The company took advantage of advanced film production technology (for 1939) to create a visually impressive film. Add great hokey acting. You can guess what’s left of Nick Makaroff by the time Westinghouse has its way with the dour lefty art teacher. Don’t miss the dishwashing contest between Mrs. Modern and Mrs. Drudge. Take note of Electro, the smoking robot, who resembles a seven-foot tall cell phone.
Jim Treadway, the young industrialist, is grating from the get-go if you ask me, but Westinghouse intends him to be the hero in this 1939 propaganda piece. At one point Jim intones:
[In the future] industry will make so many jobs there won’t be enough people to fill ‘em.
This drama illustrates the contribution of free enterprise, technology, and Westinghouse products to the American way of life. The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair pits an anti-capitalist bohemian artist boyfriend against an all-American electrical engineer who believes in improving society by working through corporations. The Middletons experience Westinghouse's technological marvels at the Fair and win back their daughter from her leftist boyfriend.
Westinghouse Building at the New York World's Fair
In the end, what I learned from this movie was that the only thing different back in 1939 was that the guys had wide lapels on their suit jackets.
Or as young Bud Middleton put it in his aw-shucks way:
OH, BOY! THE JACKPOT! ELECTRICITY HERE I COME!
And that's what you'll be saying, too, when you drink the Westinghouse Kool-Aid poured out by this film.
In the following segment, Nick the commie is pouting. But hang on, three minutes into the clip comes the famous dishwashing contest. Nick comes back with a good line:
There's nothing funny about the tools of capitalism.
All the way, it was a battle of free-market-capitalism versus socialism... a lot like today:
Stupid Robot Tricks, Courtesy of Westinghouse:
Regarding robots, look how far we've come from 1939 New York to 2006 Japan:
Each age considers itself the pinnacle & final triumph above all eras that have gone before. In our time many believe that the human race has reached the ultimate in material and social development; others, that humanity shall march onward to achievements splendid beyond the imagination of this day, to new worlds of human wealth, power, life, and happiness. We choose, with the latter, to believe that men will solve the problems of the world, that the human race will triumph over its limitations and its adversities, that the future will be glorious. TO THE PEOPLE OF THAT FUTURE WE LEAVE THIS LEGACY – From “The Book of Record of the Time Capsule…”
The people in this photograph are gazing with awe upon the Westinghouse Time Capsule created for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.
Viewing this photo, my immediate reaction is that it's a bomb, which would only make sense given the subsequent role of Westinghouse in the nuclear industry (years later).
Anyhow, if I had "THE" bomb and thought I might use it, I’d inscribe it with the caption from the picture:
“The envelope for a message to the future begins its epic journey.”
Westinghouse was not content to simply bury a durable container with hopes that humans would dig it up in the A.D. 6939.
The company also published a sort of user’s guide for finding and deciphering the capsule and its contents.
Hundreds of libraries and other repositories around the world received copies of “The book of record of the time capsule of cupaloy, deemed capable of resisting the effects of time for five thousand years, preserving an account of universal achievements, embedded in the grounds of the New York World's fair, 1939"
Thanks, again, to the Prelinger Archives for making it possible to consult this volume online -
Five thousand years ago, during a period of invention, development, and science rivaling that of our day, re corded history began. It would be pleasant to believe that we might leave records of our own day for five thou sand years hence; to a day when the peoples of the world will think of us standing at history's midpoint….
We pray you therefore, whoever reads this book, to cherish and preserve it through the ages, and translate it from time to time into new languages that may arise after us, in order that knowledge of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy may be handed down to those for whom it is intended. We likewise ask: let the Time Capsule rest in the earth until its time shall come; let none dig it up for curiosity or for any other reason. It is a message from one age to another, and none should touch it in the years that lie between.
The book discusses in some detail the measures taken to create a capsule that would withstand the elements for fifty centuries, and proudly proclaims that geeks are cool (in case the Future might want to know):
Our engineers & inventors have harnessed the forces of the earth and skies and the mysteries of nature to make our lives pleasant, swift, safe, and fascinating beyond any previous age. We fly faster, higher, and farther than the birds.
On steel rails we rush safely, behind giant horses of metal and fire. Ships large as palaces thrum across our seas. Our roads are alive with self-propelling conveyances so complex the most powerful prince could not have owned one a generation ago; yet in our day there is hardly a man so poor he cannot afford this form of personal mobility.
Over wires pour cataracts of invisible electric power, tamed and harnessed to light our homes, cook our food, cool and clean our air, operate the machines of our homes & factories, lighten the burdens of our daily labor, reach out and capture the voices and music of the air, & work a major part of all the complex magic of our day.
We have made metals our slaves, and learned to change their characteristics to our needs. We speak to one an other along a network of wires and radiations that en mesh the globe, and hear one another thousands of miles away as clearly as though the distance were only a few feet.
We have learned to arrest the processes of decay; our foods are preserved in metal or frost and by these means we may have vegetables and fruits in any season, delicacies from foreign lands, and adequate diet anywhere. All these things, and the secrets of them, and some thing about the men of genius of our time and earlier days who helped bring them about, will be found in the Time Capsule.
Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs" started playing in my head when I read that.
But I reckon a little hubris never hurt anybody.
Or as old Ozymandias said,
"READ 'EM AND WEEP."
No, it was "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" *
It is possible to apply too much planning to any situation and that might be the case with the Westinghouse Time Capsule. I hope some surprises are awaiting the people of 6939 when they open it, but the contents are so thoroughly documented that I’m afraid the big day will be anti-climactic.
With their finely tuned powers of foresight, the writers of this book anticipated the evolution and fading away of the English language as we know it, and so included
A KEY TO THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE DR. JOHN P. HARRINGTON ETHNOLOGIST, BUREAU OF ETHNOLOGY SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
I’m not sure how instructions written in English are expected to help some future someone resurrect the dead language of English, but that’s why I’m not employed by the Smithsonian and Dr. Harrington was. And so, the ethnologist devotes several pages to diphthongs and the vocabulary of high-frequency English.
Leaving nothing to chance, the book also features directions for finding metallic objects underground. SHERWIN KELLY, CHAIRMAN of the COMMITTEE ON GEOPHYSICAL METHODS OF EXPLORATION, AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF MINING AND METALLURGICAL ENGINEERS seems to acknowledge that his chapter could be a mild affront to the intelligence of an advanced civilization five millennia hence:
THOUGH in all probability methods more sensitive than any we have today will be employed in the future to seek for metallic bodies beneath the earth, it is possible, too, that this will become a lost art. It is therefore suggested that the Time Capsule may be discovered by detecting the secondary electromagnetic field induced in it by a strong primary electrical field created at the surface of the ground.
