“In the 1880’s a budget crunch led the state of Texas to bring convicts in to the area to work the quarry. 8 convicts died while working and were buried in the area known as Convict Hill. These convicts now haunt the road”
– Streets of Fear – Convict Hill Road – FEARNet.
Is There Anything Paranormal or Mysterious About Convict Hill Road?
by SMiles Lewis
In early October of 2009 I was contacted by an associate producer for the online webisode series “Streets of Fear” who was wanting to know if I knew anything paranormal or mysterious about Convict Hill Road here in Austin, Texas. The online series is part of the horror lineup of programming offered at Fear Net dot com that focuses on ultra brief media bytes exploring stories of American streets with really spooky names, such as Bloody Pond, White Wolf, Dark Hollow, Widow Susan, Beelzebub, Gore Orphanage, Hell Hollow, Shades of Death, Gallows Hill, Purgatory, Spook Rock, Burnt Church, Witches Rock, Bloods Point, Tombstone Canyon, Mount Misery, Extraterrestrial Highway, and Bloody Spring. They had contacted me after finding my friend James Bankston whose article in the Oak Hill Gazette had gotten their attention.
I told the Fear Net producer that I was familiar with the road but had never heard of any paranormal haunting stories associated with the road. I said that I would check all available resources that the Anomaly Archives had and would inquire amongst the network of contacts associated with the Scientific Anomaly Institute. I spent the rest of the week reviewing every catalog in the Anomaly Archives collection related to ghosts, hauntings and other folklore associated with supposed weird and paranormal locales. Not a single one in the more than a dozen I checked made any reference to paranormal activity associated with Convict Hill Road. Lots of references to documented haunting encounters at the Texas Governor’s Mansion, Austin State School, Driskill Hotel, and even Round Rock’s crypto-ghostly Hairy Man Road (and its festival which was going on that very week). I told the producer all of this but they were still interested in getting me and James on tape talking about the history of how the road got its name.
The story of how the road got its name is simply a matter of Texas’ historic use of prison convict labor and the circumstances surrounding the burials of those convicts killed trying to escape or who died by other causes. Rumors circulated that those who were killed or otherwise died on site at the quarry were buried there, under the mounds of limestone rocks piled up around the timbers known as dead-men. As my friend James Bankston had succinctly written:
Some men died on the site, while others tried to escape and were shot dead. Eventually a legend grew up that these dead prisoners were buried under limestone cairns on what came be known as “Convict Hill.”
In the 1980s when real estate developers got interested in that area, they found they had to confront this question head-on. We’ve all seen enough scary movies to know that bad things happen to people who build on abandoned burial grounds.
Archaeologists, historians, and geologists were all brought out to see if they could literally find out where the bodies were buried. Soil tests and other methods concluded no one had been buried on Convict Hill, but a study of the historic record did offer another explanation to the mystery.
Derricks had been employed to move and haul stone at the quarry. They had been secured by guy wires and heavy timbers. Since the soil was so rocky that the timbers could not be buried in the ground, they had to be stabilized by heavy piles of rocks.
The timbers themselves were called “dead men,” so it’s easy to see how that spooky name, tomb-sized piles of stones, and notoriously cruel working conditions could form in the public mind this legend that convicts had been buried on Convict Hill.
So, with a name like Convict Hill Road and rumors of buried prisoners who’d been shot trying to escape, the location was bound to generate at least a slight background noise of paranormal speculation, yet the official literature and internet searches for possible paranormal folklore associated with the location seem to be non-existent, aside from this single video recorded by some bored teenagers “investigating” an alleged abandoned house just off of Convict Hill Road:
Despite the lack of official recorded encounters I was open to the possibility that perhaps a visit to the recently created Convict Hill Quarry Park, where I was to meet a local cameraman working for “Streets of Fear” and which allegedly marks the geographic center of the old thousand acre quarry operation, might still hold some sort of spookiness that could tingle my own less than psychically sensitive perceptions. Upon arriving at the park, I discovered a small group of amateur paranormal investigators who were embarking on their own informal investigation of the park. I asked if they had been there before and if they had ever heard any stories associated with the place. The gentleman seemed to indicate that this was so. I believe the man I spoke with was Martin Estrada of Montopolis Paranormal and he was there with a woman whom I believe is the organizer of Latino Ghost Hunters of TX Paranormal Warriors. Once inside I leisurely explored the small acre or so sized last remaining vacant lot along Convict Hill Road. As you can see from the pictures I took with my camera-phone the park is very nice and not spooky at all. There are numerous piles of small, medium and large sized limestone chunks, many with chip marks or bored through by drill bit holes.
