ensue following another public failure in regards to the Western North Carolina Railroad, Governor Jarvis and Sen. Vance authorized Andrews to assist Best in acquiring the necessary funds.47 Unable to convince the previously committed investors, Andrews and Best ultimately found a new suitor willing to assist in the purchase of the

W.N.C.R.R., Andrews’ own Richmond and Danville Railroad Company. Agreeing to loan Mr. Best the money needed to purchase the railroad, the R&D.R.R company issued an ultimatum that if Mr. Best failed to repay the loan by a pre-negotiated time, the entirety of the Western North Carolina Railroad became property of the Richmond and Danville.48

After gaining control of the railroad, Best assumed the position of President of the Western North Carolina Railroad and appointed Andrews as his Vice President. In spite of his earnest attempts to keep possession of the railroad, Best failed to repay his loan to the Richmond and Danville Railroad, resulting in the Virginia based company’s complete acquisition of the line.49 The quick turnaround and sale of the railroad outraged some within the state, namely Senator Vance, who challenged Andrews’ authority, going as far as to say that Andrews’ words were “unworthy of notice.”50 After exhaustive probing and review of Andrews in February of 1881, the Richmond and Danville R.R. appointed the Colonel as the line’s new President, a title Andrews officially accepted on April 13, 1881.51 Having removed nearly all influence of North Carolina politicians from the project, Andrews had acquired a new adversary in Zebulon Vance, a feud that remained detrimental to the railroad’s progress for years to come.

After resolving the issues presented to him following the Richmond and Danville Railroad’s acquisition of the W.N.C.R.R., Andrews turned his attention to meeting the deadlines set by the state. Knowing well of Wilson’s convict labor force and subsequent success in the Mountain Division, Col. Andrews sought to alleviate any doubts about his ability to lead the railroad. Aiming to expand the already sizeable workforce, which by 1880 totaled more than 175 black and mulatto workers, Andrews pursued assistance from Governor Jarvis and the North Carolina legislature in acquiring more convicts.52 By 1881, under the leadership of Andrews, there were at least 500 convicts working alongside 500 hired laborers on the stretch of rail leaving Asheville. 53 However, despite Andrews’ moves, construction once again fell flat thanks in part to harsh winter weather and widespread disease that decimated the labor force.

Facing immense pressure from citizens and politicians alike, Andrews once again requested support from Raleigh. In a letter to Governor Jarvis, Andrews blamed the slow progress in the western region of the state on Jarvis and Vance’s reluctance to supply proper care and clothing to the convict laborers. Andrews told Jarvis that “many convicts are in the hospital from scurvy” and that it is “unfair to the railroad authorities” and that the “humanity of the prisoners demands different treatment.”54 Disgusted by the actions of politicians in Raleigh, Andrews became the first Western North Carolina Railroad executive to serve as an advocate for the betterment of convict laborers.

Unfortunately, Andrews’ plea accomplished little for the convicts or for the construction of the railroad as Vance, now a member of the Railroad Commission, utilized this “failure” by Andrews to formulate a plan to overthrow his one-time ally. As a prominent member of the three seat Railroad Commission, Vance held great power over the railroading industry in North Carolina. Still bitter over the actions of Andrews and the Richmond and Danville Railroad, Vance initiated a move to return W.J. Best to the project. After initialing agreeing to Andrews’ requests for more labor, Vance wrote to Jarvis detailing his need to “withdraw consent to the extension of time asked for by A.B. Andrews,” citing that “circumstances coming to his knowledge” since their first meeting compelled him to do so.55 Vance then made a point to let his personal opinions about Andrews be known statewide in several newspapers. Often attacking the Colonel for not completing the railroad with “diligence and energy” and for Andrews’ ways of “discriminating against towns and cities,” Vance openly challenged the public image of Andrews as a railroading hero.56

Eventually, through politicking with Jarvis and other railroad commissioners, Andrews bypassed Vance’s unwillingness to grant an extension of completion deadlines. With the railroad finished to Asheville, Andrews now turned his attention to the two “branches of the W.N.C.R.R.” Designed to split into a northern and southern branch following the completion of the line to Asheville, Andrews now turned his attention to the final stretch of the railroad’s design. Intended to connect with a separate railroad in Tennessee, the Paint Rock line, or “northern branch,” became the main priority of Andrews. Concurrently, Andrews envisioned a completed Murphy line, or southern branch, which planned to traverse through the southern mountains to Franklin.57 Projected to give access to the western frontier, these branches of the Western North Carolina Railroad completed the original vision of the railroad’s design.