He proceeds to explain how to accomplish the task. After flipping through a few more helpful pages of technological how-to, I reached:
MESSAGES FOR THE FUTURE FROM NOTED MEN OF OUR TIME
IN ORDER that peoples who live long after us may see our world somewhat as we see it, and understand at least some of the viewpoints of our contemporary world, three men, chosen for their high reputation among us, have summed up in their own words the strengths and weaknesses of our age, pointed out the discernible trends of human history, & envisioned something of the future.
Now, I like this. I have imagined what I might write in a letter to the future, but decided I really wouldn’t have anything to say. But that wasn’t a problem for the three men of high reputation.
ROBERT A. MILLIKAN, the physicist who first isolated and measured the electron, wrote:
At this moment, August 22, 1938, the principles of representative ballot government, such as are represented by the governments of the Anglo-Saxon, French, and Scandinavian countries, are in deadly conflict with the principles of despotism, which up to two centuries ago had controlled the destiny of man throughout practically the whole of recorded history.
If the rational, scientific, progressive principles win out in this struggle there is a possibility of a warless, golden age ahead for mankind. If the reactionary principles of despotism triumph now and in the future, the future history of mankind will repeat the sad story of war and oppression as in the past.
Next, the German novelist Thomas Mann:
We know now that the idea of the future as a "better world" was a fallacy of the doctrine of progress. The hopes we center on you, citizens of the future, are in no way exaggerated. In broad outline, you will actually resemble us very much as we resemble those who lived a thousand, or five thousand, years ago.
Among you too the spirit will fare badly it should never fare too well on this earth, otherwise men would need it no longer. That optimistic conception of the future is a projection into time of an endeavor which does not belong to the temporal world, the endeavor on the part of man to approximate to his idea of himself, the humanization of man.
What we, in this year of Our Lord 1938, understand by the term "culture" a notion held in small esteem today by certain nations of the western world is simply this endeavor. What we call the spirit is identical with it, too. Brothers of the future, united with us in the spirit and in this endeavor, we send our greetings.
Albert Einstein posted the third message:
OUR time is rich in inventive minds, the inventions of which could facilitate our lives considerably. We are crossing the seas by power and utilize power also in order to relieve humanity from all tiring muscular work. We have learned to fly and we are able to send messages and news without any difficulty over the entire world through electric waves.
However, the production and distribution of commodities is entirely unorganized so that everybody must live in fear of being eliminated from the economic cycle, in this way suffering for the want of everything. Further more, people living in different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so that also for this reason anyone who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror. This is due to the fact that the intelligence & character of the masses are incomparably lower than the intelligence and character of the few who produce something valuable for the community.
I trust that posterity will read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority.
Current view of the marker for the 1938 time capsule.
As I said, I’ve never seen a book quite like this one. But in case all copies of the book are gone by then, I should include one more useful passage for the people of the year 6939 AD:
The Time Capsule was deposited fifty feet deep in the earth on the site of the building of the Westinghouse Company, on the grounds of the New York World's Fair 1939, by A. W. Robertson, chairman of the Board of Directors of the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, at 12 o'clock noon, September 23, 1938, the exact moment of the autumnal equinox of that year,
WHEN the time has come to dig for the Time Capsule, look for it in the area known as the Flushing Meadows, Borough of Queens, New York City, on the site of the New York World's Fair 1939. ____
*I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear: `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away".
Last time, E. B. White took uson “The Road to Tomorrow” -past the chimney pots of Queens to the trylon and perisphere of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Philip Liebson retraced that journey in “Transformations” :
The Fair was set in what had previously been a marshland covered by mountains of ashes, with rat-infested garbage and debris with a perpetual fire wafting smoke eastward to the nearby town of Flushing – transformation indeed!
An excellent description of the ash heap was provided in Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, on his way to visit Daisy while rolling from the Plaza through Queens. It was “a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes can take the form of houses and chimneys and rising smoke, and finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-gray men…”
The idea of the Fair, planning the World of Tomorrow, was based upon the concept that the future could be controlled with adequate planning. The basis of the Fair was the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inaugural on Wall Street, and not a small factor, to bring revenue to New York at a time of a post-depression slump, although it was planned as early as 1934.
Watch the Kodachrome home movies of that exposition and you might be struck by the unabashed celebration of pulchritudinous flesh along with the technology. But why should anyone be surprised by that? The Great American Future depicted in 1939 is, in many ways, precisely the America we occupy today.
The Fair might have intended some educational, cultural, and brotherhood-of-man uplift for the masses, but it was also a platform for some serious corporate hype, such as Futurama, GM’s hellish vision (now largely realized) of a whole continent sacrificed on the altar of Asphalt.
And nothing goes better with corporate hype than a little Hoochie Coo. True in 1939. True today.
Along with the miracles of nylon and Smell-a-Vision, along with the revelation of a perfect future on one vast freeway, fairgoers were treated to more immediate and visceral wonders.
Scantily-clad “Sun Worshippers” in their see-through brassieres cavorted and danced outdoors.
Topless models in the Jack Sheridan Show posed in living recreations of magazine covers.
Then there was Le Danse Barebareic (starting about twenty seconds into this reel):
A word about the film – these amateur-shot color movies of the 1939 World’s Fair are (mostly) from the Prelinger Archive. The Medicus collection alone runs several hours, with candid silent movies (in Kodachrome!) filmed throughout the “World of Tomorrow.”
When I see old crowd scenes, I try to figure out if or how those people were different from us. I can never decide.
The most disturbing thing about the Fair images borrowed for a Youtube music video is that the women sometimes look like restless animals caged in a zoo.
If not for these old films, I might not have believed it.
E. B. White did say that in some exhibits, a sheet of glass separated the performers from the “sailors” – to use White’s term.
The Bendix Lama Temple was among the many bizarre spectacles of the 1939 Fair:
The building was a reproduction of a 1767 Buddhist temple in Jehol, China. The replica was built in 1930 and in 1933 was transported, piece by piece, to Chicago Century of Progress International Exposition at the behest of watch magnate Hugo Vincent Bendix. Sven Hedin, Bendix's explorer contact in China, was unable to find an actual temple or pagoda to purchase and move to the States. So instead, Hedin proposed to build a replica and ship it across the Pacific.
Bendix Lama Temple
That way they could easily claim the building had been transported, piece-by-piece from China, and by that claim infer it was the genuine thing, instead of having to outright call it a duplicate from the start. Inside, the "finest existing example of Chinese Lama architecture" displayed Tibetan art, relics and interior decorations as part of a "working Chinese village" demonstration.
The temple was also the venue for a popular girlie show. A 19-year-old barker named Herbert I. Taffae delivered the following spiel to attract dance fans:
It might sound strange and a trifle incongruous having lovely girls in front of the million dollar temple of Jehol whose gold leaf roof you can see over the top of this façade, but the fact is that we have a girlie show in here and a good one.
