Les M. Brown and Joyce C. Brown

At the dawn of the twenty-first century North Cove valley in western North Carolina lies bisected by U.S. Highway 221 and girdled by the railroad tracks which twist around its fringes so that the great freight trains carrying coal from the mountains of West Virginia can descend the inclines toward the foothills and into the low country. North Cove today is a peaceful, tranquil sight, its few big, rambling old two-story family houses, remnants of its agrarian days, interspersed with the smaller, more modest little white and brick dwellings of later generations of cove families who, when farming ceased to provide adequate economic sustanance, resigned themselves to driving to the little industrial town of Marion, a distance of about sixteen miles, to work in the local furniture factory or to the railroad offices in Spruce Pine, about twenty miles away, an option no longer available now that those facilities have downgraded. With the new pharmeceutical plant on the banks of the North Fork of the Catawba, later generations drive down the road to donne sterile gloves and uniforms in a modern drug manufacturing facility. A few mobile homes, set behind the rolling fields of cabbages and Christmas trees, still leave room for a sense of vastness, a sense which calls the children of North Cove to retire there after they have driven the commute, or lived suburban lives elsewhere, for thirty years or so. They can still look to the north to the grandeur of Hawksbill, and across the way is Linville Mountain, which drops off into Linville Gorge wilderness. Only the roar of the trucks on highway 221 moving north from Interstate 40 through Marion and on toward Boone and the Tennessee hills, and the frequent wail of a passing train mar the tranquility.

But in 1906, North Cove valley looked like this: In December, 1905, The South and Western Railroad Company had been chartered to oversee the construction of a railroad between Spruce Pine and Marion, NC. For this purpose, over 4000 workers in nine camps between Altapass, North Carolina and Marion, a distance of approximately twenty miles, settled in the coves and valleys along the proposed railway route (Goforth 21).

The immediate goal was to remove an obstacle of challenging grades and mountains interfering with the grander goal of opening up coal lands in South Western Virginia so that the mountains, or at least their insides, might indeed be moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, Charleston, South Carolina and other ports (Westveer 2) for the betterment of a rapidly industrializing Southern society. Prominent Spartanburg businessman George Carter, with his sights on shipping coal southward and developing industry in mountain towns (Lonon 42), led the effort to carve out of the seemingly impossibly steep mountains an approachable railway for commerce and "prosperity" for investors. As an early historian of the railroad stated, Carter "never ceased in his efforts to impress capitalists with the true value of the undertaking, and was finally rewarded by securing the backing of some of the leading financial interests of the country" (Way 51).

Popular thought concerning the railways was of the blessing to be gained at all levels: not only were investors to reap great profits, but local communities would come to life, with better communications, access to less expensive wares, and a way to profit from their natural resources, such as coal and timber. A nineteenth century "Bard of the [NC] Highlands," Shepherd M. Dugger, pictures a glorious prosperity to come in his 1891 portrayal of the iron "steed" which journeys "Through forests unmeasured, trees without number,/ Millions of trees made a purpose for lumber" and on to "The hills [which] are swollen with millions of tons" of coal, to a new day of prosperity:

Awake from your slumbers, ye good mountaineers,

You'll hear the mighty whistle in two or three years;

Ring the bells of welcome, let your cheers go round,

Our wealth will come forth, our wealth is in the ground.

(Dellinger 12-13)

The bells of welcome did not, however, ring warmly for the hundreds of Italian immigrant workers who moved into the South and Western camps, under supervision of the Spruce-Pine based Carolina Construction Company, to blast the mountainside, to create tunnels, move dirt, lay rails, and to do the exhausting and dangerous work of constructing the vision of the prosperous. The builders of the railroad in North Cove, like many of those hired for doing the menial, low-skill work throughout the frantic industrialization of the early twentieth century, were from Southern Italy (Wolfe 84). Bound to a culture of patronage, these "Southern" Italians would enter the country via New York City, driven by the agricultural impoverishment of their homeland, la miseria, which had destroyed their lives, and by dreams of American prosperity; they would fall into the manipulation of "padrones" who located jobs for them and sent them on their way. Often, hampered by differing dialects and a desperation to earn money and return to their families, these workers would not know where, for whom, and for what wages they might be working. They might arrive at the work site unknowingly indebted to their employers for the cost of their transportation to company work areas. The system provided American employers with a cheap means of controlling and utilizing the "floating immigrant labor supply," men who came to the little Italies in major cities, were recruited, and shipped across the country for construction work (Vecoli 261-63).