While Andrews’ on-time completion of the Paint Rock line in January 1882 resulted in high praise from many across the state, the Ducktown line provided another frustrating construction task for the railroad executive.58 Similar to the challenges that Old Fort and Swannanoa provided for James Wilson, obstructing the railroad’s path to the Tennessee border were twenty miles of daunting mountainous terrain, including another monumental obstacle in the Pigeon River. Though work continued in line with the prearranged timetable, Zebulon Vance kept a very watchful eye on both Andrews and his construction techniques, which Vance believed to be shoddy and fraudulent.59 In spite of the growing political opposition, Andrews reached Canton in January of 1882, and continued to march his railroad westward without delay, reaching Clyde in August of the same year and finally Waynesville in April of 1883.60

It was during these crucial developments in the far western region of the state that Andrews, just two years into his presidency, oversaw one of the deadliest incidents in the entire construction of the railroad. Commonly transferred from their stockades to the workplace by ferry, convicts had become adjusted to the dangerous journey required of them, but colder weather meant an unusual amount of ice in the Tuckasegee river making travel more hazardous than usual.61 These dangerous conditions came to a head on December 30, 1883 when railroad executives rounded thirty convicts onto a ferryboat to cross the icy Tuckasegee. According to reports, the convicts soon became alarmed at the sight of ice and water on board the ship and their panicked actions caused the vessel to capsize. Resulting in the deaths of eighteen convicts, the Cowee Tunnel disaster prompted little reaction from state politicians and local officials. Instead of pointing out safety deficiencies, local newspapers laid blame on the convicts and each man’s solitary instinct to look “after his own personal safety.”62 Despite being bound together, the convicts received no assistance from watchmen on duty, essentially sentencing them to death. The lack of a response by Andrews, a man who at one time fought for better treatment of convict laborers, remains disheartening but should not come as a surprise, as it was common of railroad executives to view the deaths of convict laborers as nothing more than a temporary setback.

While Andrews was not the only railroad executive to utilize convict labor for his own advantage, his diverse actions, both for and against the benefit of the convicts, leaves many unanswered questions. During Andrews’ time as President of the Western North Carolina Railroad, convicts often endured bouts of disease and starvation and lived off meager meals consisting of “bacon and beef, cornbread, peas, Irish potatoes and onions.”63 Due to the living conditions in the convict stockades, misbehavior became a common issue for watchmen across the span of the railroad. While most convicts faced added sentence time or an increased labor for misbehavior, some prisoners faced death for their disobedience. One such case came with convict laborer George Caldwell, who after successfully escaping the stockades, was “fired upon and killed.”64 The association of the railroad with the state penitentiary created an environment where workers were viewed as an expendable tool and easily replaceable. In many ways, the convict labor system implemented by the state of North Carolina on the Western North Carolina Railroad and across the south on various other infrastructure projects was a continuation of their past racial oppression, truly slavery by another name.

Notwithstanding the labor tragedy occurring in far Western North Carolina, the citizens of the Old North State had fallen in love with Col. Andrews. Early in 1884, as part of a pre-negotiated agreement with the State treasury,65 Andrews paid off $600,000 of the W.N.C.R.R.’s debt to the state, in turn allowing state legislators to exempt all North Carolinians from paying a state tax.66 In a Waynesville celebration of both Andrews’ payment and the arrival of the first train to the town, Raleigh’s News and Observer


News and Observer August 2, 1895.

reported that “no people in North Carolina love the name of and appreciate the good work of Col. Andrews had done for them, more than the people of Haywood County.”67 Rather than join Gov. Jarvis in grandstanding at the celebration, Andrews, labeled as being a “no talking man,” instead preferred that “his work speak for him.”68 In the three short years following his appointment as President of the W.N.C.R.R., Andrews had not only made a name for himself, but also dramatically shifted public perception of the once detested project.


Through communications between Andrews and his fellow railroad associates, it became apparent completion of the railroad could only be realized through the continued use of convict labor. In a letter from James Wilson to Andrews in October 1884, the Chief Engineer detailed the financial advantages of utilizing convict labor to complete the line from the Tuckasegee River to the state border. At the bottom of the letter, Col. Andrews himself noted the workforce of the “100 men” he believed would be needed to grade the final trek of the road from “Allmans to Franklin.”69 Heavily discussed in the railroad’s final push for completion, Andrews and Wilson often examined the implications of increased convict labor. In another October letter between the two friends, the railroad President contemplated his best move in finishing the final 32 miles of track to Murphy. Aspiring to complete the project in less than two years, Andrews believed that it would cost less than $37,500 dollars to hire 150 convict laborers. This notion meant that Andrews willingly spent less than $250 per convict for two years of food, shelter and general care.70