After giving myself the tour, getting bitten by mosquitoes, sweating profusely in the still sweltering early October humidity, and falling on my rear end from the tallest mound of rocks, I finally gave my comments to the cameraman. It is a very awkward thing to be speaking to the space beside a cameraman’s head as if there were an interviewer there, let alone having to incorporate the questions they want you to answer into the wording of those answers. I reported the fact that I and my colleagues at the Anomaly Archives lending library of the Scientific Anomaly Institute could find no documented incidents of anything mysterious or paranormal associated with the street, just its interesting history as a probable torturous work environment for the inmate labor and the subsequent rumors of buried convicts. I explained, as did James Bankston, how tales of extreme distress, often associated with tragedies, are generally accepted as the instigators of much paranormal activity. I explained how it could be possible that there are in fact actual stories of hauntings being handed down from person to person, generation to generation, just waiting to be recorded into official catalogs of the paranormal literature. I spoke of the Fortean Name Game and how so often strange and scary sounding place names such as Diablo are given for places with a history of strange phenomena. But of course the editors of this ultra-compressed 2 minute segment managed to squeeze in the one moment where I alluded to the fact that I’ve “been hearing that there is in fact paranormal activity associated with Convict Hill Road.” I was alluding to the general belief in the possibilities of such stories existing as had been implied by the “Streets of Fear” associate producer, by the bored videocamera-wielding teenagers out ghost-hunting and by the local paranormal group I’d encountered just as I entered the park. It’s possible there could be buried convict bodies somewhere under the thousand acres of now surburbanized homes and that the souls of said departed could be haunting the lives of the living but have yet to officially report there plague of poltergeists. However, if such encounters have happened, noone has bothered to document them in any formal way.
As interesting as the possibility of ghost stories or paranormal activity associated with this historic site might be, for me personally, I find the site’s historic value (in relation to Inmate Labor / Texas Labor Strikes – see links below) to be of much more import and interest.
– SMiles Lewis
Photographs from the Convict Hill Quarry Park Shoot:
Further Resources on Convict Hill Road, Texas Labor and Paranormal Phenomena
- PsiOp Radio 91 – 091011 – mp3 (SMiles discusses the Fear Net episode on Convict Hill Road’s history)
Fortean Name Game & Anomalist Resources:
- Wild Talents by Charles Fort (on coincidence and synchronistic relationships of things)
- Mysterious America by Loren Coleman
Devil Names and Fortean Places
- Mysterious America: The Ultimate Guide to the Nation’s Weirdest Wonders by Loren Coleman
Convict Hill – Ghost Hunting
- ” My friends and I looking for ghosts near convict hill road in austin, tx.”
Recent Local News Coverage
- News 8 Paul Edoka Eagle Project at Convict Hill Quarry Park
Historic Texas Labor Strikes:
- One dies, get another: convict leasing in the American South, 1866-1928
By Matthew J. Mancini
- Cowboy Strike of 1883 by Robert E. Zeigler
“In 1883 a group of cowboys began a 2½-month strike against five ranches, the LIT, the LX, the LS, the LE, and the T Anchor,qqv which they believed were controlled by corporations or individuals interested in ranching only as a speculative venture for quick profit. In late February or early March of 1883 crews from the LIT, the LS, and the LX drew up an ultimatum demanding higher wages and submitted it to the ranch owners. Twenty-four men signed it and set March 31 as their strike date. The original organizers of the strike, led by Tom Harris of the LS, established a small strike fund and attempted, with limited success, to persuade all the cowboys in the area of the five ranches to honor the strike. Reports on the number of people involved in the strike ranged from thirty to 325. Actually the number changed as men joined and deserted the walkout.”
