For the beginnings of many of the roads we ride on today throughout Northeast Georgia, the rest of the state and other states, we, unfortunately, have chain gangs to thank.
As part of their punishment for violating laws, convicts were required to work on roads or perform other labor primarily for state or local governments.
The convict leasing system had its beginnings just after the Civil War when private companies paid the state a half million dollars over 20 years for use of convicts for projects on their property. Prisoners would work on farms and in mines, help build railroads and other hard labor tasks.
The men were chained on each leg with enough room to walk, but almost impossible to run. Some would be chained together to make escape even more difficult.
Working conditions were onerous even though county grand juries were required to inspect their camps. Guards or overseers would whip those who didn’t put their shoulders to the wheel.
Protests against inhumane treatment of the convicts brought about slight changes in 1897, shifting chain gangs to government supervision rather than leasing them to private companies.
Still, those with long prison sentences could be leased by the state to the highest-bidding individual, usually about $100. Hard labor continued for the chained convicts. Movies and old photos show the men in black-and-white striped uniforms usually laboring on the sides of roads or busting rocks into gravel.
It would be 1908 before the leasing system to private entities or individuals would be abolished. As far as conditions were concerned, the convict didn’t notice much change. County guards sometimes were as cruel to those under their charge as the private companies.
In the early 1900s, as motor vehicles began to appear on the road, there was a demand for more improved road-building.
Convict camps would be established near the sites of road projects so the prisoners would not have to be carried back to prison at the end of the day.
Thompson Bridge Road in Hall County is an example of a road that was improved by chain gang labor. There already was a rough road between Gainesville and Dahlonega, but the route has changed and upgraded over time.
In 1913, John A. Smith, supervisor, and A.C. Stringer, warden, were in charge of a camp on Thompson Bridge Road. One citizen described the location as ideal and the camp as “neat.” Springs provided drinking water for the convicts, and another stream allowed them to wash their striped uniforms. Some made it sound as if life was lovely among the prisoners, who at night would strum banjos or guitars and sing songs.
Five guards were assigned to watch more than 40 convicts. The complex also included 29 mules to pull equipment. Dr. J.C. Gower attended to medical needs.
A portable wooden building, which would be moved as the roadwork progressed up Thompson Bridge Road, housed the chain gangs, and tents were provided for the guards and warden. In other areas, convicts lived in steel cages that would move from day to day according to the location of whatever work they were doing.
In 1914, Hall County reported spending $18,487 on chain gang labor. In calculating the number of “units” used in roadwork, officials said they “counted a convict and a mule as one unit” for a total of 77.
Judge J.C. Edwards, one of Cornelia’s first commissioners and a legislator, gets some credit for entirely abolishing the convict leasing system. He served on a committee in 1922 that investigated conditions in the system and eventually cracked down on the use of chain gangs.
While other states, mostly Southern, also used chained prisoners on work details, Georgia’s chain gangs earned a black eye for inhumane treatment over the years. Reforms were proposed and some implemented, but it would be the 1940s before convicts would completely lose their chains. The introduction of road-building machinery during World War II diminished the need for so much manual labor.
Georgia was among the last states to abandon the practice, although in recent years, some states have revived some forms of prison labor. Even in local prisons, some convicts, though not chained, can be seen picking up roadside litter or assigned other chores.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or email@example.com. His column publishes weekly.