Pratt Mines

Smith Brothers sent to Pratt Mines. “Their friends paid up the cost in all the case which leaves them to work out only the penalties which is, JOHN 115 days and JEFF. 155 days.”

The quiet streets of Vernon presented a very excitable scene Tuesday night.  Two wild-catters, brothers, by the name of John and Jeff Smith, from Marion County, were overhauled in Yellow Creek Swamp about a half mile from town, dishing out the pure and unadulterated juice to the boys.  They were captured by Constable Haley and posse, they showed fight when the officers walked up on them, and in the tussle Jeff discharged his pistol the ball striking Mr. Tom Moore on the left arm, but being a very small pistol and at such close range the ball did not break the skin.

They were brought to town and warrants were issued by Judge Young on the charge of violating the revenue law and prohibition law, and a charge of resisting arrest was placed against Jeff.  Not being able to give bond they were committed to jail, and when the officers started with them to jail the fun commenced again.  John jerked loose from two men, one holding each arm, and started for Yellow Creek Swamp at a lively rate, with Constable Haley close behind.  Several shots were fired in the chase none of which took effect, he was soon overhauled, however, and brought back and the cell doors closed on him.

Their trial came of Wednesday in the county court.  They plead guilty to retailing and accepted the lowest fine, $375 each, and Jeff was fined $10 for the assault.  Up to going to press they had not confessed judgment but are expecting their friends from Marion county to come to their relief. Source: The Vernon Courier Vernon, Alabama October 12, 1888.

Up to the time of going to press no disposition has been made of the Moonshiners.”Source: The Vernon Courier Vernon, Alabama October 19, 1888.

The friends of JOHN AND JEFF. SMITH were in town Monday seeing what could be done towards securing their release, but while they were seeing what they could do, Mr. HAYLEY, agent for the T. C. I & Railroad Company arrived in town as soon had them dressed for a trip to Pratt Mines, and left for that place with them in charge.  Their friends paid up the cost in all the case which leaves them to work out only the penalties which is, JOHN 115 days and JEFF. 155 days. Source: The Vernon Courier Vernon, Alabama October 19, 1888 transcribed from microfilm by Veneta McKinney.


To meet the pressing demand for labor in the early days, the Pratt Coal and Iron Company (later TCI) employed state convicts. The practice of working convicts outside the prisons, begun in Alabama in 1866, was common across the South well into the 1900s. Private companies paid state and county governments a certain amount each month for each convict. The company built prison facilities and clothed and fed the men, who were required to work 10 hours a day and fill a quota. TCI continued the practice until 1914, and other District mining concerns worked convicts until 1928.

In 1883, a new Alabama law required the state penitentiary physician to reside where the greatest number of convicts were confined. Thus Dr. Russell M. Cunningham moved to the prisons at the Pratt mining camp to take care of some 1,000 inmates a year. His attention to sanitary conditions, hours of work, diet and recreation resulted in the reduction of the mortality rate from 18 percent in 1881 to two percent in 1884. In reports to the state inspector of mines in 1883 and 1884, Cunningham recommended a stockaded convict town be built, with 50 cabins, a hospital, adequate bathing arrangements, guardhouses, a cook room, kitchen and space for outdoor recreation, so that the welfare of the prisoners would approximate that of the free miners. His findings and recommendations created a stir among lessees of convicts and led to improvements in sanitation and living conditions at the mines.

Prison facilities were enlarged in 1888 after TCI signed a 10-year contract for 500 to 600 convicts with the State of Alabama. An 1888 Sanborn map of the Pratt mines shows a complex of frame structures including a prison, convicts’ kitchen, convicts’ dining commissary, bathhouse and kettles to boil clothes. By August 1906, probably the era of maximum use of convicts at the Pratt Mines, 906 state convicts (described as able bodied males, age 16 and over from 23 county and state prisons) resided here. Of these, 300 worked at No. 1.

Until January 1914, Cunningham retained charge of medical services for convicts employed by principal mining contractors throughout the state and served as company physician for the Pratt Company and TCI, At Ensley he constructed a private infirmary, the Cunningham Hospital, to serve his large industrial practice. During this period, he also launched a successful political career, serving as state senator (1896-1900), lieutenant governor (1901-1904; 1905-1907), and acting governor of the state (1904-1905). Throughout his political career, Cunningham worked for reform of the convict lease system, inspection of coal mines and regulation of mine sanitation.

Source: HISTORIC AMERICAN ENGINEERING RECORD National Park Service Department of the Interior P.O. Box 37127 Washington, DC 20013-7127.

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