Sunday, April 26, 2020

Coopers with Conviction : The Allegheny County Workhouse and the Pennsylvania Oil Industry
by Doug MacGregor

Allegheny County Workhouse and Inebriate Asylum, as it appeared in 1890. Note the barrels in the left foreground.

After only three weeks in the oil business, John Dempsey wanted out. Maybe oil wasn’t in his blood, or maybe all he wanted was just a good stiff drink. Whatever his reasoning, after finishing a delivery of new barrels to the Bear Creek Refinery on a hot day in late June 1882, he decided it was time to walk away. More likely, he ran as fast as he could, as he wasn’t in the business voluntarily. Dempsey, aka prisoner #22324, was on a work detail as an inmate at the Allegheny County Workhouse, working on a sixty-day sentence for Drunkenness and Disorderly Conduct. His leave lasted for several months before he was recaptured to serve out the remainder of his sentence. Dempsey was just one of many Workhouse inmates finding deliveries to Pittsburgh’s oil refineries offered an avenue to freedom, brief as it may have been.

For 25 years, the inmates of the Allegheny County Workhouse contributed to the great Pennsylvania Oil Boom of the late 19th century. While in confinement or on temporary supervised work details, the barrels they constructed would carry Pennsylvania oil to distant places that the inmates would probably never see. Over this period, their forced labor in the barrel business would generate massive profits and support regional businesses (other than oil) through their purchases of materials, goods, and labor. However, unlike other businesses, their individual goal was not to reap the massive profits that lay in oil and its subsidiary businesses. These convicted coopers would see little profit from their labor. While the revenues would support operations and maintenance, a central mission of the Allegheny County Workhouse was rehabilitation. Obviously, incarceration was a punishment for their crimes, but time in the Workhouse was supplemented with religious counseling and training in various trades. The goal was to release a better man (or woman) than the troubled soul that had entered the facility. Unfortunately, many, like John Dempsey, would return to their old vices and the Workhouse again.

The Allegheny County Workhouse and Inebriate Asylum, as it was officially known, began as an effort to recoup the costs of the growing prisoner population in the Allegheny County Jail. In 1866 the Board of Prison Inspectors of Allegheny County petitioned the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for legislation to raise $150,000 through bonds for the construction of the Workhouse on a fifty-acre tract. Following the passage of this legislation, a Board of Managers was appointed to design, construct, and oversee the new facility. One of the first major tasks was the selection of a site. The scarcity and high cost of suitable property made a location in or near downtown Pittsburgh impossible. Also, as it was planned more as a functional factory than a high security prison, the Board wished to minimize the high transportation costs of whatever materials they would import and the products the inmates would produce. The booming oil industry would provide an answer to all of their needs.

Initially, it seemed inevitable that Pittsburgh would come to dominate the oil trade as the oil and money would flow into the city along the Allegheny River from the oil region. Pittsburgh appeared to possess all of the ingredients necessary for success: capital, industry, natural resources, financial institutions, a large labor force, and a water system to connect them all. It seemed to have it all… except a direct railroad connection. The lack of this seemingly small piece would divert what should have been a new industrial dynasty into a short-lived boom. Pittsburgh would be the world’s leading refining center for the first ten years of the industry. But due to “unfair discrimination by the Pennsylvania Railroad against the city”, Pittsburgh would lose its supremacy to Cleveland. In short, the PRR wanted to haul crude a longer distance to make higher profits; Pittsburgh was too short a haul from the oil regions. The short-sighted greed of the PRR would deny Pittsburgh a multi-billion dollar future.

In the meantime, however, Pittsburgh was still the world’s largest refining center, and it was reaping the rewards. Of course it was home to Samuel Kier who first refined “rock oil” into a valuable product in 1853 and was among Edwin Drake’s first customers. As the oil flowed, refineries sprouted throughout the city, nourished by the lifeblood of crude oil and cash. As early as 1860 it was predicted that “Pittsburgh ought shortly to become one of the most important oil marts of the world”. While the earliest numbers were impressive, the amount of oil to come would make it seem like a trickle. By early 1861, 700 to 1,300 barrels were arriving daily. Thousands of barrels lined the shores and overwhelmed the Allegheny Wharf. The riverbank was lined with flatboats and bulk boats, laden with more. The numbers grew year after year: 1862 brought 219,778 barrels; 1864 saw 344, 500; and 1865 increased to 411, 570. It was no wonder that in 1865, Pittsburgh “which used to be the Iron City, thinks now of little else than Petroleum. Barrels of it swarm everywhere”. With so much oil (and its wildly fluctuating prices), speculators joined together in January 1863 to create the Pittsburgh Oil Exchange, the world’s first.

