Labor Day offers an opportunity for Etowah folks to consider whose labor it was that built Etowah.

If asked that question, most of us would say, “The L&N Railroad.” But that is not the complete answer.

It’s true, the L&N designed the town and rail complex. It’s true that skilled L&N craftsmen like Haywood York constructed the L&N Depot and other structures. But the workers who carved Etowah out of the muddy Cane Creek bottoms were not all L&N employees. Many were what we refer to today as “temps.”

We know a crew of Italians built the L&N Dam at Etowah. We also know leased convicts were brought to Etowah to assist with construction.

The convict leasing system is not one of America’s finest hours. It emerged shortly after slavery was abolished. You could say convict leasing was “Slavery 2.0.”

Here’s how it worked. Laws were made to criminalize trivial offenses to ensure fresh bodies replenished the system. Mostly black bodies. For example, vagrancy statutes made it a crime to not have a job or to not be able to show proof of employment.

We know convicts leased from a Georgia prison helped build the Old-Line Railroad. Loy Williamson, whose family has lived in Turtletown for generations, wrote about it.

One of Loy’s ancestors was a young boy at the time. The child was frightened when hissing engines approached their farm, led by black men building track ahead of the powerful machinery. The youngster had never seen steam powered equipment. And he had never seen a black man.

Frank McKinney, longtime editor for the “Etowah Enterprise,” shared with me the stories passed down to him from his family about the convicts who worked on the Old-Line. Frank said, “If a convict gave the foreman a problem, the convict was likely knocked in the head and buried alongside the tracks.”

At one point, the company building the Old-Line ran out of money, so they sub-leased the convicts out to copper companies to cut timber. How ironic is it that the convicts had to solve the cash flow problem for the “so-called” business people?

I have never run across information about the conditions of the convicts who worked at Etowah. But this week, I stumbled across a dissertation by Aaron Kyle Reynolds that gob-smacked me. It’s titled “A long quavering chant: Peonage labor camps in the rural-industrial South 1905-1965.”

“Peonage” refers to the use of laborers bound in servitude because of debt or incarceration. After the Civil War, the peonage system was employed widely, mostly at railroad construction sites, lumber operations, turpentine camps and plantations. The system thrived into the 20th century by taking advantage of immigrants, African Americans and poor whites.

The section of the Reynolds dissertation that caused me to bolt upright was the description of a 1906 L&N Railroad construction camp that was probably located at Vonore. L&N construction at Etowah was underway at the same time.

There were two L&N camps at Vonore — one for black workers and one for whites. The men at both camps were basically prisoners held under armed guard. Those who tried to escape were shot.

Since the camp was wedged between the Little Tennessee River and the tracks, most did not try to leave. The firsthand accounts of what took place there were taken from testimony given to the U.S. Department of Justice as part of its investigation into abusive peonage. Following is an excerpt:

“… that summer (1906) nearly all the workers were under guard and could not leave the camp without a pass, and they can’t get a pass until they are out of debt. Sanders witnessed Martin Condon strike Ed Forney with a pickaxe handle, forcing him to the ground and breaking Forney’s back so that he could not get up and walk. When officials asked one worker if he’d seen Condon mistreating men in the camp, he replied ‘Condon beat up people there and they moaned and groaned like anything … especially ‘Slim’ … when he got through beating him it looked like his arm was broken and his head was bleeding.’ When the official asked what Condon was beating him for, the man replied ‘he was beating all the men out to the cut (that) morning.’”

There is more. And it’s equally horrific. You can find it online if you are interested.

After I read it, I started poking around on the Tennessee State Library & Archives website. I found three 1906 photographs of a L&N Railroad Camp that is identified as being at McGhee Station, an area that is part of Vonore.

McGhee Station is listed on old railroad timetables as south of Greenback and north of Tellico Junction. The men in the photos appear to be black. It’s very likely the camp described in the Reynolds dissertation.

Think about it. The events described in US Department of Justice records came from people who were present at the L&N construction camp at Vonore in 1906. The same time L&N construction was winding down at Etowah.

So, do we really know everything about all the people who labored to build Etowah? It’s something to think about on a Labor Day Weekend.

Linda Caldwell is the former executive director of the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association. She has served on numerous regional, state, and national boards for organizations that focus on history, preservation, community arts, and rural economic development. She can be reached at lindacaldwell1942@gmail.com

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