The author of the book, Forbidden Tibet, Horizon Hunters and technical advisor of the picture, Lost Horizon, he doesn’t want his good name associated with this scandalous enterprise as brought back from the land of the lost horizon, those Terpsichordion aphrodisiacs, the love temptation dancers from the lamaseries of Tibet.
A lama is a Buddhist priest and as such he must remain celibate. He must be deaf to the calls of the flesh, immune to the pangs of passion, and adverse to the charms of beautiful women. In other words he must not marry or anything.
Once each year he is given a test. The questions of which are the unquestionable figures of questionable young ladies, courtesans brought from the outside world to corrupt the young lama and seduce him from his holy way of life.
Now ladies, this show has been approved by Good Housekeeping, but in case a stray moron seeking a racy spicy girl show is in this otherwise obviously intellectual audience, he too can go in there and not know the difference, but you, you lovers of art will surely recognize this show to be the apogee of oriental choreography.
The whole thing rises to a climax when Sasha and her hilarious horde of vivacious vestal virgins unite in that unclad climax, that orgiastic ecstasy at the tail end of our performance, the passion dance of love. It’s terrific. Now once inside sit down as long as you like and admire the bare beautiful temple but those beautiful bare forms and they I say are not too formal. Go on right away. This being the first show of the afternoon I am going to cut the price of admission in half.
Now, THAT’S a pitch!
What does all this mean, this odd marriage between the Man of the Future and the Dancing Girl? I could attempt to dissect the utopian misogyny of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but fortunately, I don’t need to. E. B. White deftly addressed the topic in the concluding lines of his essay, “The Road to Tomorrow.”
So (as the voice says) man dreams on. And the dream is still a contradiction and an enigma – the biologist peeping at bacteria through his microscope, the sailor peeping at the strip queen through the binoculars, the eyes so watchful, and the hopes so high.
Out in the honky-tonk section, in front of the Amazon show, where the ladies exposed one breast in deference to the fleet, kept one concealed in deference to [fair manager] Mr. Whalen, there was an automaton – a giant man in white tie and tails, with enormous rubber hands.
At the start of each show, while the barker was drumming up trade, a couple of girls would come outside and sit in the robot’s lap. The effect was peculiarly lascivious – the extra-size man, exploring with his gigantic rubber hands the breasts of the little girls, the girls with their own small hands (by comparison so small, by comparison so terribly real) restrainingly on his, to check the unthinkable impact of his mechanical passion.
Here was the Fair, all fairs, in pantomime; and here the strange mixed dream that made the Fair: the heroic man, bloodless and perfect and enormous, created in his own image, and in his hand (rubber, aseptic) the literal desire, the warm and living breast. -----
Meanwhile, one robot from the Fair stars in the short "Leave It to Roll-Oh"
(Roll-Oh was created by the engineers at Chevrolet to demonstrate the potential of electro-magnetic relays...)
More Prelinger Archive footage from the Fair, including the Jack Sheridan magazine covers and Salome without her veils...WHOSE "World of Tomorrow" was this?
The road to Tomorrow leads through the chimney pots of Queens. It is a long, familiar journey, through Mulsified Shampoo and Mobilgas, through Bliss Street, Kix, Astring-O-Sol, and the Majestic Auto Seat Covers. It winds through Textene, Blue Jay Corn Plasters; through Musterole and the delicate pink blossoms on the fruit trees in the ever-hopeful back yards of a populous borough, past Zemo, Alka-Setzer, Baby Ruth, past Iodent and the Fidelity National Bank, by trusses, belts, and the clothes that fly bravely on the line under the trees with the new little green leaves in Queens’ incomparable springtime. Suddenly you see the first intimation of the future, of man’s dream – the white ball and spire – and there are the ramp and the banners flying from the pavilions and the brave hope of a glimpsed destination. -E.B. White, “The World of Tomorrow” excerpt, from Essays of E. B. White.
Trylon and Perisphere
With the luxury of hindsight, old aspirations and predictions for the Future seem ludicrous or uncanny or both.
E.B. White wrote about his visit to the 1939 New York World’s Fair in a splendid story, “The World of Tomorrow.” What an odd year for a World’s Fair devoted to envisioning the Future: From a flyer for the Fair:
The eyes of the Fair are on the future – not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines. To its visitors the Fair will say: "Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way. Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.
I don’t know where to begin with describing the attractions of this Fair.
Color photography, nylon, air conditioning, the View-Master, and Smell-O-Vision all debuted at the ’39 Fair.
There was the Westinghouse Time Capsule, not to be opened for 5,000 years, (6939 AD). The time capsule contained writings by Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, copies of Life Magazine, a Mickey Mouse watch, a Gillette Safety Razor, a kewpie doll, a dollar in change, a pack of Camel cigarettes, millions of pages of text on microfilm, and seeds of foods in common use at the time: (wheat, corn, oats, tobacco, cotton, flax, rice, soy beans, alfalfa, sugar beets, carrots and barley, all sealed in glass tubes.)
Dalí's Dream of Venus, the creation of famed Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, is the most recent addition to the still-growing list of amusement-area girl shows and easily the most amazing. Weird building contains a dry tank and a wet tank. In the wet tank girls swim under water, milk a bandaged-up cow, tap typewriter keys which float like seaweed. Keyboard of piano is painted on the recumbent female figure made of rubber. In dry tank...a sleeping Venus reclines in 36-foot bed, covered with white and red satin, flowers, and leaves. Scattered about the bed are lobsters frying on beds of hot coals and bottles of champagne.
The General Motors Futurama exhibit looked ahead to the year 1960.
Perhaps GM's understandably autocentric vision of the future didn’t seem so horrifying in 1939:
The look forward to the distant future of 1960 would have been creepy with or without the organ accompaniment. In this saga, GM wins and we all lose. Here's the thrilling conclusion:
Really, I only intended to mention the World’s Fair, but now that we’re there, might as well stay with it.
Quite a bit of silent film footage (home movies shot in stunning new Kodachrome, no less!) is available online, documenting the 1939 World’s Fair. Truly bizarre stuff.
More on that, including a visit to the girlie show in the Bendix Lama Temple, and a last word from E. B. White…later.
“Let the mind be enlarged to the grandeur of the mysteries, and not the mysteries contracted to the narrowness of the mind.” – Francis Bacon
Commuting to work, sometime in the future
You might say we’re living in modern times.
Of course, from their perspective, the people of 1910…or 1010…were also living in modern times. Will those to follow look back on us as quaint curiosities, misinformed relics of the past?
Consider the words of Donald Rumsfeld, Bush-era saber rattler and dispenser of pithy witticisms:
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.