The Brilliant Refinery in the center of the Pittsburgh refining district, which stretched along the southern bank of the Allegheny River in what are now the Morningside and Highland Park neighborhoods of the city. 

The danger of having so much oil soon became evident in 1861 when Pittsburgh experienced its first oil fire. As so much oil was stored around the city, residents asked for a ban on bringing it within city-limits. Following a second devastating petroleum fire in 1863, ordinances were passed that prohibited the importation or storage of petroleum within the heart of the city and began to drive it further up the Allegheny River.

Pittsburgh’s refineries had already experienced prohibition, initially due to the horrible stench they produced, but now because of the threat of conflagration. In 1859, Pittsburgh could only boast one refinery, producing five barrels per week. By 1861, however, they had grown to thirty-five. By 1862, petroleum refining was challenging iron and glass as the city’s largest industry. Pushed out of the city, the refineries lined the southern bank of the Allegheny River, stretching for miles from the city’s boundary. By 1865, there were 58 refineries, employing 700 men, refining 716,500 barrels annually, and worth nearly $12,000,000.

The massive, growing refining business along the Allegheny River surely caught the eyes of the Managers of the Allegheny County Workhouse as they began to plan the location of their new home. What wonderful neighbors to have, if you didn’t mind the smell. After soliciting bids for property, the Managers decided upon the fifty-acre farm of I. Beatty in Claremont (modern Blawnox, PA) in February 1867 (they would later acquire an additional 750 acres of farmland). The site offered everything they wanted, including rail transportation and river frontage, conveniently located across from the refining district.

Following a survey of other similar facilities throughout the northeast and soliciting bids, construction commenced in 1868. The first prisoners began to arrive in August 1869, while the prison was still unfinished and had no walls (and, yes, there were escapes). It was not until 1871 that the buildings and walls would be completed, followed by the workshops in 1872. While the institution was constructed through the sale of interest-bearing bonds, operating funds would come from the sale of liquor licenses in Allegheny County, a one mill tax, and profits from the labor. However, the proceeds of the liquor license sales and taxes were not to be permanent. It was hoped that the institution would become self-sustaining through inmate labor. In later years they would receive direct county funding (raised through increased taxation) and remuneration from other counties in western Pennsylvania that opted to house inmates at the facility.

The first industry investigated for the inmates’ employment was the manufacture of oil barrels. After a fact-finding mission to Cincinnati to study the industry, the Managers unanimously “Resolved that the manufacturing of oil barrels be commenced at the workhouse as soon as practicable” and authorized the purchase of suitable machinery in October 1871. Within one month, the managers authorized contracts for the purchase of barrel staves and the bulk of the machinery, including: a working-off machine and planer from Hays and Seely of Cleveland; a hoop iron punch and hoop beveler and bender from Crane and Sawtel of Cleveland; and a head-rounding machine, trussing machine, and two sawing-off machines from E & B Stohmer of Buffalo, all amounting to $3,250. Preparations continued through the rest of the year and into the first months of 1872, when the first staves and iron barrel hoops arrived in February, leading to the commencement of production and the need for a barrel shed in March. The Workhouse would have a happy St. Patrick’s Day (dry of course) as they completed their first sale for 25 barrels (with only one head) for $1.25 each. With gross receipts of $130,411.14 in 1872 and $298,429.89 in 1873, these purchases and sales would launch a massive cycle of expenditures and revenues that would contribute to the regional economy for the next 25 years.

Brush Shop, 1905: Few images survive of the inmates of the Workhouse. 

