Fear, Force, and Leather: The Texas Prison System&rsquot;s First Hundred Years 1848-1948


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Rusk Penitentiary (1883-1917)

The 50-Ton Blast Furnace at Rusk Prison

As a result of the Army prisoner scandal and the investigation of 1875, the Legislature authorized the construction of a second state penitentiary at Rusk, a town about 90 miles north of Huntsville that was located near a rich deposit of iron ore and the vast timberlands of East Texas. Rusk Penitentiary was intended to solve the problem of housing and employing the white prison population.

At the time, many people believed that whites lacked the stamina to endure the plantation-style hard labor expected of African-American prisoners. The state planned to put the white prisoners to work at Rusk manufacturing pig iron and finished fixtures for state buildings and commercial sale. Depending on their skill level, prisoners would fell lumber, dig ore and lime for the furnace, operate the furnace, or create finished goods.

The new prison was built with convict labor and opened in 1883 with 528 double-occupancy cells. The blast furnace, nicknamed “The Old Alcalde” after Governor Oran M. Roberts, became operational in February 1884. Over the years, a number of contractors operated the iron works at Rusk, but none was able to make the enterprise a profitable concern. Much of the blame lay with the furnace itself, which fell far short of expectations in both quality and quantity.

In addition, the supply of timber was soon exhausted, forcing the state to haul in coal at a cost of $3,500 per day ($80,000 in 2009 dollars) just to keep the furnace operational. In an attempt to make the prison’s iron products more attractive to potential buyers, the state also poured over $530,000 ($12 million in 2009 dollars) into building a 31-mile railroad spur from the prison to the town of Palestine, a venture that became a high-maintenance fiasco.

The financial panic of 1907 caused the price of iron to collapse and sealed the fate of Rusk. In 1910, the state closed the iron works and reassigned all but a handful of elderly or disabled prisoners to farm labor. Overall the venture had cost the state of Texas some $2.3 million ($52 million in 2009 dollars). In 1917, the state converted Rusk into a mental hospital. The Texas State Railroad was leased out until the 1970s, when it became a tourist attraction operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

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Page last modified: February 10, 2016