George Carter and his business associates at the New York-based Blair Company (Lonon 42), having tried convicts and African Americans as sources for labor (Wolfe 84), found a third economically accessible worker population in the Southern Italian immigrants. Furthermore, the deep-rooted racism of the time instilled in the general Anglo-American population a sense of the inferiority, and thus the devaluing, of a population of dark-skinned men who were willing to work, to work hard, and to work with African Americans at a time when many "white" workers would not, as a matter of racist pride (Vecoli 263).

Society in general devalued those who were darker in complexion than the Anglo-Saxon norm, associating dark complexion with violence of temperament. Reporting on a railroad dispute in 1907, the New York Times reflected national assumptions in its characterizing of the incident: "Owing to the temperament of the.....railroad officials were taking no chances"( ). By the turn of the century, The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Weekly were in dispute over what to do about the problem of southern Italian immigrants, who "constitute an undesirable element of the population," but who, nevertheless, served as a cheap source of necessary manual labor (Walker 825). By 1905, the Monthly was warning the South of workers who are "no improvement upon the Negro" and an "undesirable element" of society, declaring that "the least aggressive" Southerner "prefers the Negro to the alien white as tenant, laborer, or domestic servant" (Ward 612). One Southern governor clarified his stance: "I am certain that we do not want and should insist that we do not get, people from the southern parts of Italy...." (Ward 613). The Monthly declared, "[The] railroad manager who wants 'cheap labor,' ... cares not whether the community or the immigrant himself is benefitted so long as dividends are increased"(614). In a noble testament to the consequences of immigration and its threat to white Americans, in 1908, one writer defined the "'Anglo-Saxon's burden'--so to nourish, uplift, and inspire all these immigrant peoples of Europe that , in due course of time, even if the Anglo-Saxon stock be physically inundated by the engulfing flood, the torch of its civilization and ideals may still continue to illuminate the way"(Ripley 759).

In the meantime, in North Cove, the railroad was being built by hard labor, bit by bit, by mules and men, with workers living in shacks owned by the company, charging their needs at the local commissary, blasting rock, laying track by whatever means possible at whatever cost. According to contemporary accounts, the monetary cost was over $125,000 per mile (Lewis in Lonon 126). No record exists of the cost in humanity.

Since society devalued immigrant laborers, it is not surprising that North Cove in particular saw no reason to challenge those assumptions of inferiority and that even the stories of today reflect the genteel 'patronizing' attitude of those certain of their superiority: A North Cove farm woman who sells milk to the workers asks one man if he will return to Italy, to which he replies, "No Mam, too bigga ocean, me sicka me stomach, me die" (Seawell Brown). In reality, many of the immigrants did return to Italy as they had planned.

Old folks in North Cove who held memories of these days recalled the sound of bagpipes and bright clothes, the smell of baking bread and the sight of great ringed yeasty loaves strung on long sticks to share and sell (Beatrice Brown). They recall that the Italians always came just at milking time to buy their milk from local farmers, drinking "straight from the cows"(Bates) to the amusement of the locals..

Did the stories take a darker turn? Only "outsiders" to North Cove (Goforth; Wolfe 86; Sheppard 137) speak of multiple murders of "foreigners" and disputes resulting in killings within the worker community. Little evidence exists to substantiate such stories; however, the very nature of oral history makes the total discounting of any one version of events unwise. But the story beyond dispute is the story of the "Tally War," culminating after the workers refused to continue their labors until they were paid. The locals tell stories of honest problems concerning payroll delivery on the part of the employer; historical records of similar events suggest otherwise. But whatever the realities behind the Italian refusal to work obediently on May 14, 1906, the results were a grim display of brutal power effected through manipulation of the law, of local loyalty and fear, and the national racist mindset.

On the basis of workers' questions about pay and threats of refusal to work, the camp superintendent, Mr. Cross, asked the local sheriff for assistance in quelling the rebellion. Whether the attack on the workers was an act of self defense, as reported by the Asheville Citizen (May 16, 1906) or the slaughter of a helpless and powerless people varies according to the accounts given. In any case, the sheriff and his newly appointed "deputies" surrounded the camp, and when workers came out into the open to talk with the superintendent, gunfire was exchanged between the "troublemakers," and the local men who had been deputized for the occasion. Not surprisingly, according to newspaper accounts, no local citizens were killed or seriously injured; however, two Italian workers were dead (" One Dead"; "Another Italian Dead"). While the incident was investigated and the investigation was reported in regional newspapers, little action beyond some limited financial restitution for two families ("Marion Troubles") was ever taken, and within six months the Italian embassy had agreed to allow more laborers to be sent to complete the work under supervision of a different company, the Meadows Company, the McDowell Democrat reporting that the "Italian Embassy [was] not disposed to make further trouble for the officers of the company"("Marion Troubles").