The revenues of 1872 and 1873 demonstrated that the Managers of the Allegheny County Workhouse had a formula for success and they proudly chronicled their feats in their annual reports. The backbone and “principle branch of industry, now carried on in this institution,” they crowed, “is the manufacture of oil barrels” and a bright future was expected. They reminded their superiors that their success was due to the avoidance of a contract system. “Instead of letting the labor for a mere pittance to contractors…inmates are exclusively employed for and in behalf of the county”. This situation allowed the Workhouse to operate as an individual corporation, which in fact it now was, incorporating itself in March 1872. “The profits accruing from these sales are gained by the institution, while under the contract system they would belong to and enrich the contractors. Their gain would be our loss.” For the duration of its operation, the Workhouse oil barrel business would be a tremendous success, reaping huge profits, and only rarely, a minor operating loss.

While this success would benefit the taxpayers of Allegheny County by ameliorating their tax burden, it was not warmly received by all. Cooperage businesses outside the prison walls viewed their forced-labor competitors as a major threat. But after production began, (according to the Managers of the Workhouse), “the bitter opposition, formerly manifested by citizen coopers against this branch of industry, has entirely disappeared, and this probably from the very fact that we never competed with them by underselling the market, and thereby proved that prison labor need not in itself be antagonistic to free labor.” In fact, Workhouse oil barrels could even command a five cent premium over their competitor’s products.

The actual process of producing barrels was outlined in the 1874 annual report.

The chief branch of industry is the manufacture of Kerosene oil barrels, which is carried on in two workshops in the same building, one above the other. At a certain point in the manufacture, the casks are passed from the lower to the upper shop, and the prisoner receiving them at this point is required to finish seven for the institution without any gain for himself, the average day’s work for a free laborer outside being thirteen or fourteen; after which, for every additional barrel completed, he gets three cents for himself.

With this incentive, the more industrious inmates could produce as many as 24 to 25 barrels per day, but the daily production average was 16 to 18. Since much of the labor force was unskilled, a system was devised where the unskilled worked in the lower shop, completing a portion of the barrel. It was then passed to the upper shop to the skilled coopers for completion. The lower shop inmates would receive a credit for a percentage of each barrel completed. Roughly 120 inmates toiled under a paid civilian staff of coopers, who trained laborers and supervised production for a total of 36,000 work days per year. This system and the voracious appetite for barrels at the refineries led the Managers of the Workhouse to expand the cooperage to produce 800 oil barrels per day and begin production of White Lead Kegs in 1874. The expansion was only made possible with an enlarged workforce, courtesy of a rapid increase in inmates.

After two years of growth and profit, 1875 presented the first setbacks for the Workhouse and barrel factory. A devastating fire on April 28 destroyed buildings, stock, and machinery, which had to be purchased anew, all the while halting production. The losses for the facility for the year led to a deficit of $22,395.02, not to mention the loss of prisoner laborers who used the calamity as an opportunity to escape. The barrel factory also suffered from the fire and absorbed their first operational loss of $8,539.44 due to the bankruptcy of a “prominent oil firm of this county”. However, the Managers countered that the loss was minimal, with an overall annual profit for the barrel factory of $17,401.31 and over $900,000 in sales over the previous four years. The future still seemed to hold more profits, leading to a further expansion of the keg shop.

While total Workhouse revenues fluctuated over the next twenty-some years, it was the barrel factory that was the prime economic engine that kept it in the black, or minimized the losses of the facility. While inmates engaged in other work (brush and broom factory, knitting, brick factory, and laundry), their profits would pale in comparison to the production of oil barrels (see Sources of Income table). Just as the rollercoaster of oil prices ruined and rewarded other oil businesses, the Workhouse barrel factory went along for the ride as well. When the market was bright in 1876, the barrel workshops were expanded to include a massive new wing and a stave dry-house which could handle 40,000 staves at a time using “Sturtevant’s Hot Blast Furnace.” But when the market took a turn for the worse later that year, they suffered a drastic decrease in profits. The lack of demand led to a loss of 72 working days.

Barrels waiting to be filled at the Imperial Refinery in Oil City, Pa. Some refineries could fill several thousand per week. 

Overall, the barrel factory was a major success, making a profit in every year of its 25 year existence. The average profit over operating costs was 21%, with every dollar benefiting the taxpayers of Allegheny County. In addition to the direct benefits of the profit, the expenditures went directly into the local economy. The barrel factory required wood, iron, machinery, transportation (rail and water), and other goods and services that pumped an average of $230,000 into the local economy annually.

