Township Roads and Railroads
by G. A. Burgin
January 21, 1954
The first time I was ever in Black Mountain was in 1884. The trains had been going through the Swannanoa tunnel about two years. It took several years to put it through; it was all done by hand, picks, shovels, steel, and powder. There was no modern machinery then; the state built the road with state prisoners.
Major Wilson was the engineer who surveyed the road up the mountain; they claimed it was the finest piece of engineering in the U. S. at that time. When they got the road built up the mountain to the tunnel they brought an engine with some flat cars up there and hauled the rocks and dirt out and made fills with it where they had made trestles to get the grade and filled the trestles with dirt. Then they laid track over the gap and with cattle pulled and engine to the west side of the tunnel. They worked on both sides.
When they got the tunnel track through both engineers wanted to have the name of running his engine through first. They made a brake and met about halfway and Jack Edwards pushed Aldridge out; Jack Edwards was the first man to run an engine through the tunnel.
Before they got the tunnel through, the head of the road was Dendron, then they called it old Henry Station. The geyser was built by Col. Andrews, and bears his name. Major Wilson built Round Knob Hotel. It was burned down several years ago. It was said that an old Indian chief came up in the gap of the mountain and looking down through the valley called it Swannanoa, meaning beautiful in Indian language. The engines at that time were not as big as engines are today. They fired them with wood. They cut it and racked it up by the track and when they ran out they stopped and loaded it on the engine.
The first prisoners I ever saw were being worked by my oldest brother H. J. Burgin and a cousin C. S. Burgin, in that cut below the station in Black Mountain. They widened out all cuts and made fills with dirt. They worked the Murphy ranch from Asheville to Murphy and from Asheville to Spartanburg. It was done by state prisoners by hand at that time.
It is a shame on the state of N. C. the way they treated those men then. They worked them in all kinds of weather from daylight until dark and when a man did not work to suit them they would beat him almost to death. They fed them cow peas, fat meat, and corn bread. The men who guarded those men got $13 per month, board and washing. But the good people of N. C. got behind that and turned it around. It is as far the other way now. They are not allowed to work them in bad weather, not allowed to whip them, only work them eight hours per day. They are well fed, have good quarters and recreation. They say prison is a fine place. I have never tried it and have no craving desire to try it.
At the close of the Civil War the trains come only to Morganton. My father coming home out of the war said he came to Morganton on the train; they ran a stage coach on to Asheville, through Marion and Old Fort, right west of Dripping Rock up that small creek, south of the highway up through that gorge. Starting at the top of the mountain at the gap on the south side of the tunnel on to Asheville the road went mostly the way No. 70 goes except for a few changes. It went by Biltmore. The first time I was in Asheville there was a muddy wagon road. There was no paved streets at all.
There was a stagecoach line from Rutherfordton by Chimney Rock, Bat Cave, and up the Hickory Nut Gap and Mine Hole Gap on to Asheville. The road from Bat Cave to the top of the mountain was a toll road. They had a toll gate at Bat Cave and everyone went over and had to pay a toll. It was that way until the state took it over and built a road up that mountain.
All roads were kept up by free labor. Every able bodied man from eighteen to forty-five had to give six days work on public roads and if there was a flood which washed the roads away they could call a man back and they would have to work six more. There were no taxes for roads then; the legislature appointed a justice of peace and they had supervision of all public roads in their townships. They would appoint all road overseers and give each so many hands for his section. The overseer would go around and warn them to meet him at a certain point, bring a mattock or shovel and an ax. The roads were laid in sections.
I worked my time, every bit of it. I served from a buck private to a supervisor from eighteen to forty-five and paid all of my poll tax from twenty-one to fifty years old. I have lived to see from the worst system of muddy roads; sometimes almost impassable; up one hill, down on the other side with never any thought of grading -- to the system of graded hard surface roads all over the county. The automobile has brought all this about. It has been a great blessing as well as it has had its bad points.
Next is Buncombe County. It was said that when they cut it off it took all that part of the state west of Blue Ridge, rolled it up and threw in part of Tennessee for good measure and called it Buncombe. They claimed that time that Rowan County took all on the east side of Blue Ridge.