Thanks to the kindness and generosity of the author I had the opportunity to enjoy a series of books Mr. Little has written (published by AuthorHouse) concerning the history and construction of what became Southern Railway's classic Old Fort Loops in western North Carolina. This engineering marvel was built by one of the company's predecessors, the Western North Carolina Railroad, during the late 1870s and remains active under Norfolk Southern to this very day. There are three books on the subject, each covering a slightly different topic or from another angle including The Mighty Locomotive (a children's book with illustrations by Jeffery Duckworth); Tunnels, Nitro And Convicts (a history of the WNCRR's construction); and Andrews Geyser, Star Of The Mountain Railroad (a look at an interesting man-made fountain at rural Round Knob).
This book, only a little more than 30 pages in length, provides a brief history of the Western North Carolina Railroad and the difficulties its promoters faced. The company was originally unincorporated under an act of the North Carolina state legislature on February 15, 1855 in an attempt to see rails connect the Atlantic coast, and major port city of Wilmington, with the Tennessee border. By 1863 the WNCRR had completed 76 miles from Salisbury to near Morganton but bogged down due to lack of financing and the ongoing Civil War. After the conflict it remained under the state's ownership during which time its charter was amended in 1868; broken down into two sections it became the Western North Carolina Rail Road Company - Eastern Division and Western North Carolina Rail Road Company - Western Division. The former acquired the existing 76 miles while the latter was charged with pushing rails further west.
Within a year service was opened to Old Fort (35 miles) in 1869 but subsequently stalled again and the company eventually fell into receivership. The issue was partially due to the rugged topography; rails stopped just west of Old Fort at a location known as Henry Station which sat at the base of the Eastern Continental Divide. The railroad's engineers had to figure out a way around, through, or over impenetrable Swannanoa Mountain and at the time few types of mechanical earth movers had been developed. In addition, the state of North Carolina was dealing with financial problems as a result of the Civil War. As. Mr. Little details in the book the railroad ultimately used free, prison convict labor for the task of laying a grade and constructing six tunnels over a span of just 2.5 miles along what became known as the WNCRR's "Mountain Division."
These bores included, from east to west; Jarrett's, Lick Log, McElroy, High Ridge, Burgin, and finally Swannanoa Tunnel. The shortest was McElroy while the longest was appropriately named Swannanoa extending 1,800 feet through the mountain. The work began west of Henry Station in the fall of 1875 and was completed to Azalea (slightly east of Asheville) in 1879. While the WNCRR suffered additional financial hardships it was able to push as far west as Murphy, in the state's southwestern corner, by 1890. During 1886 the railroad was leased to the Richmond & Danville, a major component of the Southern Railway formed in 1894. The line west of Asheville became only a long branch under its new owner but eastward to Salisbury grew into a very important freight and passenger corridor. Today, it remains an integral part of Norfolk Southern with the Old Fort Loops a popular spot to photograph trains.
This book covers in greater detail what Mr. Little briefly highlights in Tunnels, Nitro And Convicts: Building The Railroad That Couldn't Be Built, Andrews Geyser. During construction of the WNCRR two resort hotels sprang up along the western end of the line; St. Bernard Hotel at Henry Station and later Round Knob Lodge at Round Knob. It later became known as Round Knob Hotel. Such accommodations, located in the rural mountainous regions outside of large cities or urban areas, were a popular tourist attraction in the East during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They sprang up in conjunction with the railroad as city folks could escape the summer heat and/or hectic lifestyle as means of relaxing and unwinding. The Round Knob Hotel, situated next to the main line, needed something to set itself apart from the competition.
Its owners devised a plan to construct a fountain and geyser, whose gushing water was fed by an underground pipe that ran up the nearby mountain to a pond formed by damming Long Branch. The entire system worked entirely by gravity but nevertheless created an impressive spectacle as water rose high into the air with local accounts at the time insisting it was at least 200 feet high. Whether this is true is unknown but the hotel nevertheless claimed that it owned the "...highest fountain in the world." Unfortunately, the hotel burned in 1903 but the fountain was later rebuilt about a decade later by George Baker following years of neglect and disuse. He dedicated the new structure to his friend, Colonel Alexander Andrews, who a played a major role in the WNCRR completion.
The rest of Andrews Geyser: Star Of The Mountain Railroad provides a brief background of Colonel Andrews and efforts to keep Andrews Geyser preserved and in operation to the present day.
The Mighty Locomotive is a children's story with wonderful illustrations by Jeffrey Duckworth, whose work has appeared in more than 30 such titles. Despite its lighthearted nature the book describes a very real event that took place during construction of the WNCRR; moving a several-ton 4-4-0, "American Type" locomotive named the Salisbury over Swannanoa Mountain during the summer of 1877 in an effort to complete the tunnel then under construction. Done entirely by muscle and physical exertion the task was given to convicts and oxen, a backbreaking job that must have been excruciatingly painful. They eventually completed the move and helped hasten the tunnel's completion from the western portal.