Charles Robert Richet
I only recently found this passage from Our Sixth Sense by Charles Robert Richet (1850-1935), Nobel laureate in physiology:
Very strange, very wonderful, seemingly very improbable phenomena may yet appear which, when once established, will not astonish us more than we are now astonished at all that science has taught us during the last century.
It is assumed that the phenomena which we now accept without surprise, do not excite our astonishment because they are understood. But this is not the case. If they do not surprise us it is not because they are understood, it is because they are familiar; for if that which is not understood ought to surprise us, we should be surprised at everything, the fall of a stone thrown into the air, the acorn which becomes an oak, mercury which expands when it is heated, iron attracted by a magnet, phosphorus which burns when it is rubbed. . . .
Spaceport of tomorrow (from 1957)
The science of today is a light matter; the revolutions and evolutions which it will experience in a hundred thousand years will far exceed the most daring anticipations. The truths, those surprising, amazing, unforeseen truths which our descendants will discover, are even now all around us, staring us in the eyes, so to speak, and yet we do not see them.
But it is not enough to say that we do not see them; we do not wish to see them; for as soon as an unexpected and unfamiliar fact appears, we try to fit it into the framework of the commonplaces of acquired knowledge, and we are indignant that anyone should dare to experiment further.
I always enjoy receiving reports of nearby panther sightings. Here's the latest comment left in response to Panther Watch Update:
Just returned from Pigeon Forge and have been scouring the internet for information on big cats in that area. At around 4:30 am mon. morning, I was alone on the front porch of our cabin. I was listening to racoons tussling in the woods across from me. I glanced to my right and saw a LARGE cat checking me out. I was stunned and honestly, scared to death since I was alone and everyone else was asleep AND the front door was closed.
We locked eyes for about 30 seconds before I started slowly walking backwards to the door. He was not afraid of me and actually turned and looked like he was going to walk away, but he just repositioned himself then crowched down...his eyes still locked on me. I backed my way into the cabin and turned the porch light off and squatted at the door to look outside. He eventually came down through the yard and walked across the porch right in front of me.
The moon was shining, so I could see him and how large he was. He was the size of a Yellow lab that I used to have. He was NOT the size of a big house cat. I have a picture of the spot where he was sitting and I have the image of him sitting there permanently burned into my memory. I would say that sitting in the position he was in, he sat at least 3 feet high. I DID find prints in the area he was sitting and they were about 2 1/2 to 3 inches across. We were staying in Pigeon Forge in a cabin on Misty Lane.
One more thing, while the cat passed by the front of the door of the cabin, I realized that there was a racoon that had made it onto our back porch and was eating out of the garbage can. Could it be that the BIG CAT (cougar?) was actually after the coon?
I wish I knew who to talk to. I BELIEVE I saw a cougar. He was just too big to have been a bobcat.
As I write this, I hear the snarl of earthmovers and chain saws a mile away destroying a farm to make way for another shopping strip. ...The elderly woman who owned the farm had it listed in the National Register, then willed it to her daughters on condition they preserve it. After her death, the daughters, who live out of state, had the will broken, so the land could be turned over to the chain saws and earthmovers. The machines work around the clock. The roaring abrades my dreams. The sound is a reminder that we are living in the midst of a holocaust. I do not use the word lightly. The earth is being pillaged, and every one of us, willingly or grudgingly, is taking part. We ask how sensible, educated, supposedly moral people could have tolerated slavery or the slaughter of Jews. Similar questions will be asked about us by our descendants, to whom we bequeath an impoverished planet. They will demand to know how we could have been party to such waste and ruin. They will have good reason to curse our memory.
What does it mean to be alive in an era when the earth is being devoured and in a country which has set the pattern for that devouring? What are we called to do? I think we are called to the work of healing, both inner and outer: healing of the mind through a change in consciousness,healing of the earth through a change in our lives. We can begin thatwork by learning how to abide in a place. I am talking about an active commitment, not a passive lingering. If you stay with a husband or wife out of laziness rather than love, that is inertia, not marriage. If you stay put through cowardice rather than conviction, you will have no strength to act.
Strength comes, healing comes, from aligning yourself with the grain of your place and answering to its needs. "The man who is often thinking that it is better to be somewhere else than where he is excommunicates himself," we are cautioned by Thoreau, that notorious stay-at-home. The metaphor is religious: to withhold yourself from where you are is to be cut off from communion with the source. It has taken me half a lifetime of searching to realize that the likeliest path to the ultimate ground leads though my local ground. I mean the land itself, with its creeks and rivers, its weather, seasons, stone outcroppings, and all the plants and animals that share it.
I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one; I cannot live a grounded life without being grounded in a place. In belonging to a landscape, one feels a rightness, at-homeness, a knitting of self and world. The condition of clarity and focus, this being fully present, is akin to what the Buddhists call mindfulness, what Christian contemplatives refer to as recollection, what Quakers call centering down. I am suspicious of any philosophy that would separate this-wordly from other-wordly commitment. There is only one world, and we participate in it here and now, in our flesh and our place.
"Settling Down" was published in Sanders' book, Staying Put, Making a Home in a Restless World (1994).
Being a product of the North Carolina public school system, I was never taught about the Labor Movement in America.
I never heard of the Coal Creek War in the coal fields north of Knoxville.
In 1891, the Western North Carolina Railroad was finished to Murphy, NC. That same year, eighty miles away, Tennessee prepared to lease out prisoners to work the mines.
Mine owners had long threatened to hire convict crews if the miners attempted to organize. After rejecting demands from workers, the Tennessee Coal Mining Company shut down the Briceville, TN mine, then reopened it with a convict labor force.
TCMC destroyed several workers’ homes to build a stockade for the prison work crews. “Tensions ran high,” as they say.
On the night of July 14, 1891, 300 armed miners surrounded the stockade, obtained the surrender of the guards, and marched the convicts to Coal Creek where they were put on a train to Knoxville.
Though he had been elected as labor-friendly, Governor John P. Buchanan brought the convicts back to Briceville, escorted by three companies of the state militia. Under the comand of Colonel Granville Sevier (great grandson of John Sevier) the militiamen remained at the stockade to guard the convicts.
Harper’s Magazine reported what happened one week later:
On the 20th of July a body of 1000 miners at
Briceville, 'I'ennessee, attempted to compel the withdrawal
of the convicts who were working in the
mines at that place. The Governor, by' ordering
ten companies of militia to hold themselves in readiness
to march to the place, succeeded in preventing
a more serious disturbance. Five days later the
dissatisfied miners withdrew upon the assurance of
the Governor that he would call an extra session of
the Legislature to act on the convict lease system
authorized bv the law of the State.
-Harper’s, Oct 1891, p. 805
Ignoring the governor, Tennessee’s legislature made it a felony to interfere with the convict labor system.
