It's been 80 years since three construction workers died during the lowering of the train tracks in High Point, but Glenn Chavis refuses to let them be forgotten.
Chavis, a High Point historian, will discuss the late-1930s construction project and its importance to High Point — and will pay tribute to the three men, all of them African-Americans, who lost their lives — during a program Saturday at the High Point Museum. The presentation is in conjunction with the opening of the museum's newest exhibit, "New Deal For High Point," which opened Nov. 7.
"Several years ago, I was researching something and happened to find some information about the lowering of the tracks," Chavis recalls. "Then I saw, in The High Point Enterprise, that three black men had been tragically killed during the project, and I'd never heard anything about it before. I wondered why there wasn't any kind of plaque anywhere to remember them."
Chavis' observation led to the dedication of a plaque at the depot downtown in 2009, honoring the three men — James A. Palmer, Grover Sutton and Sam Camp — all of whom died in August 1937. The latter two died when the tunnel they were working in collapsed, burying them beneath huge mounds of dirt.
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"I just can't imagine how one must feel when you know you're suffocating," Chavis says. "It sounds like a terrible death to be overwhelmed by so much dirt, with maybe just a little pocket of air, and then you die."
As part of his program, Chavis will also present rare film footage from the late 1930s that shows some of the railroad project. According to Chavis, the approximately 10-minute film was made by a local man named Walter Williams, who mostly had been filming his family but also decided to record some footage of the ongoing railroad construction.
"I've only shown this film one other time," Chavis says.
The project began in 1937, when the High Point City Council, the Public Works Administration and the Works Project Administration began lowering the train tracks of the Southern Railroad system below street level through High Point.
"When you see the equipment they used — the old-time steam shovels and trucks — you'll appreciate how times have changed," Chavis says. "That was a big undertaking with that kind of equipment. And most of what wasn't dug by the machinery was shoveled by black men. They weren't allowed to operate the machinery, so they did the grunt work, shoveling with picks and that kind of thing."
The project had a huge impact on High Point and its future.
"The lowering of the tracks had a tremendous impact on both the look and functionality of the intersection of the railroad and Main Street," says Edith Brady, director of the High Point Museum. "As we travel over the tracks through downtown High Point today, most of us are unaware of all that went into making it happen. It was quite an undertaking. I think people will enjoy hearing some of the stories and afterwards may even better appreciate how the intersection works today."
The museum's upcoming exhibit, "New Deal For High Point," will showcase the lasting impact of various New Deal projects in the city, including High Point City Lake Park, Washington Terrace Park, Allen Jay Rock Gym, and the Clara Cox and Daniel Brooks housing developments.
The lowering of the tracks will be explored more in-depth with a photographic exhibit in the museum's lecture gallery that will open Nov. 28.