Swannanoa Tunnel

Convict workers on the Swannanoa Tunnel

The Swannanoa Tunnel was constructed in Western North Carolina by more than 1800 workers. Some 500 of them were convict laborers, mostly African-Americans, who were transported from the eastern part of the state. The work started in 1855 and took 24 years to finish. In this time countless workers lost their lives.

Construction of the tunnel was spurred by a drought in 1845 that resulted in a total crop failure on mountain farms. Pack trains and loaded wagons were unable to provide frontier families with enough food to carry them through to the next crop.

Regional historian Wilma Dykeman leaves us this poignant account of human cost of the tunnel.

“During heaviest construction there were 1455 men and 403 boys laboring to clear the path up the steep mountain, and over a thousand mules, horses and oxen.”

“Accustomed to a warmer climate, the chill of the mountains, the dampness of mud and tunnels and the discouragement of constant slides soon left them vulnerable to the ravages of flu and pneumonia. The standard food was navy beans and corn bread. For Sunday breakfast there was the luxury of biscuits. Sometimes there was fat pork and a vegetable—cabbage, potatoes, black-eyed peas. Blackstrap molasses was a treat. Since 6 ¼ cents a day was the average allowance to feed a convict, there was little room for the bare necessities and no inclination for the niceties. In an alien climate, with such a diet, pneumonia was the scourge of the camp. One North Carolina resident remembered where there were four hundred unmarked graves huddled near the last tunnel on the route, filled by victims of pneumonia. "

The song Swannanoa Tunnel is well known in the mountains and was collected by folklorist Cecil Sharp in 1916. I sing a version sung by Bascom Lamar Lunsford in his Folkways Album “Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina.” It includes many traveling verses that show up in other railroad songs like John Henry, Nine Pound Hammer, Drivin’ Steel and others.


Asheville Junction, Swannanoa Tunnel,
All caved in, baby, all caved in.

Last December, I remember.
The wind blowed cold, baby, the wind blowed cold.

When you hear my watchdog howling,
Somebody around, somebody around

When you hear that hoot owl squalling,
Somebody dying, somebody dying

Hammer falling from my shoulder
All day long. All day long

Ain't no hammer in this mountain
Outrings mine, outrings mine

This old hammer, it killed John Henry,
It didn't kill me. It didn't kill me

Riley Gardner, he killed my partner,
He couldn't kill me. He couldn't kill me.

Riley Rambler, he killed Jack Ambler,
He didn't kill me. He didn't kill me.

This old hammer rings like silver,
Shines like gold. Shines like gold.

Take this hammer, throw it in the river,
It rings right on, baby, it shines right on.

Some of these days I'll see that woman,
Well that's no dream, darling that's no dream.

I'm going back to that Swannanoa Tunnel.
That's my home, baby, that's my home.