- Strikes by Ruth A. Allen, George N. Green, and James V. Reese
“In September or October 1838 the Texas Typographical Association, the first labor organization in Texas, struck the Houston publishers and secured a 25 percent wage increase.”
“Not until after the Civil Warqv did bona fide strikes occur. Those of 1870 were typical. In January of that year, Houston telegraphers joined a short, unsuccessful nationwide strike against Western Union; in April, the Austin Typographical Union suffered a disastrous defeat; in May, Galveston brickmasons struck for a raise but returned to work without it; and in November, the engineers and brakemen on the Houston and Texas Central Railway lost their jobs as a result of a walkout over wages. The first work stoppage involving more than a handful of workers occurred in June 1872, when the management of the Houston and Texas Central Railway began requiring all employees to sign an agreement releasing the company from liability for accidents on the job.”
“The number of strikes increased through the seventies, as the number of unions and labor militancy grew. The peak year until the middle eighties was 1877, when, in addition to numerous small strikes, major work stoppages occurred among dockworkers in Galveston and railway workers on the Texas and Pacific. Both the large strikes were marked by considerable violence. The dockworkers’ strike saw the first use of African Americansqv as strikebreakers in Texas (see SCREWMEN’S BENEVOLENT ASSOCIATION.)”
“The first strike in Texas noted in official records occurred in 1880, when fifty employees of the draying industry stayed out 150 days but were denied an increase in wages. Between 1880 and 1886, 100 strikes occurred, involving 8,124 workers; establishments involved were closed for a total of 450 days; striking workers were out for a total of 708 days each; and the loss due to strikes was estimated at $1 million. These strikes included the Cowboy Strike of 1883,qv in which more than 300 cowboys in the Tascosa area struck for higher wages and better working conditions, and two strikes in Galveston, one of 280 cotton handlers lasting sixty-four days and the other of 150 longshoremen against the use of black laborers lasting two days. The first failed, the second succeeded. One of the most spectacular strikes was the Capitol Boycottqv in 1885. The largest number of strikes was called by the building trades unions, but the largest number of workers involved in any one industry was in transportation. The third largest group involved was the West Texas coal miners. The greatest number striking in any one year was 4,154, involved in seven strikes in 1885. Of these, 1,500 were longshoremen in the port of Galveston, and the major part of the others were in transportation. Additional thousands of Texas laborers joined the national strike of telegraphers and sectional strikes against the management of the western and southwestern railroads. In 1885 Texas ranked ninth among forty states in number of workers involved in strikes (4,000); for the six-year period it ranked fifteenth. Seventy-five of the 100 strikes, chiefly interstate strikes of telegraphers and railway workers, occurred in the year 1886; seventy-four of these were called by an organized labor group. Twenty-four of the twenty-five strikes between 1886 and 1894 were called by organized groups. The most significant were in the coal-mining areas, where industrial troubles were almost continuous from 1884 to 1904. In 1884, for six months, 450 coal miners carried on a losing strike against a reduction in wages. Troubles began in the mines in Erath County in 1888 and lasted for four years; Texas Rangersqv remained in the area for more than a year. The strike was largely unsuccessful.
After 1886 annual figures on the number of strikes are not available, but a summary for the quarter century from 1881 to 1905 shows a total of 341 strikes in Texas involving 37,000 workers.”
