I was driving toward Columbus Junction, Iowa, a couple of weeks ago for a story on Bug Soother gnat repellent when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a green-and-white highway sign that said "Convict Road."
It's a designation that stands out, I was pretty sure the sign hadn't been there on my previous trips to this town about 60 miles southwest of the Quad-Cities.
'Turns out the sign is new, and Tom Woodruff, Davenport resident and historian for his native Louisa County, had a hand in its placement.
For years, Woodruff and others have researched and written about Convict Road, a 1.32-mile stretch of concrete built in 1914 by prisoners from the Anamosa reformatory. Although prisoners were paid only 20 cents per hour, the road cost the taxpayers of Louisa County $9,983 per mile, a huge amount in those days.
Building the road was important because a lot of commerce traveled through the area, and the only place to cross the Iowa River in many miles was at a bridge built in 1878 north of Columbus Junction, Woodruff explained.
The problem was that travelers could not easily continue east beyond the bridge because the ground in that area — extending about 1.32 miles — is almost pure sand, left by the last glacier to advance into Iowa. "There was no bottom to it," Woodruff said. "It was 50 to 100 feet deep." Automobiles and horses with wagons or buggies got mired and could not move forward.
Concrete — a new product — solved that problem because it could literally "float" on the sand, Woodruff said. Once the 1.32-mile stretch of concrete was laid, travelers could connect with four other highways going east.
"Many people have come long distances now to see this fine piece of concrete road, one of the most expensive pieces of road work ever completed in the state," a newspaper reported after it was built.
"It will probably be the last piece of concrete road Louisa County will build, owning to the almost prohibitive cost ..."
Twenty convicts worked three months to build the road. Dewey Portland Cement came from Buffalo, Iowa, and river stone came from Muscatine. The convicts scooped the material from rail cars onto wagons and drove the wagons to the site where they scooped the material out again to do the mixing.
When not on the job, the men lived in tents in a pasture near the river.
In early 2017, Woodruff and other members of the Louisa County Rural Hometown Pride Committee distributed a survey asking residents what they knew/remembered about Convict Road with the idea of putting together a comprehensive written history.
The history is now complete and available online at louisacountyiowa.com under its title, "Sands of Time: Louisa Convict Road."
The group also raised money for historical marker signs that will be placed along the road, explaining its significance.
This includes that it was built with convict labor, authorized by the legislature. The law stipulated that the work was to be done at state institutions but for some reason, Louisa County was able to skirt this requirement.
Also significant was the relatively early use of concrete, which had only been used nationally for 20 years at very limited locations.
According to Woodruff's research, the first use of the material for roads in Iowa was in 1904 in LeMars and in 1909, Mason City and Davenport laid 6,000 square yards within their cities. Two other communities experimented with concrete in 1911 and 1913.
The creation of expansion joints also was a new thing.
The road also raises other topics Woodruff finds interesting: elements of early engineering, debate over spending public money, the human aspect of those convicts paying their debt to society and the contribution to settling our country through roads.
I can attest that Convict Road road remains in remarkably good shape, not even considering that it is more than 100 years old. But it has a different kind of look to it because there are no shoulders and no grading. That is, it doesn't sit any higher than the land around it. There is no "ditch" on either side.
A celebration of the committee's work will be Friday, Sept. 27, at the fairgrounds in Columbus Junction. Among the invited guests are members of an automobile group with pre-1920 cars. (That's old!)
As he Woodruff said, "it is important for every community to preserve its culture, its own distinct and historic identity."
P.S. Also prominent in the road's history is its reputation as a lover lane, according to people responding to the committee's request for memories.
Among the poems the committee received from respondents was this Burma Shave ditty:
"Don't make love along the highway late,
"Love is blind but the neighbors' ain't."