The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The County Chain-Gang

By Philip T. Perdue © 1987

Issue: December, 1987

In the early 1920's, all country roads were built by convict labor. When the judge sentenced a prisoner to 30, 60, or 90 days at hard labor, that is just what it was - swinging an 8 pound hammer or pick and shovel building country roads. The advertisement of two convicts escaping on television, wearing leg irons and running off from the guards is making light of a very painful situation. Dragging leg irons over stones all day long was a very special punishment and was reserved for those who were violent. Most of the road gang were "trusties" and were not chained. Further the guard had a pump shot-gun loaded with buckshot, and was not slow about using it. The trusties were quite frequently "long term" - frequently murderers, but they had long before decided the futility in giving trouble. Anything to get the leg irons off.

On Sundays, the convicts were allowed a day of rest and stayed in a bunk-house if the weather was bad. It was this day they had to wash clothes and themselves, usually on a creek bank, under the watchful eye of guards. It was also on this day that a group of good church-people came out in the afternoon to hold a revival for the good of the lost souls. The road lead out Craig Avenue, past Hanging Rock to the camp site at the base of Catawba Mountain; quite a way for the T-Model Ford of those days. The food in the camps had very little variation; dried beans and corn bread, and with luck, a glass of buttermilk if there was a farm close by.

It was at Hanging Rock after the battle in June, 1864 that a federal troop under General Averell was cut off by rebel cavalry under General Jubal Early. The Federal supply train was cut in two and several guns captured. Sixty years later, the convicts were widening this one-lane wagon road up Catawba Mountain. My father, at the time, was working for the telephone company and digging a post hole on the bank of the creek for a new telephone line. He struck what seemed to be a round rock and was having difficulty getting it out of the hole. On finally succeeding, the rock turned out to be an iron cannonball. Some trusties, working on the road saw what had happened, and rushing over grabbed the cannonball away from my father. In this group might and right and if they could get away with something like that, they would. It is this gang of convicts this story is about.

A group from town, usually the preacher and 3 or 4 members of the choir, journeyed out from town in a T-Model Ford to conduct a revival service in the convict camp. The main bunkhouse was a flimsy tarpaper shack, mounted on a heavy floor of timbers and this, in turn, was mounted on huge log skids. Running through the main aisle in the center of the bunk-house was a large logging chain with link 6 inches or more in diameter. This chain was spiked to the floor and floor joist with log spikes. In the back end of the house was a large Burnside coal stove, which was the only heat in the place. There were long slots in the sides of the tar-paper walls that were covered with heavy wire and all could be covered by a board in bad weather. There was a vent behind the stove that was also screened by wire, but usually was not covered. This was the air-vent for the stove in bad weather, and the convicts bunked near the stove had both heat and cold in the winter. There were two rows of bunks along the walls that would bunk 20 men. At this time the bunks were about all full. From the leg of each convict in their bunk there was a light log chain running from a single leg iron to the huge chain in the middle of the floor. This large chain ran through a slot in the only doorsill, outside. This chain was coupled to a beam and teams of mule were coupled to this beam when the bunkhouse had to move along the road to a new camp, usually on a creek bank. The bunkhouse was moved as the road work progressed, up the mountain. Electric lights in the camp were unknown and all lighting was by kerosene lanterns.

Since the road at the end of the Civil War was one lane and steep, a tremendous amount of work had to go to make the road safe for the automobile. Even at that the switch-backs were so sharp that a T-Model Ford had to back up in the turn-around and then go up or down on the next pass. The convicts drilled all the blasting holes by hand, using two 8 pound hammers and the drill "shook" by hand.

Mules, driven by trusties, hauled the rock, and the convicts with pick and shovel either removed the broken rock or put new rock down. There was a rock crusher with a large 25 to 50 horsepower one-cylinder horizontal engine that furnished the power for the crusher. The rotary sifter was run by a smaller engine and a long belt. Starting these engines in cold weather was a real chore; they had small cups in which gasoline was poured. These cups had to be closed before an attempt was made to start the engine, but a great deal of human effort was needed to get the engines running, especially the larger engine. These engines were 4-cycle and everything had to be just right to get them going. This was another heart-breaking task of the camps.

Especially when drilling, the convicts would sing some song to keep in rhythm. Quite frequently this was "JOHN HENRY." It was an unforgettable sight to watch them work on the road, with the guard having his shotgun across his shoulder, or holding it across both shoulders using both hands. There was an old beer keg, with one end broken in, used as a water barrel. A trusty filled this from a spring or the creek, then carried it in the back of a wagon pulled by a pair of mules up the mountain to the road. It took years to build the road across the mountain, but labor was cheap and no one expected miracles in those days.

This road was particularly important, because it led to the state tuberculosis sanitarium in Catawba Valley, the only way to get food and supplies to the sick in the sanitarium. There was a lot of tuberculosis in those days since there was no cure, bed rest and cold mountain air was the only treatment. There were regular church services at the sanitarium, but a lot of the patients died. When the patients were most ill, they ran a high fever and looked the best, with high color in their cheeks. The first telephone line built in Craig County was from Salem to Catawba Sanitarium.

The preacher and choir finally made the journey out from town and the little group got out of the Ford and made their way to the tarpaper bunkhouse. They all gathered at one end next to the door, and a guard-with-shotgun sat on the floor facing the prisoners in their bunks. The preacher opened his bible and began to read - usually about the sheep that had gone astray. The convicts didn't pay too much attention to the sermon usually, waiting quietly for the singing to start. There wasn't much music in their lives, except what they made themselves and gospel singing was a special treat. But after awhile, one of the choir members would take out an old harmonica and strike a chord. They would begin a revival tune, like "Let The Lower Lights Be Burning," "The Old Rugged Cross," "Shall We Gather At The River," "When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder," or similar tunes. These were selected gospel that almost everyone knew and had a lot of harmony; guaranteed floor-stomping, amen-saying, revival tunes. Almost immediately they would be joined by the blacks with a rich bass or deep baritone. Then slowly there would be tenors joining in - Lonely mountain boys, with mournful, blues-sounding, notes of men in trouble far from their mountain home. The singing would grow in volume as many joined in until the thin walls of the shack would just vibrate. Finally, the singing would be finished and the preacher would give a closing benediction. Then the preacher and choir would climb back into the T-Model Ford, their religious work done, and drive down the creek back to town.