- Austin and Oatmanville Railway by Nancy Beck Young
“The Austin and Oatmanville Railway Company was chartered by the Capitol Syndicate (see XIT RANCH) on November 5, 1883, to connect Kouns, a station on the International and Great Northern Railroad five miles south of Austin, with Oatmanville (now the Austin suburb of Oak Hill). The road was built to haul limestone for use in the building of the Capitol.qv Although the limestone was unsuitable for the exterior of the building, stone from the quarry was used for the foundation and basement walls, cross walls, and backing for the exterior walls as well as elsewhere in the structure. The capital stock was $100,000. Members of the first board of directors were Abner Taylor and Charles B. Farwell, of Cook County, Illinois; Amos C. Babcock, of Fulton County, Illinois; and John T. Brackenridge, Gustav Wilke,qqv A. P. Wooldridge, and W. D. Williams, all of Austin. In 1884 the railroad built six miles of track between Kouns and the quarry at Oatmanville at a cost to the building contractor of $35,000 for grading and bridging, while the International and Great Northern spent $24,100 for rails and cross-ties. Before the end of 1884 nearly 280,000 cubic feet of limestone had been delivered from the Oatmanville quarry. The line was abandoned and the rails removed in 1888.”
- Oak Hill, Texas (Travis County) by Vivian Elizabeth Smyrl
Oak Hill, on U.S. Highway 290 and Williamson Creek, eight miles southwest of Austin in southwestern Travis County, was originally called Live Oak Springs. In 1865 an attempt was made in the community to establish a town called Shiloh, but the effort was unsuccessful. Schools called Live Oak and Oatmanville also gave their names to the community for a time. A post office called Oak Hill was established in 1870 with Swen M. Berryman as postmaster. When the new state Capitolqv building was constructed in Austin in the 1880s, the Oak Hill community boomed because of its nearby stone quarries. In 1884 the town had a general store, four saloons, and seventy-five residents; pecans, cotton, wool, and hides were the principal commodities shipped by area farmers. By 1904 the population of Oak Hill had reached 200. The Oak Hill post office was discontinued in 1910, and mail for the community was sent to Austin. In the 1970s and 1980s the population of Oak Hill was listed at 425. By 2000 the community had been absorbed into the Austin city limits. Numerous streets and businesses still identified the area as Oak Hill. A local newspaper, the Oak Hill Gazette, was published weekly.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Mary Starr Barkley, History of Travis County and Austin, 1839-1899 (Waco: Texian Press, 1963). John J. Germann and Myron Janzen, Texas Post Offices by County (1986).
- Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886
- Martial Law in Galveston; Governor Acts Because of Congestion from Longshoremen’s Strike
- Galveston Longshoremen’s Strike of 1920 by James C. Maroney
“Tensions grew amid rumors that the city’s deep-sea longshoremen might join the strike in sympathy with the coastwise dockworkers. On June 7 the governor declared martial law and sent in 1,000 national guard troops. Although deep-sea longshoremen never joined the strike, the possibility of their doing so, along with the presence of the rangers and state militiamen, the prevailing racial tension, and sporadic confrontations between strikers and nonunion dockworkers all added to the tension. The Mallory line also brought in Mexican workers in such numbers that the president of the Galveston Trades Council complained of “a regular Mexican colony” on west Galveston Island.
The city commissioners, the Galveston Dock and Marine Council, and the state’s labor press all argued that the true reason behind Governor Hobby’s decision to order troops to Galveston and to keep them there after the tension cooled was to destroy union effectiveness and to guarantee an open-shop labor market. In July Hobby suspended the mayor, city commissioners, and police force for failing to maintain the peace and protect citizens. The police were disarmed, and Gen. Jacob F. Woltersqv took control of the courts and jails. The mayor, city attorney, and commissioners could perform routine duties but retained no powers to enforce penal laws. The city commissioners filed a suit against Governor Hobby, General Wolters, and the Texas National Guard,qv but the case was dismissed by Judge Robert C. Street of the Fifty-sixth District Court. The strike-induced martial law was challenged by a private citizen, who, after being arrested for a traffic violation, brought suit in a federal district court questioning the constitutionality of martial law in Galveston; the court, however, upheld Hobby’s action in the matter. Ultimately, negotiations between city and state governments resulted in the withdrawal of the national guard at midnight, September 30, 1920, but some Texas Rangers remained until January 1921 to supervise the Galveston police department.
The Galveston ILA locals returned to work between December 1920 and July 1921 with a pay increase far below that demanded in March 1920.”