Tennessee Mining Company camp and stockade in Briceville
On October 31, miners burned the Briceville stockade and seized another stockade on Coal Creek. They freed more than 300 prisoners, provided them with food and civilian clothes. They burned another stockade on November 2 and freed 153 convicts.
Despite resistance from the miners, the state and the coal companies were determined to use convict labor in the mines. Violence continued. When militiamen were shot and killed, public opinion began to turn against the miners, leading to a massive crackdown and arrest of hundreds of miners.
Governor Buchanan was vilified by the coal companies and the miners. His political career was over.
By 1896, the legislature recognized that the economic benefit of the convict leases was outweighed by the cost of maintaining the militia , and abandoned the system, becoming one of the first states in the South to end the practice.
The events of Coal Creek inspired several songs. Uncle Dave Macon wrote and recorded Buddy Won't You Roll Down the Line:
Way back, yonder in Tennesee, they leased the convicts out.
They worked them in the coal mines against Free Labor stout.
Free Labor rebelled against it; to win it took some time.
But while the lease was in effect, they made 'em rise and shine.
chorus: Oh, Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Yonder come my darlin', comin' down the line.
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Buddy, won't you roll down the line?
Yonder come my darlin', comin' down the line.
Every Monday morning, they've got 'em out on time.
March them down to Lone Rock, said to look into that mine.
March you down to Lone Rock, said to look into that hole.
Very last word the captain say--"You'd better get your pole."
The beans they are half done, the bread is not so well.
The meat is a-burnt up and the coffee's black as heck.
But when you get your task done you're glad to come through at all.
For anything you can get to eat--it taste good, done or raw.
The bank boss is a hard man, a man you all know well.
And if you don't get your task done, he's gonna give you hallelujah!
Carry you to the stockade, and it's on the floor you'll fall.
Very next time they call on you, you'll bet you'll have your coal!
Jilson Setters recorded Coal Creek Troubles in 1937:
My song is founded on the truth,
In poverty we stand.
How hard the millionaire will crush
Upon the laboring man.
The miner's toiling under ground
To earn his daily bread;
To clothe his wife and children
And see that they are fed.
Some are from Kentucky,
The place known as my birth;
As true and honest-hearted man
As ever trod this earth.
The Governor sent the convicts here
And works them in the back;
The captain and his soldiers
Are leading by in rank.
Although the mines are guarded,
The miners true and fair,
They mean to deal out justice,
A living they declare.
The corruption of Buchanan
Brought the convicts here,
Just to please the rich man
And take the miner's share.
The miners acted manly,
When they turned the convicts loose;
You see, they did not kill them
And gave them no abuse.
But when they brought the convicts here
They boldly marched them forward;
The miners soon were gathered
And placed them under guard.
Soon the miners did agree
To let them take their place;
And wait the legislature
To act upon the case.
The law has made no effort
To lend a helping hand;
To help the struggling miner
Or move the convict band.
Buchanan acted cruelly
To put them out to toil.
He says he has not room enough
For the convicts in the wall.
He has no law to work them
Only in the pen.
Why should they be on public work,
To rob the laboring man?
I am in sympathy with the miners,
As everyone should be.
In other states they work free labor,
And why not Tennessee?
The miners true and generous
In many works and ways,
We all should treat them kindly,
Their platform we should praise.
The Lord in all His wisdom
Will lend a helping hand,
And if we hold out faithful,
God will strive with man.
He gives us happy sunshine,
A great and glorious light.
He'll give us food and raiment,
If we'll only serve Him right.
Coal Creek Watershed Foundation has the scoop on the Coal Creek War, with a self-guiding tour and much more:
The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture includes an entry on the "Convict Lease Wars":
Throughout 1882 and 1883, convict labor crews were at work in Jackson County, grading the rail bed and cutting tunnels.
At Cowee Tunnel, ca. 1892
Several work camps between Balsam and Dillsboro housed a total of more than 450 prisoners. Rebecca Harding Davis, writing in Harper’s Magazine, described a similar work camp near Asheville:
In a moment half a dozen camp fires started into light, and the gorge swarmed with hundreds of wretched blacks in the striped yellow convict garb. After their supper was cooked and eaten, they were driven into a row of prison cars, where they were tightly boxed for the night, with no possible chance to obtain either air or light.
The fires smouldered dimly, the guards squatted asleep about them, their guns at half-cock; beyond the half-lighted pass the wooded heights rose darkly tier on tier to the steely blue dome where Arcturus burned like fire.
Mr. Morley stood behind Miss Davidger’s chair.
“There certainly is a singular sense of liberty in the breath of the mountains – ‘of old, dwelt Freedom on the heights,’” he said. “Oh? Those poor devils? Following her glance downward. “Don’t be afraid of them. No criminals among them, Chicken thieves for the most part. Petit larceny is punished with virtuous rigor here now. One negro was sentenced to life in Georgia the other day for stealing a mackerel. Before the war he would have had a dozen lashes. But the South must have convict, if not slave labor, to finish her railways. Ham is still kept in his proper place in the tents by his brethren.
Nineteen shackled convicts drowned in the Tuckasegee when their barge capsized near the work site at the 836-foot Cowee Tunnel. Two passengers on the boat survived, guard Fleet Foster and trustee Anderson Drake. At first, Drake was hailed as a hero for rescuing Foster from the river. However, when Foster’s wallet was found in Drake’s duffel, he was whipped and sentenced to hard labor in the tunnel. Prisoner Sam Pickett saved several men and was rewarded with a pardon from the Governor and $100.
The Tuckasegee River near Dillsboro
In response to the accident, the state House requested an investigation of circumstances leading up to the event. After a visit to the camp near Cowee Tunnel and interviews with convicts and staff, an investigator reported no improper conduct. He described prison fare for the workers as “bacon or beef, vegetables, unlimited bread, coffee, and molasses,” but added, “It has been impossible to entirely prevent scorbutic infection,” suggesting that the prisoners were suffering from dietary deficiencies.
Years later, one railroad official recalled a more limited diet:
The standard food was navy beans and corn bread. For Sunday breakfast, there was the luxury of biscuits. Sometimes there was fat pork, cabbage, potatoes, and black-eyed peas. Blackstrap molasses was a treat.
One foreman’s report (that I’ve not verified to my satisfaction) claimed that the winter of 1885 was so harsh that 150 convicts were stranded in quarters above the Nantahala Gorge and that 19 of them died before supplies arrived from Andrews.
From 1875-1892, 3644 prisoners were sent to work on the WNCRR and most of them survived. If not for convict labor, the railroad would have been delayed or, perhaps, never completed. But the railroad reached Murphy by 1891 and it changed everything.
