When construction resumed after the Civil War, the state of North Carolina leased thousands of African-American convicts — many sentenced for trivial crimes — to the Western North Carolina Rail Road Company to perform the dirty, dangerous work of grading, laying rail and excavating tunnels. Hundreds died, including Jerry Smith.
“Railroad companies and contractors hired slaves by the hundreds; they also purchased slaves directly, in lots of 50 or more. In fact, by the 1850s, the South’s railroad companies could be counted among the largest slaveholders in their regions. They even developed special accounting entries on their balance sheets to show the value of “the Negro Fund.” …
“… The South pursued railroad expansion as fast as the North, laying as many miles of track in the 1850s as the Midwest, even exceeding the pace of construction in much of the North. And slavery was inextricably bound to the South’s railroad boom: slaves could be moved at the will of a slaveholder quickly from one part of the South to another, and whites could use slaves as collateral on loans to build railroads or purchase new farms. What’s more, railroads opened up new cotton frontiers in the interior South, expanding the need for slavery in agricultural contexts.
But the constant moving and confusion of the railroad boom also made escape easier. …”