During their time spent working together on the W.N.C.R.R. Andrews and James Wilson cultivated a long-lasting friendship, which can be witnessed through their private letters. In a letter to Andrews, Wilson confided to the Colonel that he had “been sick for some time” but that he had not let that delay the progress of the railroad.71 Though not much is known about the friendship between Wilson and Andrews outside of the railroad, it is known that in 1885 the two men partnered together to build a hotel and eating house in the town of Old Fort.72 Built for around $8,000, the establishment later known as Round Knob, was a huge success and featured a fountain monument that became synonymous with the railroad itself. 73 In the history of the railroad and its construction, there may be no more important partnership than the one between Col. Alexander Andrews and Major. James Wilson.

In early 1886, Andrews briefly retired from his work on the Western North Carolina Railroad as his appointment, by President Grover Cleveland, to the Northern Pacific Railroad Committee drew his attention away from the project. However, following his journey out west, Andrews returned to Asheville claiming that he “much preferred North Carolina.”74 Andrews’ reappointment as President in December of 1886 also signaled the return of his close friend and associate, Maj. Wilson, now donning the title of General Superintendent.75 Despite minor issues along the way, Andrews successfully completed the construction of the railroad in January 1891, with the first train reaching Murphy on his 50th birthday, July 23 1891.76 A common theme in the months following the railroad’s completion, newspapers and citizens across the state of North Carolina heralded Andrews as a hero, including The Greensboro North State which proclaimed that, “On his 50th birthday was completed the colossal task which he undertook of constructing a railroad from Old Fort across the Blue Ridge to Asheville, and thence to Waynesville and over the Balsam mountains and on to the Cherokee county along the banks of the Tuckasegee, the Little Tennessee and the beautiful Nantahala. North Carolina had a son who was capable and able to do all of this. Col. A.B Andrews undertook the task.”77

By 1891, Andrews successfully linked the state of North Carolina by rail, from Currituck to Murphy, for the first time in its history, truly creating a railroad meant to cross both mountain and sea.78 However, the early 1890’s brought a new twist to the railroading industry in North Carolina as a new conglomerate of railroads, known as the Southern Railway Company, began its mission to merge and conquer smaller railroads across the south. In 1894, the Southern Railway company purchased the Richmond and Danville Railroad and all its assets, including the Western North Carolina Railroad.79 Under the control of the more nationally motivated Southern Railway Company, the former W.N.C.R.R. became an avenue of trade and commerce not only for North Carolina, but for the entire southeast corridor.

In 1895, following the acquisition of the Western North Carolina Railroad by the Southern Railway Company, Andrews secured a position as the company’s first Vice-President.80 In his new role, Andrews utilized his knowledge of Western North Carolina to promote both the Southern Railway and the regional economy through the publication of several pamphlets and brochures. Many of his publications followed the basic outline of his 1882 publication, “Illustrated Guidebook of the Western North Carolina Railroad Company,” which focused on selling the western region as a relaxation destination, one free of the hot air of Raleigh.81 Prioritizing his role as an advocate for tourism and trade in the far western region of North Carolina, Andrews capitalized on his past success to reach new heights during his tenure at the Southern Railway Company.

In a prominent position in both state and regional affairs, Andrews became a symbol of the power, both economically and politically, that the railroad held over the state of North Carolina. However, not all citizens of the Old North State viewed Andrews and the railroad so positively. Caught up in a public fight between Republican Governor Daniel Russell and the historically Democratic Railroad Commission, Andrews faced extreme criticism for his support and friendship with Maj. Wilson.82 Stemming from Maj. Wilson’s failure to grant the governor’s requests of raising taxes on the railroad, while also reducing rates, Russell accused Maj.Wilson and Col. Andrews of creating a monopoly within the railroad itself. Centering his allegations around Old Fort’s Round Knob Hotel, Russell argued that the hotel and eating house, built by Andrews and Wilson, hindered Wilson’s ability to make unbiased judgments on the Railroad Commission.83

In a sign of the political turmoil in North Carolina in the late 1890s, the feud between Governor Russell and the railroad powerhouses, Andrews and Wilson, made its way into the public spectrum with both sides of the aisle taking their stands in state newspapers and other public forums. More Republican and Fusionist leaning papers favored a negative view of Andrews, similar to the earlier views of Zebulon Vance. Focusing on Andrews’ control over state politicians, an August 2, 1895 News and Observer political cartoon entitled “Col. Andrews’ Steam Calliope” depicted an image of a strong and manipulative Andrews playing the state’s trustees like a musical instrument, representative of both his and the railroad’s power over state politicians.84 In more Democratic leaning papers, rumors of Russell’s larger plans to invest himself in the railroad became a prominent theme. Andrews and other leading railroad associates accused Governor Russell of having tried to sell a portion of the North Carolina Railroad in 1897 for around $2,000,000 but when he failed to come to terms with Andrews, Russell began to formulate a plan of revenge.85 As the debate spilled into the public forum, opinions on Andrews and the railroad differed across the state, but the power and influence of the Colonel on North Carolina politics in this era was undeniable.