Outside interests were soon extracting timber and mineral resources from the mountains, with little concern over the impact of their activities.
Around the time the Murphy branch was completed, Tennessee sent convict labor crews into the mountains of that state, and the situation exploded. That’s another story for another day, though.
At Balsam Gap
Immediately after the Cowee Tunnel disaster, the News and Observer (Raleigh) published this:
Eighteen Convicts Drowned at Once
A Flat Boat Sinks With Them In The Tuckaseegee River. "A few days since we published an account of the trip of Governor Jarvis to the Western North Carolina Railroad, and gave an account of the operations at the Cowee tunnel, which is near the bank of Tuckaseegee River, in Jackson county. On that section of the road are employed about 200 convicts. Yesterday Lieutenant-Governor James L. Robinson, who came down from his home in Macon county, brought the news of a horrible disaster at the crossing of the Tuckaseegee River, the news of which he received from Mr. W.B. Troy, the officer in charge of convicts on the Western North Carolina Railroad.
" It appears that the camp of the convicts, that is, the stockade in which they are quartered, is on the bank of the Tuckaseegee river, opposite the Cowee tunnel. The river is at that particular point deep, with a current somewhat sluggish as compared with parts immediately above and below, where it breaks into rapids and rushes with the swiftness peculiar to those mountain torrents. The means of ferriage across the stream has been a large barge or flat boat, capable of containing fifty convicts, a rope stretched across being grasped by the hands and the boat then pulled over.
On Saturday, while thirty convicts were being thus transferred, they became alarmed on seeing some water and ice in the boat, and despite the fact that there was no danger, rushed panic-stricken to one end of the boat, which was at once capsized and all the men thrown into the cold river, there deep, though not more than fifty yards wide. A white guard who was on the boat went down with the rest.
A terrible scene followed, as the men struggled to get out, each man looking only after his personal safety. Many of the convicts swam ashore, or after being washed down a short distance reached the bank ere they came to the swift water. Twelve thus saved themselves, but eighteen clasped each other so closely that they became a struggling mass and were all drowned. The guard was taken from the water to all appearance dead, and it was only by dint of great and long continued efforts that his life was saved.
" The gang of convicts at this particular place, or rather section of the road was in charge of Mr. J.M. McMurray. Yesterday afternoon Capt. E.R. Stamps, chairman of the board of Penitentiary directors, left for the scene to make investigation of the disaster, which as, he state to a reporter, fairly appalled him. It was one of those accidents which seem to be unavoidable, and due to the sudden panic which seized the convicts in the boat, which it is said was in no danger of sinking, the water having fallen in it from the rains. Some of the drowned men were found some distance below, locked together in a last and fatal embrace. Many who could swim were hampered by others, who clutched them in a death grip.
"This is the greatest disaster that has happened on the road. A portion of the Cowee tunnel was of so treacherous a character that it caved in on a number of convicts, and they narrowly escaped death. The utmost precautions were used to prevent a repetition of the occurrence, an immense “cut” being made and arched over. The dirt was replaced, and all made secure. The tunnel is eighteen miles from the Balsam mountains, and thirty-four miles from Pigeon River, and is on what is known as the Ducktown branch of the Western North Carolina Railroad.
- News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), January 3, 1883
Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold
I have tried to find more poems from the same steamy canning kitchen as Ted Kooser’s Applesauce. While looking, I did stumble upon recipe poems. Apparently, composing recipe poems is a popular assignment in some poetry classes these days. However, the tradition goes back farther than I would have thought.
Take Sydney Smith (1771-1845). The English writer and clergyman Sydney Smith has been described as “a man of restless ingenuity and activity”:
Recipe for a Salad
To make this condiment, your poet begs The pounded yellow of two hard-boiled eggs; Two boiled potatoes, passed through kitchen sieve, Smoothness and softness to the salad give.
Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl, And, half suspected, animate the whole. Of mordant mustard add a single spoon, Distrust the condiment that bites so soon; But deem it not, thou man of herbs, a fault, To add a double quantity of salt.
Four times the spoon with oil from Lucca brown, And twice with vinegar procured from town; And, lastly, o'er the flavored compound toss A magic soupcion of anchovy sauce.
O, green and glorious! O herbaceous treat! 'T would tempt the dying anchorite to eat: Back to the world he'd turn his fleeting soul, And plunge his fingers in the salad bowl! Serenely full, the epicure would say, "Fate cannot harm me, I have dined to-day."
Social activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) got on the bandwagon with this offering:
Cut smoothly from a wheaten loaf Ten slices, good and true, And brown them nicely, o'er the coals, As you for toast would do.
Prepare a pint of thickened milk, Some cod-fish shredded small; And have on hand six hard-boiled eggs, Just right to slice withal.
Moisten two pieces of the bread, And lay them in a dish, Upon them slice a hard-boiled egg, Then scatter o'er with fish.
And for a seasoning you will need Of pepper just one shake, Then spread above the milky juice, And this one layer make.
And thus, five times, bread, fish and egg, Or bread and egg and fish, Then place one egg upon the top, To crown this breakfast dish.
Doggerel, these recipe poems may be. They did serve a useful purpose for someone unable to read (or even buy) a cook-book, but who could learn to recite a rhyming recipe.
Here’s one more tortured example from the Nebraska prairie:
"When a well-bred girl expects to wed, 'tis well to remember that men like bread. We're going to show the steps to take, so she may learn good bread to bake.
First, mix a lukewarm quart, my daughter, one-half of milk and one-half of water; to this please add two cakes of yeast, or the liquid kind if preferred in the least. "Next stir in a teaspoonful of nice clear salt, if this bread isn't good, it won't be our fault.
Now add the sugar, tablespoons three; mix well together, for dissolved they must be. Pour the whole mixture into an earthen bowl, a pan's just as good, if it hasn't a hole.
It's the cook and the flour, not the bowl or the pan, that 'makes the bread that makes the man.' "Now let the mixture stand a minute or two, you've other things of great importance to do.
First sift the flour use, the finest in the land. Three quarts is the measure, 'Gold Medal' the brand. Next stir the flour into the mixture that's stood, waiting to play its part, to make the bread good.
Mix it up thoroughly, but not too thick; some flours make bread that's more like a brick. "Now grease well a bowl and put the dough in, don't fill the bowl full, that would be a sin' for the dough is all right and it's going to rise, till you will declare that it's twice its size.
Brush the dough with melted butter, as the recipes say; cover with a bread towel, set in a warm place to stay two hours or more, to rise until light, when you see it grow, you'll know it's all right.
"As soon as it's light place again on a board; knead it well this time. Here is knowledge to hoard. Now back in the bowl once more it must go, and set again to rise for an hour or so.
