Fear, Force, and Leather - The Texas Prison System's First Hundred Years, 1848-1948
Convict Labor and the Texas State Capitol
Convicts hewing the columns for the Texas State Capitol. Prints and Photographs Collection, 1965/89-7.
The old Texas State Capitol building in Austin was already slated to be replaced when it burned down in 1881. Plans proceeded the following year with the construction of a grand new structure, and convict labor was to play a critical and controversial role.
The Capitol Building Commission decided to use Texas stone for the construction and selected red granite from a quarry near Burnet and limestone from a quarry near Oatmanville (now Oak Hill). State prisoners were put to work quarrying the stone. This caused a major blowup with the International Association of Granite Cutters, an organization of skilled stoneworkers. After the union instructed their members to boycott the project, the contractor for the work went to Scotland and recruited 88 stoneworkers to join the project.
In this letter, the secretary of the Penitentiary Board tells the financial agent in Huntsville about the progress at the quarry in Oatmanville (Oak Hill) in providing the limestone for the capitol construction.
The move was a clear violation of the Alien Contract Labor Act, a federal law prohibiting the importation of foreign workers. The contractor was slapped with a $65,000 fine ($1.4 million in 2009 dollars). This fine was later reduced to $9,000 ($205,000 in 2009 dollars). The case received national attention and stimulated a debate about whether convict labor should be used when there were law-abiding citizens ready to do the work.
In spite of all the troubles over the quarried stone, prisoners at the iron works at Rusk State Prison also made a lasting contribution to the Texas State Capitol. The dome, columns, gates, and interior decorative features of the building were all fabricated at Rusk.