Despite the debates that engrossed the state, Governor Russell and the state Supreme Court moved ahead with their plan of removing Wilson from the Railroad Commission, with hopes of conquering Andrews at a later date. Maj. Wilson contested the decision, ultimately claiming that Russell’s ability to remove someone from the Railroad Commission was unconstitutional. However, with support in the legislature, the Supreme Court upheld the decision .86 Accused of working with Wilson both on the Round Knob Hotel and the Railroad Commission for the betterment of the Southern Railway, Andrews became the secondary target of Russell’s attacks. While never removed from office, Andrews faced severe consequences for Russell’s accusations, including being levied with eight civil action lawsuits totaling more than $40,000. Despite initial protests by Andrews, the Colonel ultimately refused to testify in court against Russell’s accusations, forcing the court upheld the charges.87

Russell’s removal of Wilson and charges against Andrews ultimately backfired in the next election as the Democrats regained control of the legislature. Following the monumental political victory, Democratic legislators quickly moved to vindicate Andrews and Wilson.88 The entire feud between the Railroad Commission and Governor Russell was part of larger political developments that challenged the foundation of North Carolina politics at the time. Russell’s assault on the railroad was in itself an attack on the the Democratic establishment of North Carolina’s “glory days.”89 Russell had general disdain for the railroad and the people behind it, so while these attacks on Andrews and Wilson may seem personal, they were just a smaller portion of a larger attack on the ideals of the Democratic party and the way the establishment constantly supported the “radical actions” of the Railroad Commission.

Following the political events that transpired in the 1890’s, Andrews continued his work as the Vice-President of the Southern Railway company, a lucrative position he retained until his death on April 17, 1915. For years after his passing, Andrews remained the prominent figure most closely associated with railroading affairs in the state. As citizens began to realize the importance of his undertakings, many moved to see his accomplishments memorialized. This movement to honor Andrews, however, was not new to the state. In 1884 the Greensboro Patriot asserted that men like Andrews, “Are the true heroes of the state, the men who have turned their energies to the development of the matchless resources of North Carolina; who build up the long neglected sections; who make it possible to build up cities like Asheville, the Queen of the Alleghenies. To men such as he is let due honor”.90

In 1903, the Round Knob Hotel that Andrews helped Maj. Wilson construct burnt to the ground, but the fountain just outside of Mill Creek continued to run, until some years later when the “geyser” of Old Fort fell into disrepair.91 Seeing the disorder of Andrews’ once great work, Southern Railway Commissioner George F. Baker, a longtime friend of the Colonel, vowed to have the area cleaned in order to construct a new monument in honor to his colleague.92 In conjunction with the Southern Railway Company, Baker successfully completed “Andrews Geyser,” a monument that remains a key tourist attraction to the town of Old Fort. The small Cherokee County town of Andrews, NC also bares the name of Colonel Andrews and prides itself on its railroad history.93 The plot of land in the far western region of the state, originally purchased by Andrews for the railroad, went unnoticed in the initial years following the W.N.C.R.R.’s completion, nonetheless, with the introduction of new business the region quickly developed into a thriving community, one proud of its namesake’s accomplishments.

Despite Andrews’ numerous successes across the South, no project had such long term implications on a people or economy than the Western North Carolina Railroad. In just ten years following the completion of the track, Asheville witnessed its population increase by more than eight thousand.94 Hotels, dining houses and textile mills began to thrive in the once barren countryside. Defined by his time as a leader on the Western North Carolina Railroad, Col. Alexander Boyd Andrews is a figure that deserves both praise and criticism. Andrews’ mixed history with convict labor combined with his continual will to fight against unfair actions by politicians in Raleigh, demonstrates the complex nature of this railroading hero. As this thesis has demonstrated, while imperfect in his actions, Andrews’ resiliency in completing the Western North Carolina Railroad cemented his legacy as one of the most influential men in the history of Western North Carolina.

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