"The Scab Building?"
Texas State Capitol

by Gary Brown

From Singin’ a Lonesome Song
(Republic of Texas Press, Plano, TX, 2001)
Chapter Four

 

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From the earliest days of the Republic of Texas until statehood and even today, Texas has never hesitated to attempt what others considered the impossible or controversial. Sitting at the head of Congress Avenue in Austin, the Texas State Capitol represents one of those "impossible" stories. And while some would say that in Texas nothing is impossible, it may also be true that nothing in Texas is without controversy.

Today the Texas Capitol is the largest of all state capitol buildings and second in total size only to the National Capitol in Washington, D.C. But size is not the only notable story behind its construction. Although completed in 1888, it was conceived in post-Civil War Reconstruction when Texas was rich in undeveloped land but bankrupt in hard currency.

Lack of cash was not a problem, according to Texan politicians who drafted Section 57 of Article VI of the Texas Constitution of 1876 providing for the sale of 3,000,000 acres of land in the Panhandle area in exchange for a permanent capitol building. It was a concept never attempted before: exchanging public lands for construction of a permanent capitol building.

When there was no money to pay the surveying teams, the politicians merely tacked on another 50,000 acres to pay the surveyors.

After a controversy over the exterior stone, a free source of Texas pink granite was obtained near Burnet and Marble Falls. Then another problem developed during construction: there was no money available to hire skilled quarrymen to cut and remove the pink granite.

The solution again was simple—use convicts from the prison system. And thus the controversy.

But the use of convict labor was a concept that did not develop until well into the overall plans for the capitol building.

While the Constitution of 1876 set aside three million acres of Panhandle land to fund construction, it was not until 1879 that a Capitol Board was established and plans initiated for the surveying of ten counties in far north Texas.

By late 1880 the surveying was completed and a competition was announced for architectural plans. In May of 1881 the plans submitted by a Detroit firm were approved. The Capitol Board then advertised for a contractor who would build the state capitol building in exchange for the three million acres of land in the Panhandle. An Illinois bid was accepted and sub-contracted to a Chicago firm in 1882.

By this time controversy was well embedded in the process. Some opposed the dispensation of public land; others disliked the final architectural plans; and still others opposed awarding the construction contract to an out-of-state builder. But overall the process was moving along and it looked like Texas was going to actually pull off the first ever land-for-a-state-capitol trade.

Then the really big controversy hit Austin.

The original legislative directive specified that construction of the exterior of the building should be of native limestone and a railroad had been built from the Oatmanville quarry nine miles west of Austin to the capitol site at the head of Congress Avenue. It was completed in March of 1884. Ten derricks were placed at the railhead—each with a sixty-five foot mast and a fifty-foot boom that could handle up to ten tons of material. Two elevated railways handled the heavy building stone.

But the initial delivery of Oatmanville limestone varied in color and was subject to discoloring stains because of iron particles in the rock. The owners of Granite Mountain quarries near Marble Falls in Burnet County offered the state free red granite and the problem appeared to be solved.

The contractor, however, refused to work with granite since it would be more difficult, and therefore more expensive, to build with. Again, a compromise was reached: Texas would modify the original architectural plans and the state would take care of any "extra cost" by constructing a narrow-gauge railroad from Burnet to Granite Mountain and furnish up to five hundred convict laborers to quarry the stone. The contractor would pay the state for the use of the convicts and provide room and board for them.

And so "breaking rocks in the hot sun" became a reality initially for three hundred prisoners who were to earn for the state 65 cents per day per convict. Only, these rocks were "Texas-sized" boulders of almost metallic density.

The work would be backbreaking and dangerous and trained union quarrymen at that time earned around $4.00 per day. The convict-lease idea at 65 cents per day seemed an excellent choice at the time.

The state prisoners completed the fifteen-mile narrow gauge railroad from the granite quarry to Marble Falls in November of 1885 and room and board facilities for the convicts was established at the quarry.

The use of free—or almost free—convict labor in the quarries, however, was seen as an attempt by the state to undermine free labor and was opposed by virtually every organized labor group in Austin. To further antagonize the union quarrymen, the contractor attempted to advertise for additional "free world" nonunion workers to come to Austin to assist.

Things were looking ugly in Austin at this point. While untrained state prisoners could be used in manual tasks at quarrying the raw stone at Marble Falls, they were incapable of doing the finishing work or the actual stonework on the exterior of the capitol building.

In September 1885 the Granite Cutter’s International Union posted the following question to its members:

Having received information from our Graniteville secretary that it is contemplated by the syndicate who have the granite work, and have the contract for the Capitol Building to put on 200 granite cutters and 100 convicts about November 15, we consider that there is a vital principle involved in the matter, so we lay it before the union for instructions. If 200 granite cutters work with, and teach 100 convicts the trade the probability is that in twelve months time there would be but 100 granite cutters and the number of convicts would be increased to 200, and in two years time there would be 300 convicts and no free granite cutters whatever employed on the job, for if free granite cutters learn the convicts the trade, after the first lot is taught they will be put to teach other convicts, and thus drive out free labor altogether, for we have been reliably informed that the state officials of Texas have agreed to supply the contractors with 500 convicts. The National Union Committee therefore ask the Union what shall be done in the matter.