Neither were formal histories of the railroad and of McDowell County; instead, praise and honor are granted to the indeed visionary George Carter who "had early inspected and practically gone over every foot of the route, was familiar with the topography of the country, knew of and realized the value of the mineral deposits, had located every tract of timber, and figured out the possibility of big returns in its development" (Lewis in Lonon 124). Railroad histories, for the most part written by former railroad employees, dwell on the engineering achievements and economic marvels of the railroad, which was to go from the name South and Western to becoming a part of the Clinchfield and Ohio and on to its current status as part of the CSX complex. Even the Italian Embassy, which had stopped the flow of workers to the area for a while, seems to have forgotten.

The factual gaps were, of course, filled in by those who were a part of the event, who spoke with individuals who were a part of the event, or who heard accounts from individuals who had spoken with individuals who were a part of the event. And so on. Thus, as formal histories gave less and less credence to the historical event itself, oral tradition, with the assistance of well-intended informal "recorders," provided the intricate embroidery which today results in an entanglement of fact and fantasy. From "Uncle Rube" Mosely's unsubstantiated account of the event in Cabin in the Laurel to later unconfirmed, sometimes blatantly inaccurate, assertions, the numbers of people killed, the circumstances of their deaths, the locations of their burials have become enshrouded in oral tradition.

What do the locals remember, or remember hearing? Start with a story about a tough dog, named Marshall, owned by one Henry Seawell Brown. Supposedly, the immigrant workers were deadly afraid of this beast, whom they encountered when they came to the Brown farm to purchase certain farm produce.. When the superintendent at Camp Six heard that the rebelling workers had measured his grave and planned to kill him, he borrowed Marshall to use as his escort during the trouble. He remained untouched, protected by the prowess of an ancestral dog (Seawell Brown).

There are shadowy stories of two graves on a hill in the local African-American cemetery on "Grandad's" pasture. These two graves, it is said, are the graves of the two Italian men killed in the "war," buried there through permission of the landowner who had given the land as a cemetery (Les Brown; Seawell Brown). The land, once pasture, is overgrown with trees. The cemetery is awash in leaves and broken stones, with marked and unmarked graves pierced with saplings. Yet, a metal grave tag reveals the cemetery's use until the mid-fifties. In these graves, according to local legend, are two gold coins tossed in by one of the men who helped bury the workers. Although the coins fell out of the dead worker's pocket, nobody wanted to steal from the dead (Les Brown).

Another story involves a gun given away by one John McGee who, deputized, had killed one of the Italians: feeling guilt burdened, he gave the gun away to another man, whose grandson still has it in his possession (Les Brown).

And in the memories of the people, the terrifying sound of gunfire, rendered such fear in the heart of a seventeen year old mother, Jo McCall, wife of the eighteen year old Commissary manager, Clifton McCall, that her hair turned white overnight, as she waited with other wives in the house where the women had gathered to comfort one another and pray (Bea Brown).

Reality confronts us when we talk with Jo McCall's daughter, who has never heard that her mother's hair turned white overnight, though she did grey early (Anne Duncan), and when we see that the Carolina Construction company was charged with peonage, and fined a token fine for the abuse of the workers (Sheppard 142), and when we realize that probably, many of the Italian workers who did not return to Southern Italy moved on to spend their lives in hard labor in the Appalachian coal mines. But to the locals, the Italians, and the railroad, were just passing through.

So that from Cabins in the Laurel to North Cove family holiday story swaps, this tragic incident in our nation's industrialization and acculturation is now a part of legend, perhaps a little quant, perhaps a little amusing, tragedy trivialized as the mountains move toward the twenty-first century, still, in a strangely satisfying way, taking this literal strangulation of their coves and valleys, this laying down of the means to haul out the heart of the mountains and shave them bare, and smothering it into the saga of survival: "I asked a railway man what would be the effect on these mountain folks when a little later on the big trains with their electric headlights, Pullman cars, and tourists came roaring through these mountain wilds, and he replied that a lot of them would 'move further back'--go into the deep recesses of the mountain coves"(Olds in Way 182). And embroider this story, as they have so many others, into a kind of delicate beauty, while the trains haul the West Virginia mountains past their doors and snake on down to Spartanburg, to Charleston, to New Orleans.


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