Recent RAIL Press

Burgin Tunnel, Frank Clodfelter Collection, D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, UNC Asheville

Spectrum News Feature

Weekend Report on RAIL Memorial Project and the Use of Human Remains Detection Dogs- February 4th, 5th, and 6th, 2022


After some initial discussions and surveying possible sites with Blair in December, the RAIL Board decided to contract with Paul and Blair to conduct searches for possible graves. Paul, his assistant Dari Sharp, and HRD dogs Abby and Riley (who is still in training) made the long trip from western Tennessee to survey sites where we had reason to believe incarcerated workers might be interred. Blair, who is also an expert in GPR and who works closely with his former student Paul on such projects, was also on hand.

Day #1 – February 4

We met at 9:00 a.m. at Andrews Geyser to begin the search. Paul took his HRD dog (Abby) to  some private property near the geyser where we had secured owner permission to search. This site was selected based on a map Steve Little found in the NC State Penitentiary Records which indicated that this property was on or near the site of the Round Knob Stockade, one of the largest of such facilities used to house incarcerated workers in the late 1870s. Given the fact that many of the incarcerated workers died of disease and neglect, we are reasonably certain there are graves in this area. For the first thirty minutes or so, Abby worked steadily under Paul’s direction surveying the lower end of the property. We weren’t sure what to expect but she did not indicate she had detected the odor of human remains.

Things changed, however, as she moved toward the back of the property. Her pace slowed dramatically and she stopped and sniffed intently at several places. I asked Cat Warren, noted author of What the Dog Knows and one of the most knowledgeable people anywhere on the use of HRD dogs, if this meant anything and she assured me that it did. The dozen or so folks observing the process got intensely interested and there was an almost audible gasp when Abby sat, her sign to indicate she had detected the chemicals released by the decomposition of human remains. Paul continued to work her, and she indicated twice more in this area.

We broke to rest Abby and eat lunch at this point, but we were all abuzz at what we had seen. After lunch, we went back to the site and Paul took Abby up into a draw where a spring is located. She alerted several more times as she worked her way up the slope. At the top of that slope she moved across a flat area and headed up a steep slope. Here she alerted several more times. After a hard day of work, Abby was rewarded with play and some treats and headed back to her kennel in the back of Paul’s SUV.

In discussing the meaning of what we had witnessed this day, Paul, Blair, and Cat explained that Abby’s alerts indicated she had detected the chemicals released by human decomposition and not necessarily specific grave sites. These chemicals can migrate, especially in steep terrain and near flowing water such as the site they had surveyed. More follow up will need to take place here with additional HRD dog searches and use of GPR. Despite the uncertainties, we were excited about the day, especially when Paul and Blair told us they have had many days on field sites where the dogs did not alert once. We were also excited that John Boyle, noted reporter for the Asheville Citizen-Times, Citizen photographer Maya Carter, Tim Boyum, Emmy-nominated reporter for Spectrum News who had driven up from Raleigh, and cameraman John Stampf were there to witness this and learn more about the RAIL Memorial Project. We look forward to their reporting.

Day #2 – February 5, 2022

Day #2 dawned with temperatures in the low 20s. Due to the sub-freezing temperatures we delayed the start of the search until 10:00 a.m. when we gathered at a site on the property of the Ridgecrest Conference Center on the south side of I-40. When we gathered, Paul decided it was still too cold for Abby to do an effective search. HRD dogs are better able to detect odor emanating from the ground when the temperatures are above freezing, and especially when the sun warms the ground and moisture evaporates. Because of this, we adjusted the schedule and decided to start the day by visiting a site where, thanks to a tip from local explorer and railroad buff Joe Denny, we had seen some places that looked like possible sunken graves. After a hike of a mile or so we came to the site. Blair and Cat looked the site over and agreed that at least one of the depressions had the appearance and characteristics consistent with a sunken grave. We are currently in discussions with the property owners to secure their permission to search at a future date, but the site looks promising.

