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The Waddell street quarry site represents the history of urban development and the convict lease system in Athens, Georgia. Here at the intersection of Waddell Street and South Newton Street, the land slopes downward on either side. This large depression in the ground marks the approximate location of the Waddell Quarry, which first opened in 1899. A quarry is an excavation or a pit in the ground from which building materials are obtained by cutting or blasting stone from the ground. This particular quarry was used to obtain the building material for the first paved roads in Athens. The city engineer at the time, J.W. Barnett, likely leased convict laborers from the notorious Colonel James Smith of Smithonia to build these roads. Convict labor was a labor system in which the state sold the work of convicted criminals to landowners and local governments to work agriculture and build infrastructure. The first convict labor transaction occurred in 1868 and the system lasted until 1908 when progressive legislation outlawed the practice because of inhumane treatment.


  • Photograph of rock crusher (or steam roller) at the Athens Rock Quarry, Athens, Clarke County, Georgia 1900.
  • Photograph of man who may be Ben Epps with a motorcycle built by him,  Athens, Clarke County, Georgia, ca. 1900-1910
  • Map of Georgia Showing Distribution of Granite Areas and Location of Granite Quarries (circa 1902)

If you have ever biked, run, or walked the streets of Athens, Georgia, then you will remember the intimidating collection of hills that sprinkle the city. Not all of these hills are natural to the area. Some of these hills resulted from man-made construction and land development. Hills and roads in Athens provide evidence of the violent history of convict labor lurking beneath the surface of this mid-sized college town. Near the intersection of Waddell Street and South Newton Street, the land slopes downward on either side. These slopes create two more hills in the neighborhood. This large depression in the ground marks the approximate location of the Waddell Quarry, which first opened in 1899. Today, the Special Collections Library of Georgia, the Weir Neighborhood and a Holiday Inn Express cover the partially-filled quarry. A quarry is an excavation or a pit in the ground from which building materials are obtained by cutting or blasting stone from the ground. This particular quarry was used to obtain the building material for the first paved roads in Athens. The Waddell street quarry site marks both the history of urban development and the exploitation of convict laborers during the early twentieth century.

The city engineer at the turn of the century, J.W. Barnett, leased convict laborers to build the roads in Athens. Barnett bought bricks from the notorious Colonel James Smith of Smithonia who profited off of subleasing convicts. We know that convict chain gangs paved 57.2% of local roads by 1914. Therefore, Barnett likely leased convicts from Smith as well. Smith's convict camps were rumored to have terrible living conditions. Dr. Willis F. Westmoreland, the Principle Physician of the Penitentiary, recorded an outbreak of measles and evidence of scurvy in 1883. Laborers were frequently whipped and dogs were kept on the property to hunt down escapees. There is no direct documentation that Colonel Smith’s convicts were leased to paved roads in Athens. However, it is likely.

In 1899, the city purchased a steam roller or rock crusher. This steam roller expedited the task of crushing gravel into the roads. The Athens Electric Railway Track stopped inside the quarry to deliver tools and workers. The quarry remained in operation until 1904, when nearby residents complained about dynamite blasting. A new quarry opened on Judge Hamilton McWhorter’s property west of Milledge street in 1906 and remained in operation until 1909.

The convict lease system was a labor system in the South which started during the late nineteenth century. The state sold the work of convicted criminals to landowners and local governments. The contractor was responsible for the care of the convict laborers and benefited from the cheap labor. The majority of these convicted criminals would have been black men charged with vagrancy and other misdemeanors. White and female criminals were also leased under the convict lease system. This system generated significant revenue for both the state and the contractor. The first convict labor transaction occurred in 1868 and the system lasted until 1908 when progressive legislation outlawed the practice because of inhumane treatment and the competition unpaid convicts posed to free white workers. Chain gangs replaced the convict lease system as a semblance of reform, but often included the same standards of mistreatment.

The Convict Lease System originated in Reconstruction-era politics. After 1864, many newly freed black men and women traveled around the South to locate family members who had been sold away. Some freed men trickled North. Noticeably, black women and children also left the cotton fields and took up domestic work. This movement of freed laborers sparked a labor shortage or at least the perception of one. Perceived idleness and vagrancy confirmed white southerners racist views that black men and women were ill-suited to the free labor system. White Southern landowners and Northern legislators disagreed sharply on the means in which to obtain workers for large labor intensive farms and public works projects. The terms of Reconstruction required Southern representatives to approve the fourteenth amendment which guaranteed citizenship, equal protections of the law, and due process of the law to anyone born in the United States, except for those convict of crimes. Convicts were denied the limited mobility afforded to free black labor. John Ditmer, a historian of African American southerners, argue that the absence of “the economic value of slaves as property” increased the abuse of black workers. Convicts were the most expendable of all. The reconstructed South maintained a form of coerced labor through the convict lease system.

