Utah History to Go
Convict Labor Helped to Build Utah's Road
Change and Creativity
Struggle for Statehood
Struggle for Statehood Chronology
In 1895 Utahns Wondered When Statehood Would Come
A State is Born
Party Politics and Utah Statehood
The Constitutional Convention is Called
Constitution Was Framed in City and County Building
African American Community and Politics, 1890-1910
The Broad Ax and the Plain Dealer Kept Utah's African Americans Informed
Clarence E. Allen Was Utah's First Congressman
How Utah Lost One of Its U.S. Senate Seats in 1899
Salt Lake Native Was Interred in the Kremlin Wall
The Shooting of Arthur Brown, Ex-Senator From Utah
Convict Labor Helped to Build Utah's Road
Strawberry Valley, 1st Federal Reclamation Project
Women's Suffrage in Utah
Woman Suffrage Dominated Politics in Utah
Kanab Residents Chose Women to Run Their Town, 1912
Ruth May Fox, Forgotten Suffragist
Soren Hanson's "House That Eggs Built"
Utah Arts Council
Utah State Historical Society
The Beginning of Public Support For Libraries
The Pasta King of the Mountain West
Celebrating the New Year in Salt Lake's Chinatown
Electrifying Utah-Engineer Lucien L. Nunn
A Brewer-Sportsman's Prairie Style Home in Ogden
Saltair Village Was a Unique Place to Live
Boxing Fans Take the Plunge at Saltair
Castilla Hot Springs Attracted Many Visitors
Minstrel Shows
Utah State Capitol
Utah in the Spanish American War
Captain Richard W. Young and Spanish-American War
A Soldier's Life at Fort Douglas in the Early 1900's
Methodist Women Missionaries Worked Hard in Utah
Flour Mills
Guano Sifters on Gunnison Island
The Lehi Beet Sugar Factory
The Salt Industry Was One of the First Enterprises
From Free Salt to a Major Industry
Hospitals and Health Crazes in the Late 1800's
The Myths and Legends of Butch Cassidy
Butch Cassidy
Would the New State of Utah Go Metric?
A Look at Working Women in the Early 20th Century
Jobs in 1900
Explosion of Pleasant Valley Coal Company
The Lucin Cutoff
Southern Utah's First High School
Life Was Precarious in Turn-of-the-Century Utah
Salt Lake City Had Its Typhoid Mary
Vaccinations in Wasatch County
Promoting Physical Fitness
Woman's Home Association Tried to Help the "Fallen"
Juvenile Delinquency Posed Problems For Utahns
Traveling Gypsies Brought an Exotic Lifestyle to Utah
The First Large Factory in Utah
The Rise and Fall of Ogden's Packing Industry
Newsboys Claimed Their Street Corners in Downtown
The Bamberger Electric Railway
The First Cars in Two Small Towns
A Bicyclist Challenges the Great Salt Lake Desert
Daredevils of the Sky-Early Aeronauts in Utah
Ogden Defeats Salt Lake City in a War of the Wheels
Utah's Immigrants at the Turn of the Century
Boys' Potato Growing Clubs
Joe Hill and the I.W.W.
Socialist Women and Joe Hill
A Bit of Polynesia Remains
Justice Zane and Antipolygamy
The Salt Lake Valley Smelter War

Allan Kent Powell
History Blazer, January 1995

The use of convict labor has been a well-established part of America's penal institutions for centuries. Whether doing forced labor on one of the infamous "chain-gangs," working to pick up litter along Utah's highways, or serving as volunteer forest fire fighters in some of the West's most deadly and destructive fires, prison inmates have performed a wide variety of services for the community. Their work has been praised, ignored, and sometimes criticized.

In Utah, the new state constitution drafted in 1895 made unlawful the contracting of convict labor and its use outside prison grounds except for public works. In 1909, thirteen years after Utah became a state, the legislature passed a law allowing the use of convict labor on public road work by prisoners whose terms were less than ten years.

Two years later the legislature removed the ten-year limit and added the incentive that efficient and well-behaved workers could reduce their sentences by 10 days for every 30 days worked. Prisoners seemed to appreciate this opportunity.

These laws coincided with a major road-building program in Utah, and Governor William Spry saw the unpaid work of prisoners as essential in making Utah's road system second to none.

The first project on which Utah prisoners worked was a stretch of road between Willard, Box Elder County, on the north to Hot Springs, near the Davis County line, on the south. A five-acre camp surrounded by barbed wire was established. Each of the 52 convicts allowed to work on the project promised the warden that he would work hard and not try to escape. Still, guards were posted at regular intervals, probably as much to keep the curious citizens out as to keep the prisoners in. Four men did try to escape and one succeeded.

Convict labor on the Willard experiment amounted to 6,503 man-days worked. With wages at $2.25 a day for regular laborers, the state saved $14,631.75 by using the convicts.

Not all Utahns thought the use of convict labor a good idea. At a rally held in Liberty Park on July 2, 1911, more than 500 dissenters listened as speakers argued that the use of convict labor took potential jobs away from the unemployed. Responding to such criticism later, Governor Spry denied that the use of convict labor took jobs from other workers; rather, since the convicts received no wages, only a reduction in their sentences, their work was a bonus on top of the state funds already appropriated for road construction.

Convict labor was used to construct roads in Utah until after 1920 but ceased before the end of the 1920s. On one project, prisoners left a monument of thanks to Governor Simon Bamberger for allowing them to engage in road construction and reduce their sentences. The monument can still be seen just off Highway 191 near the Carbon-Duchesne county line.

Sources: The use of convict labor see Virgil Caleb Pierce, "Utah's First Convict Labor Camp," Utah Historical Quarterly 42 (summer 1974): 245-57.


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