After a lunch break we returned to the Ridgecrest site. We had decided to search this particular site near the Swannanoa Tunnel due to a discussion several years ago that Steve Little had with a woman named Betty May who had grown up in the Ridgecrest area. Her mother told her that this area was a “convict graveyard” where victims of a cave-in in the Swannanoa Tunnel were buried. Betty later took Steve to the site. We had no real physical indications that this was true but given the site’s proximity to the west end of the tunnel we decided to give it a try.

Paul led Abby into the lower end of the site which is covered in thick rhododendron. We watched from a nearby road peering into the dense vegetation trying to see what she was doing. She slowed her pace not far into the thicket and before we knew it Abby sat, her final trained indication. Paul urged her to continue searching and she came out of the rhododendron and moved into an area thick with briars. Abby was not exactly happy with this situation, but she kept working. Once again, she slowed her pace and, once again, she sat. Within another 20 feet or so she alerted again. The pair then moved into an open mowed field adjacent to the briar/rhododendron thicket and searched some more, with no alerts given from Abby. Paul then sent Abby back into the area with briars, and she again alerted on the second site confirming that she detected the scent of human decomposition.

The success of the search on this day is a tribute to the power of oral tradition. While stories passed down over the generations can be very suspect (indeed, DNA evidence conclusively proves that I have no Cherokee ancestry) they can be of great use to historians. We are so appreciative that Betty May shared her memories with Steve as we would have never searched this site without this local knowledge. As it turned out, Steve was able to contact Mrs. May over the phone after the search. She was thrilled with what we had found and appreciative of her role in insuring that the graves of the individuals who perished in the construction of the railroad would not be forgotten.

We are also so appreciative of the fine folks at the Ridgecrest Conference Center, especially CEO Art Snead and Facilities Director Daniel Redding. We were so happy that nine-year-old Carson Redding got to come out to see Abby work and learned about the important history of this place virtually on his front doorstep.

We will go back to this site as well, once we do some briar clearing, with confirming dog searches and GPR.

Day #3 – February 6, 2022

Given the successful searches on the first two days, Day #3 was to be a day of rest for Abby. A small group of us—Paul, Blair, Joe Denny, and Warren Wilson College historian Jeff Keith—gathered at Andrews Geyser at noon intending to scout out a site a mile or so above the geyser where there had been a major collapse of a tunnel that killed several workers back during the 1870s. We never got there. While we were waiting for Jeff to arrive, Dari took her dog Riley out into the field around the geyser to exercise her. We did not pay much attention to them as Riley repeatedly retrieved a favorite toy tossed by Dari and we continued discussing the events of the last few days. Dari came back to the parking area, put Riley in her kennel, and talked to Paul a bit. We learned later that she did not say anything other than to ask him if he had worked Abby in the area of the geyser. He had not. Paul got Abby out of her kennel, leashed her, and headed into the field. We paid little attention to him assuming he was exercising Abby and continued our conversation. After a while I happened to glance down into the field and saw that Paul was not exercising Abby but working her. That got our attention and after 15 minutes or so, Paul, Dari, and Abby came back across the field. Paul looked at Blair and said, “Get out the GPR.”

Abby had alerted at a site in the lower part of the field near the creek. The credit here goes to young Riley who, though she is still in training alerted at the site, by lying down and barking. Here we had still another serendipitous occurrence that we had not envisioned. Indeed, we were not really planning on searching this area. After looking over the site, and the adjacent property, and using the GPR to scan the area where Riley and Abby alerted, Paul, Blair, and Dari believe this could be an area that potentially contains a number of graves. We are going to seek permission to search the neighboring property and will do further searches on the Andrews Geyser property belonging to the Town of Old Fort. We are appreciative to the Board of Aldermen of Old Fort who gave us permission to search, allowed RAIL to erect a monument to the incarcerated laborers there, and even gave us a $1000 donation to support our efforts.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Our plan is to bring the folks, and dogs, of Martin Archaeology Consulting and Blair Tormey and his GPR back in late March or early April. They will more thoroughly go over the sites where the dogs alerted with both dog searches and GPR. In the interim, we hope that we can secure permission to search some of the other sites we have identified.

