The Price of Progress

The Western North Carolina Railroad was the first rail line to penetrate the state’s mountain region and open it for trade and tourism. But to get the railroad up and over the Blue Ridge Mountains at Old Fort required the construction of six tunnels, nine miles of looping tracks, and the backbreaking labor of about 3,000 incarcerated workers.

Most of these workers were African Americans. Many were former slaves. Some had been falsely charged or given harsh sentences for petty crimes, such as vagrancy. But all of them were forced to work, unpaid, on the railroad. As many as 400 of them died during the construction project. Their bodies were buried in unmarked graves alongside the tracks still used by trains today.

The story of the WNCRR and its builders is the focus of a new exhibit opening Saturday at the Mountain Gateway Museum, 24 Water Street, in Old Fort. Titled The Price of Progress: Remembering the WNC Railroad and the People Who Built It, the exhibit is free. For more information, contact RoAnn Bishop at or give her a call at 828-668-9259.