During the later years of the 19th century, transportation within the city of Athens relied upon both electric-powered, horse-powered, and mule-powered street cars. Mr. Snodgrass, a business entrepreneur from Texas, chartered the Classic City Street Railway Company in 1885. Mules pulled street cars on rails laid down on Broad, College, Clayton, Lumpkin, Hancock, Pulaski, Prince and Milledge street. Messrs. E. G. Harris and John T. Voss obtained the company in 1891 and converted the line to electric power. Townspeople continued to travel by foot and horse as well. However, if it rained these options were less reliable. Pavement enabled the townspeople of Athens to travel to work and school more consistently. The first paved road in Athens, a section of Broad street leading towards Oconee River, was paved in 1885 in Belgian block. This material provided a better grip for horses on steep slopes. City ordinances in 1889 required sidewalks within the fire limits of the city. A “bicycle craze” among wealthy white Athenians occurred in 1893. A few Athenians built their own bikes. Automobiles were becoming more common into the twentieth century. Bikes and automobiles often collided on unpaved roads.These biking accidents motivated city officials to authorize the paving of more roads in Athens. These roads were paved with macadam pavement which consisted of crushed granite rock rolled onto streets. Significant manual labor would have been required to crush the granite and operate the new equipment.

Though black people did the work of paving the roads. Urban development in Athens bypassed black neighborhoods. In 1909, 30.6% of Clarke County roads were paved, however, roads to African American Athenian neighborhoods in East Athens were not paved until 1967, when the Federally funded Model Cities program finally paid for the work to be done.

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Cullison, Jr. David Charles. “Streets and Pavements,” in J.W. Barnett The Influence of the Architect and City Engineer on the Physical Development of Athens, Georgia 1889 - 1930 University of Georgia, 1995.

Cohen, William. At Freedom's Edge : Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control, 1861-1915. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.

Coulter, E. Merton. James Monroe Smith, Georgia Planter, before Death and After. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press. 1961.

Ray, David Winter. A History of Streetcar Service in Athens, Georgia, and Some Possibilities for   Its Reintroduction. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Masters of Historic Preservation. 2005.

Dittmer, John. Black Georgia in the Progressive Era 1900-1920. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. 1939.

Engerrand, Steven W. "Now Scratch or Die” : The Genesis of Capitalistic Agricultural Labor in Georgia, 1865-1880. 1981.

Georgia Archives. “Photograph of rock crusher at the Athens Rock Quarry, Athens, Clarke County, Georgia 1900.” 1900. October 18, 2019. http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/vang/id:clr097.

Lichtenstein, Alex. "Good Roads and Chain Gangs in the Progressive South: "The Negro Convict Is a Slave". The Journal of Southern History 59, no. 1 (1993): 85-110. doi:10.2307/2210349.

Taylor, A. Elizabeth. The Origin and Development of the Convict Lease System in Georgia. Savannah, 1942.

Taylor, A. Elizabeth. The Abolition of the Convict Lease System in Georgia. Savannah, 1942.

Thompson, C. Mildred. Reconstruction in Georgia. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries      Press. 1915.

Todd, William A. "Convict Lease System." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 13 May 2019. Web. 06 November 2019.

Whitlock, Beth (Finding Aid Author) “Stockade” (page 9 of 1948 Athens City Engineers Report)  Athens City Engineers Collection Misc. Box 10 Folder 54. Athens-Clarke County LibraryHeritage Room. MSS 056. 2018.

Vanishing Georgia, Photograph of who may be Ben Epps with a motorcycle. Georgia Archives, Morrow, Georgia. 1900-1910.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Georgia Archives. “Photograph of rock crusher at the Athens Rock Quarry, Athens, Clarke County, Georgia 1900.” 1900. October 18, 2019. http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/vang/id:clr097.

Vanishing Georgia, Georgia Archives, University System of Georgia

From Granites of the Southeastern Atlantic States, Bulletin 426, 1910. Based on map of Georgia Geological Survey, Bulletin 9-A, 1902. Plate XXIV