Question—Shall the National Union Committee issue an order in the name of the Union to granite cutters against working with convicts on the Texas State Capitol at Austin?

The local union in Austin responded by calling a complete and total boycott of the capitol project and warned all nonunion workers to stay out of Austin. In December 1885 the Union published the following notice in Austin:

Granite Cutters, keep away from Austin, Texas, until the contractors stop hiring convicts on the Austin state capitol building.

The sub-contractor said he would hire convicts, scabs and imported contract labor. Granite Cutters of America, show this Great-I-Am Gus Wilke [the contractor], and his employers . . . that free men will not submit to the introduction of slavery into our trade under the guise of contract convict labor, and that you will not teach convicts our trade to enrich these schemers, who care for nothing but the almighty dollar and now seek to degrade our trade to fill their own pockets.

The Austin State Capitol having been declared a scab job by the Granite Cutter’s National Union, granite cutters are cautioned against cutting granite for it before the difficulty is settled satisfactorily.

Boycott the Austin, Texas, Capitol Building.

In response, the Chicago-based contractor decided to break the boycott by importing eighty-six skilled workers from Scotland. The stone cutters arrived at New York only to be met by American union members and a U.S. marshal. Their recruitment, it turned out, was a violation of the Contract Labor Act of 1885.

From the prison walls of Huntsville, Texas to Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland, the use of Texas state prison convicts had created national and international repercussions.

Meanwhile at the Granite Mountain quarry, the prisoners continued to blast and cut the raw blocks of granite and load them for railcar shipment to Marble Falls and Austin.

To mark the first anniversary of the granite contract, a "public relations" trip was planned for members of the Capitol Board and the Texas prison administration. According to the Austin Statesman:

"A splendid dinner was served. There are at present 200 convicts engaged in quarrying and 100 in cutting the stone. There are also 148 regularly paid stone-cutters, making 448 men now at work dressing the granite for use here in Austin. The convicts are behaving well. The stone-cutters are perfectly satisfied. The quarries seem to be alive with men. Huge stones are piled up in every direction."

In New York, union representatives persuaded twenty-four of the Scots to join the boycott but sixty-four continued on to Texas. Their arrival in the capitol led to a federal lawsuit against the Chicago-based company. Since their actions were obviously a violation of the Contract Labor Act of 1885, indictment was just a matter of time, however postponements drug on until the summer of 1887. Meanwhile, the convicts continued working at Granite Mountain and the nonunion Scottish stone cutters kept working in Austin.

The contractor eventually admitted the charges and was fined a total of $64,000 that was later reduced to $8,000 in 1893.

As part of the settlement, the number of convict workers was to be reduced but records during that period indicate that their numbers actually rose to 350 inmates. By the time of the 1887 indictment, however, most of the Scottish workers had departed Texas and there were only fifteen working on the capitol building in May of that year.

As unethical and illegal as it may have been, the use of convict and nonunion labor successfully broke the boycott and constructed the state capitol building. But from the quarry holes of Granite Mountain, Texas to the ship docks of New York City to the worker’s pubs of Aberdeen, Scotland—Texas prison inmates managed to stir up an enormous controversy, even by Texas standards.

Final work began on the dome in 1887 and the Goddess of Liberty was placed on top in February 1888. The capitol was opened to the public on April 21, 1888 and dedicated during May 14-19 of that year.

It proved to be a successful venture for all involved—except the Granite Cutters’ International Union and the convicts who worked the quarries for no personal wages. Texas received a beautiful red granite capitol building and the contracting firm received three million acres of land in the Panhandle.

The land, in the ten counties of Deaf Smith, Parmer, Castro, Lamb, Bailey, Hockley, Dallam, Hartley, Cochran, and Oldmer were developed by a British investment firm into the XIT Ranch (Ten In Texas). In all, some 1,500 miles of land was fenced with barbed wire to contain up to 150,000 head of cattle. By 1913 the cattle had all been sold and by 1929 most of the land had also been sold to individuals.

The total cost of the Capitol was $3,744,630.60 with Texas paying only about $500,000. In 1888 the lands in the Panhandle wouldn’t sell at 50 cents per acre: in 1998 those same lands had a tax evaluation of nearly $7 billion.

The Granite Cutters’ International Union merged and became part of the Journeyman Stonecutters Association of North America in the 1960’s and so far is known has never removed the designation of "scab building" from the Texas Capitol.

But today even the most hardened union worker would probably have to marvel at the beautiful century-old red granite building at the head of Congress Avenue in Austin. Quite possibly the most beautiful public building in America and certainly of world-class architectural quality, it should be a source of pride to everyone connected with it.

Final construction of the building required an estimated 4,000 railroad cars of granite, 11,000 railroad cars of limestone and other materials. Much of that material was furnished through the cheap labor of Texas prison inmates who would never see the building themselves.

But if they could have, probably even they would have marveled at what they had helped create. And a few might have even chuckled at the national and international repercussions they had created in doing it.

 1 Cotner, Robert C., The Texas State Capitol, (Austin: The Pemberton Press, 1968), pg. 33.
 2 Ibid., pg. 34 quoting the Austin Statesman, December 10, 1885.
 3 Austin Statesman, January 31, 1886.

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