Working On the Chain Gang
Images of Paul Newman and Cool Hand Luke came to mind as I drove down a short Louisa County Iowa highway recently. More appropriately though might be scenes of George Clooney and the chain gang from O Brother Where Art Thou.
That’s because this particular mile-and-a-half stretch of highway was built in 1914, much closer to the time period depicted in Clooney’s movie. Though I don’t believe there were actual chains involved with this prison gang, the highway was indeed built by inmates.
Known now as Convict Road, the concrete-paved stretch begins at the Iowa River in the thriving metropolis of Fredonia, population 244, heading east before ending about a city block’s distance from Highway 92. When originally constructed it curved and continued slightly further from where it currently ends, connecting to the highway through what is now private property (also known as a corn field).
The highway is believed to be the first county highway of its kind built by prisoners in the state of Iowa.
It was constructed at the request of area farmers who often found themselves stuck in the sandy soil underneath the dirt road that previously led to the main highway.
Those prisoners came from the state prison in Anamosa, 65 miles from Fredonia. They were paid 20 cents per hour, about $5.25 in today’s dollars. (Some reports say they were paid as much as 40 cents per hour, but the amount that seemed most reliable to me indicated the 20 cent figure.) During construction they were camped in tents near the site.
The prisoners chosen for the job were nearing the completion of their sentences. I assume that reduced the risk of them trying to escape, though guards and dogs were still on patrol should any prisoner have such a flight of fancy.
The work wasn't easy. The prisoners lacked the benefit of modern machinery we have today. The concrete and other materials used in constructing the road had to all be hauled in on wagons, pulled by teams of horses or mules.
The use of concrete also makes Convict Road unique. The first known use of concrete in road construction in the state was just 10 years earlier and, while a mile-and-a-half seems minuscule by today’s standards, it may have been the longest stretch of concrete-paved highway in Iowa at that time.
The editor of the Columbus Safeguard, the nearby newspaper of the day, even questioned the permanence of concrete as a road material.
“This is the beginning of better road building in Iowa. We are not going to say permanent road building because the materials for permanent road building has, in our opinion, not been discovered. It must be a material less expensive and more serviceable than concrete, with all due respects to the opinion of the Chief Highway Officials of this and some states.”
Looking back now, at $30,000 per mile of construction, it was a bargain by today’s standards. No doubt attributable to the reduced cost of labor. Today, a rural highway can cost upwards to $3 million or more per mile.
And, contrary to what the dear editor might have believed about durability, the highway has held up extremely well and is easily drivable to this day.
In 2017 a committee was formed to look after and preserve the road. Signage detailing its history now welcomes visitors entering from Highway 92, with signs along the main highway pointing to the entrance for anyone wishing to take a little drive back through history, turn north on P Avenue.
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