Form the dough gently into loaves when light, and place it in bread pans greased just right. Shape each loaf you make to half fill the pan, this bread will be good enough for any young man.
"Next let it rise to the level of pans--no more, have temperature right, don't set near a door. We must be careful about draughts; it isn't made to freeze, keep the room good and warm--say seventy-two degrees.
Now put in the oven--it's ready to bake— keep uniform fire, great results are at stake. One hour more of waiting and you'll be repaid, by bread that is worthy 'a well bred maid.'"
Twenty years ago I snagged a few plum seedlings from the old homeplace, which was on its way to becoming one vast row of metal storage units. Since then, I've watched the trees grow here on the mountain, but they've never borne fruit. I cast a doubtful eye at the scraggly trees a few months ago and put their extinction on my TO-DO list.
Fresh, organic and sugar-free
My TO-DO list being what it is, the plum trees were assured at least one more summer.
Well, guess what!
They made plums this year. They made so many plums the trees are bent over with the weight of the crop.
The fruit is deep ruby red and ambrosial.
This weekend, I had gathered some soggy plums and also had a gift of fresh-picked wild blackberries, though not quite enough for a pie (my pre-eminent touchstone of summer – fresh blackberry pie).
So, to save these treasures I turned them into preserves.
The whole time - as I preened the blackberries and pulverized the plums, boiled jars in a big pot and lids in a little one, stirred the madly boiling fruit mixture, then filled the jars – I thought there must be a hundred fine poems that speak to this process.
Summer. Fruit. Hot water. Jars. Transformation!
One of my favorite short stories considers fruit preserves. Olive Tilford Dargan’s story “Serena and Wild Strawberries" is in her under-appreciated book, From My Highest Hill (set in early-20th-century Swain County).
There was a time I would have said nothing could surpass William Bartram’s account in the category of "Wild Strawberries in the Smokies Stories."
That was before I read “Serena and Wild Strawberries.”
The story (an early version, at least) is online at Google Books:
But back to the poems. I know they’re out there, musing on the moments captured in jars.
Didn’t Robert Frost write something in that vein?
I’ll find them, but I do remember one poem, by Ted Kooser, that goes…
I liked how the starry blue lid of that saucepan lifted and puffed, then settled back on a thin hotpad of steam, and the way her kitchen filled with the warm wet breath of apples, as if all the apples were talking at once, as if they'd come cold and sour from chores in the orchard, and were trying to shoulder in close to the fire. She was too busy to put in her two cent's worth talking to apples. Squeezing her dentures with wrinkly lips, she had to jingle and stack the bright brass coins of the lids and thoughtfully count out the red rubber rings, then hold each jar, to see if it was clean, to a window that looked out through her back yard into Iowa. And with every third or fourth jar she wiped steam from her glasses, using the hem of her apron, printed with tiny red sailboats that dipped along with leaf-green banners snapping, under puffs of pale applesauce clouds scented with cinnamon and cloves, the only boats under sail for at least two thousand miles
I am not suggesting that the convict laborers on the Western North Carolina Railroad had it that much worse than other prisoners of their era.
A Delaware whipping post
Clarissa Olds Keeler in her 1907 book THE CRIME OF CRIMES OR THE CONVICT SYSTEM UNMASKED recites some varied examples from around the US:
Delaware which has but three counties has no penitentiary, but has three workhouses or jails. Eye witnesses have long borne testimony to the evils resulting from confining youthful offenders in these "schools of vice."
Referring to Delaware's whipping post the President of the Maryland Prison Association has said: It stands out in the yard a relic of a barbarous age and conveys to the mind of the prisoners bitterness and hatred and drives from them almost every remnant of better nature."
What can be more revolting to a human mind than such accounts as the following?
"February 7, 1903:--This was whipping day for New Castle County. Long before the time for flogging the prisoners, trolley cars running to Greenback were crowded with persons who wished to see the punishment inflicted. Many women were in the party.
"Prisoners who stood at the post were doubly punished in view of the biting wind which raged while the flogging process was going on. From the workhouse through the tunnel to the stockade the prisoners were marched bared to the waist. With chattering teeth and shivering bodies they awaited their turns at the post."
The Wilmington Evening Journal of September 26, 1903, describes the whipping of fourteen prisoners at the New Castle prison, when several hundred men and women witnessed the punishment. Some of the prisoners stood in the pillory one hour each. Several received forty lashes each, one of whose whole back was left as raw as a piece of meat. another was whipped while "each blow sent streams of blood down his back." Another "cried and prayed." Another while being tortured by the lash "tried to climb the post and wrenched his hands free from the iron braces." But the punishment continued.
The Wilmington papers reported the whipping of ten prisoners on February 11, 1905, one of the coldest days of the season. Some of the prisoners "were taken from a room with a temperature of 60 degrees to the jail yard where it was 18 degrees" to receive their punishment. One negro received forty lashes well laid on after being in the pillory one hour. A middle aged negro "cried for mercy" as the lashes were laid on unsparingly. "He stole three mackeral to relieve his hunger and ten lashes and a year's labor constituted his punishment." Another negro had been found guilty of having in possession an old heater he had taken from an ash barrel. His skin was "blistered and cracked" from the lashing, and in addition he must serve six months in the workhouse. All were whipped on the naked back.Horse-drawn prison cage that moved from one North Carolina worksite to the next, housing the inmates, ca. 1900Texas which has long been a convict leasing State, has the largest prison population of any State in the Union. The number of felony convicts on hand August 31, 1904, was 3,975. Of this number 2,314 were negroes, 1,851 were illiterate and 1,792 intemperate. Over 700 were under 20 years of age, some being under 15. Nearly one-half are employed on contract force, or in other words are leased to work on contract.
The Galveston (Texas) Daily News, of May 31, 1902, gives extracts from a report of a recent official investigation. The investigating committee declared "the lease (contract) system a disgrace to the State." "The prison officials," said the committee, "are furnished palatial homes, but as a rule the life of a (leased) convict is not so valuable in the eyes of the sergeants, guards and contractors, with few exceptions, as that of a dog. We find that the average life of a convict is seven years. Convicts are shot down upon the least provocation and when there is absolutely no excuse for it.
Convicts are worked when they are sick and disabled, and some have been compelled to work until they have dropped dead in their tracks, yet nothing so far as we know has been done to remedy the evil." The law regarding whipping convicts was "held in contempt" by lessees and guards. "The sergeant whips at any and all times, it is his pleasure to do so." Some of the guards had been retained 30 years "which tends to make them callous."
The full report was withheld from the public.
[ Preceeding from THE CRIME OF CRIMES, viewable online at http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=rbaapc&fileName=15100/rbaapc15100.db&recNum=0 ]
Until I noticed the symptoms of its imminent demise, I never had reason to pay attention to my battery. I HAD already noticed that it was nowhere to be found under the hood of my car.