Longer term, RAIL has partnered with Cat Warren who has written and submitted a grant proposal to the National Park Service in collaboration with Robin Greubel, CEO of K9Sensus, a nonprofit foundation. The grant will allow us to bring 4 – 5 different HRD dog teams to investigate sites we have identified to give independent verification and model best practices in this type of archaeological work. We hope the grant will come through as it will not only give us funds to continue the work, but help educate archaeologists, geologists, public lands professionals and managers, and related non-profits on this innovative and important work. Cat will be project manager, and Paul and Blair will be expert consultants on the project and RAIL’s, and UNC Asheville’s, own Ashley Whittle will serve as historian on the grant.

The End Goal

Folks have asked us what we will do with the information we are gaining. The first thing I want to make very clear is that we are not digging up human remains. Indeed, we will do no digging at all. Our goal is to locate and identify grave sites as best we can using noninvasive techniques. We cannot conclusively determine that those sites contain the remains of the incarcerated workers who constructed this railroad. Instead, we can establish a reasonable conclusion based on context given the number of potential burial sites and their proximity to known historic sites associated with incarcerated railroad laborers. Once we have located as many sites as we can, we want to put up appropriate memorials. These memorials will not be directly at the burial sites, particularly those on private property, but will be located in public spaces nearby and indicate that we have strong evidence that incarcerated workers are buried in the area. We are studying possibilities but are considering a type of marked trail with an explanatory panel and map of memorial locations at Andrews Geyser.


This endeavor would not have been possible without the efforts of so many generous folks. Of course, we a greatly indebted to Paul, Dari, Blair, Cat, Abby, and Riley for their skills and professionalism. We are also grateful to the folks who possess local knowledge who have shared that knowledge that has led us to likely, and confirmed, sites, especially Betty May and Joe Denny. Historian Jeff Keith was present at all our sessions, offered insights from his wealth of knowledge about the construction of the railroad, and documented the searches by recording insights and interviews throughout the process. The RAIL Memorial Board unanimously approved funding this endeavor and we are so grateful to those who have generously entrusted us with those funds. A donation of $5000 from the Norfolk-Southern Foundation was especially timely and helpful.

When this project began in July 2020, we did not envision where it would lead us. I think most of us believed that once the memorial was built our work would be over. Obviously, such has not been the case and we now have a great deal more work ahead of us. A committee of the RAIL Board is also working on designing and ordering informational wayside panels that will be installed at Ridgecrest right in the Swannanoa Gap.

Folks have been so generous, and we’re hesitant to ask for more, but we could definitely use support to fund additional grave searches and the memorial markers we hope to put up. If you would like to make a donation, please visit our website at, scroll to the bottom of the homepage and hit the DONATE button OR go HERE.

This has been such an exciting experience watching these amazing dogs do their work, trying to solve a variety of historical mysteries, and working with such talented and interesting people. Yet, we need to keep in mind what this project is all about. We must keep in the forefront of our minds the memory of the incarcerated laborers, their incredible work, the brutal conditions they labored under, and their sacrifice. We should also keep in mind the inhumanity, cruelty, and racism that made these workers’ lives a living hell. My 96-year-old mother recently commented to me, “You know we can’t bring justice to these people, but we owe it to them to preserve and honor their memory.” That’s the least we can do.

Blessings to you all,

Dan Pierce

RAIL Board, Chairman

New Article Located in the North Carolina Citizen on the WNC Railroad

“Lost or Forgotten No More: Incarcerated Black laborers that Built WNC Railroad Memorialized”

The Price of Progress in the Swannanoa Gap

The History of the Western North Carolina Railroad on The Waters and Harvey Show

“That’s (Not) My Home”: Music, Racism, & the Railroad’s Arrival in Buncombe County presented by Warren Wilson College



Dan Pierce and Mayor Steve Little on WLOS:

UNC Asheville Brown Bag Presentation on The RAIL Project by Dan Pierce and Ashley McGhee Whittle:

Mountain Xpress Article By Thomas Calder on The RAIL Project:

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