Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

Living

February 7, 2012

Bob Bowman’s East Texas

JACKSONVILLE — Over one hundred and thirty years ago Texans celebrated the completion of the Texas Capitol in Austin.

But, as in past observances, there was little acknowledgment of the role that East Texas, especially the town of Rusk, played in the capitol’s completion.

East Texans who visit the capital may guess that some of its woodwork came from East Texas forests, but they rarely realize that the iron staircases and mammoth columns were produced by Texas convicts housed in the old State Penitentiary at Rusk (now a hospital for the mentally ill).

Thanks to a master’s degree thesis written by Sandra Fuller Allen at Stephen F. Austin State University in 1974, we have an enlightening account of the role Rusk played in the Capitol’s construction in the late l880s.

A contract executed between the Texas Capitol Commission and contractor Gus Wilke called for Rusk’s prison to produce some two million pounds of structural cast iron items for the capitol, including castings for the principal columns, pedestals and caps, the dome and other ornamental work.

The state earlier built a 25-ton blast furnace, known as Old Alcade, at Rusk with R.A. Barrett as its superintendent. The furnace originally made items such as kettles, sash weights, and farm implements, but was used for capitol iron when Barrett became a consultant for the capitol project.

Transporting the heavy iron items from Rusk to Austin posed a problem. Since horse-drawn wagons could carry less than a ton over unpaved roads, which were impassable in poor weather, the answer lay with the railroads.

At the time, Rusk’s rail connections to Austin were interrupted by an unserved stretch between Alto and Lufkin. Convicts were soon assigned to build 22 miles of narrow gauge railroad to connect the Kansas and Gulf Short Line with the Houston, East and West Texas Railroad at Lufkin.

But that didn’t totally resolve the transportation issue. The convicts’ line was narrow gauge while other lines used standard gauge rails. The difference forced haulers to unload the iron castings from one track and load them on another--a maneuver repeated several times before the iron arrived in Austin.

Some of the Rusk castings were substituted with new parts because of changes is the capitol plans. The drawings of the capitol dome called for cast-iron plates, but galvanized iron from Belgium was substituted because of the weight of the Rusk castings.

When the columns for the capitol colonnade were delivered to Austin, they were rejected by two Building Commission members because of their weight. However, since granite (which had been chosen over limestone for the capitol’s exterior) would have doubled the weight, the rejection of the Rusk iron was revoked and the columns were installed.

Today, thousands of people visit the Texas Capitol every day, While some may recognize that cast-iron was used in its construction, few know the iron was built by prison hands in an East Texas community.

Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 50 books about East Texas history and folklore. He can be reached at

bob-bowman.com)

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