Proceeding with the assumption that my car couldn't run without a battery, I trusted that it was hidden away safely somewhere.
A normal change of a car battery hardly merits a comment. But this was different.
First step was to remove the left front wheel, providing access to a liner inside the fender. The battery is perched between the liner and the front bumper.
Already amazed at what this job entails, I harbored some mild dread of what I would find in the battery compartment. I could not remember replacing the battery since the car was new 11 years ago. I figured 166,000 miles of accumulated grit and battery corrosion and rust awaited me behind the fender liner.
Much to my relief, it was about the cleanest old battery on which I've ever scraped my knuckles.
Now I wonder if the battery lasted so long thanks to having its own little private room...or was the factory-issue battery really that much better to start with...or what?!??
But here's hoping it is another eleven years before I have to replace the new battery, considering what's involved.
The whole time I was doing this job, I kept thinking that those rednecks who dress up in clown suits and get on the TV every Sunday afternoon could have changed the battery in five-and-a-half seconds...quicker than you could say...
"Stripes but no stars." Convict labor crew on Western North Carolina Railroad near Asheville.
History get trapped in the narratives we apply to it. Take what happened in Jackson County on December 30, 1882. Nineteen convict laborers working on the Western North Carolina Railroad’s Cowee Tunnel drowned when their barge capsized in the Tuckasegee River below Dillsboro.
These days, riders on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad might learn that bit of local lore...and this: "The workers were buried in the hill above the tunnel and their tears still fall from the roof of the tunnel as you ride through."
But there’s another angle.
The workers were prisoners supplied by the state to complete the Western North Carolina Railroad to Asheville and, eventually, Murphy. It’s not much of a stretch to say the convict labor system in the last quarter of the 19th century was a reincarnation of slavery - with certain advantages over the prior system.
In the words of an attendee at the convention of the National Prison Association in 1883:
Before the war, we owned the negroes. If a man had a good nigger, he could afford to keep him; if he was sick, get a doctor. He might even put gold plugs in his teeth. But these convicts, we don’t own ‘em. One dies, get another.
Cheap labor was essential for powerful interests to maintain their economic and racial supremacy. As former slaves and their descendants were sent to prison, often serving harsh sentences for minor offenses, the state faced the problem of what to do with a large group of men and women.
Besides the Civil War, the biggest news story in WNC from the 1840s though the 1880s was the development of the railroad. The war crippled efforts to extend rail lines beyond the Blue Ridge.
At the same time, the state struggled for funds to build a penitentiary sufficient to house the expanding prison population. As early as 1872, the General Assembly authorized farming out prisoners to railroad companies and other public corporations.
When Buncombe’s Zeb Vance returned as governor in 1877, he requested the entire available prison labor force be sent to work on the railroad.
A double tunnel on the way up Old Fort Mountain toward Swannanoa Gap
Soon, hundreds of convicts were building the railroad up Old Fort Mountain. Incredibly, the first locomotive to cross the Blue Ridge didn’t do so under its own power. Impatient railroad office like James Wilson ordered crews to chip away at the challenging Swannanoa Tunnel from both the eastern and western approaches, which required transport of a steam engine to the west side…prior to completion of the tunnel.
As reported in a Salisbury newspaper, November 1877:
“We went up last week to see Wilson’s niggers pull that engine over the Blue Ridge—and they did it.”
The convict crew laid temporary track on the old stagecoach road, pulled the 17-ton locomotive a few feet up the mountain with ropes, removed track from behind the engine, laid it in front, and repeated the procedure over and over and over for hundreds, if not thousands, of feet.
The mortality rate for prisoners on contract was about 10% from all causes. On-the-job deaths were common. Daylight shone through the Swannanoa Tunnel on March 11, 1879 when the eastern and western approaches finally met. On that same day, according to some reports, twenty convicts and a guard were killed by a cave-in at the tunnel.
Getting back to Cowee Tunnel is going to take a while. I already posted this in March, it’s not too soon to hear Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Swannanoa Tunnel:
For this railroad expedition through the mountains, an explanation is in order. I was reminded of the Western North Carolina Railroad while listening to a talk by Robert Perkinson, author of Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire.
Normally, I wouldn’t have much interest in this subject, but Perkinson’s perspective raises many weighty issues, deserving of serious consideration. His book talk and Q&A session is online at:
From the program notes:
Robert Perkinson, American studies professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, presents a history of America's prison system and examines its roots in Texas. He details two different ideologies that took form during the development of the American penal system. The North's interest in rehabilitation and the South's belief in retribution and profit. The author relays that the Southern ideology became the template for today's American prison system.
And from a blurb for the book:
... a history of imprisonment, race, and politics from slavery to the present, with an emphasis on Texas, the most locked-down state in the nation. Sweeping in scope and exhaustively researched, it tries to answer some of the most vexing questions of our time: Why has the United States built the largest prison system in the world, unlike anything in the history of democratic governance, and why have racial disparities in criminal justice worsened over the past two generations, despite the landmark victories of the civil rights movement?
A century ago (1907) social reformer Clarissa Olds Keeler explored many of the same issues in THE CRIME OF CRIMES OR THE CONVICT SYSTEM UNMASKED. From the book:
Prisons were few in the Southern States and as the number of both white and colored prisoners increased, one State after another adopted the plan of hiring out the labor of the convicts until twelve of the States had adopted what is known as the convict lease system. What was apparently designed to be a "savor of life unto life" proved to be a "savor of death unto death" to thousands of convicts.
Southern men and Northern men, members of the United States Senate, Democrats and Republicans, who were leading politicians, members of State Legislatures, wealthy corporations, railroad contractors, and private individuals saw the advantage of obtaining cheap labor and seized the opportunity of coining money out of crime. Millions have flowed into the pockets of lessees, but much of it has been the price of blood.
A correspondent writing from Buncome county, North Carolina, to the Ashville Gazette under date of March 15, 1903, says:
"Where are we at, and where is the society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, that they or the Christian world have never heard the cries from the poor, unfortunate prisoner in the 'buck,' 'Lord have mercy, Captain!' (overseer) and the ringing of the cruel blood stained lash? I have seen white men beaten until their persons were blue, and blood oozing from the Captain's hands in the Buncome chain-gang."
The writer condemns the discrimination made between the rich and the poor, the latter being unable to pay fine and cost of trial he "is sent to the road prison and in servitude pays for his crime, which is but a misdemeanor, and there the lash is administered on the naked back, contrary to the spirit of the constitution in abolishing imprisonment for debt, and the lash at the whipping post."
Another correspondent writing from the same county complains of the "deplorable state of affairs" and tells of the insane, blind, deaf and aged, some of whom are in jails who should not be there.