Barrel Factory Profit
Barrel Factory Profit

Beyond the numbers and statistics, little is known about the personal life of the inmates, although the Annual Reports record a great deal of demographic information. Initially the Workhouse was designed to hold 100 male prisoners. However, female facilities were soon built with other enlargements that allowed a capacity of at least 450 men and 150 women by 1885. The inmate population was composed of those sentenced to shorter terms (averaging 30 to 90 days) for a variety of petty crimes, largely considered misdemeanors in the modern legal system. The shorter terms led to a large revolving prison population, with the Workhouse accommodating several thousand inmates throughout the year. All persons committed to the Workhouse were required to work. Those refusing to do so would be subject to punishment and/or serve additional time. Legislation in 1871 allowed inmates to be brought in from other counties outside Allegheny, mostly from western Pennsylvania, with the offender’s county reimbursing the Workhouse for their incarceration.

“Ten dollars and costs or thirty days” were often the last words uttered by a judge to would-be inmates before their stint would begin. While those words brought terror to the minds of those who faced the Workhouse for the first time, for most it meant “the same old story of again falling by the wayside after having promised time after time, to go and sin no more.” In fact, many had been there over 25 times and, in 1901, there were a few who were approaching their 60th stay at the Workhouse. The process of transporting the inmates was recorded in 1901:

Police courts generally go into session in the various station houses at 8 AM. All the workhouse prisoners are mobilized immediately after the hearing at the central station in rear of the department of public safety building on Sixth Avenue. Promptly at 11:30, a few hours later, the patrol wagon starts for the West Penn Station in Allegheny. The train leaves at 11:55 and in a few minutes the prisoners are whirled to their destination.

They are not taken to Claremont on Pullman Cars. A car has been built specially for the purpose. It has no cushioned seats, but on either side is a long bench. When once in the car, it is difficult to get out. The windows and openings are securely grated with iron bars and the car is but a traveling prison. The prisoners include all classes. Many have taken the ride several scores of times and need not be instructed on the program of the sorrowful trip.

Nearly every morning there is generally a crowd…to see the prisoners off. Some are attracted by mere curiosity. Others are there to get a last look at a friend, while some are steady patrons of the sight, having contracted a habit of being there at that time.

The prisoners are handcuffed, and emerge from the covered patrol van in pairs. Some times a white man is chained to a negro, and often a colored woman is an unwilling companion of an Italian. It is one of the sights of a great city and can be seen regularly every day, except Sunday. Two officers are generally in charge of the prisoners. Sometimes the number is so large that two patrol wagons are required. This frequently happens on Mondays, when the transgressions of Saturday and Sunday night are aggregated…

Once at the workhouse, the prisoner is given a bath, is registered with a full description, and is then assigned to work in some part of the building or about the grounds…

The workhouse is an undesirable place to go. Prisoners who have served time there and at Western penitentiary, prefer the latter… On him or her who is sentenced there, the text “The way of the transgressor is hard” is firmly and indelibly impressed.

Crimes of Workhouse Inmates, 1874: The Annual Reports recorded a wealth of demographic information regarding the inmates such as the crimes of the 6,032 inmates committed throughout 1874.
However, according to the Managers of the Workhouse, prison life seemed idyllic. “The prisoners are always well and comfortably clad, their food is plain, but sufficient and wholesome, and strict attention is paid to the cleanliness of their persons and cells.” Not forgetting the moral side of their institutional mission, they noted that “religious exercises, our evening school and prison library are the principal means employed for the moral culture of our inmates, and in many instances not without good success.” With body and soul nourished, they instructed their staff (and reminded the public) that “the inmates of our penal institutions should, under all circumstances, be treated with kindness and humanity.” And to justify all of their efforts beyond the profit margins, the forced labor of their inmates vindicated the Managers in their spiritual mission, allowing them to realize the full potential of the motto “Make a man industrious and you make him virtuous.”

Unfortunately, voices from within the prison cells and walls were never recorded to produce their own annual report. While their objections and observations may have been lost to history, at least one notable voice rose to challenge the rosy picture painted by the Managers: that of the Workhouse chaplain. In July 1878, Workhouse superintendent John L. Kennedy complained of the “antagonistic and unbecoming conduct of the chaplain”, The Reverend D.M. Thorn. Thorn was accused of “circulating unfounded stories” to bring Kennedy “into disrespect” and publishing reports of the mistreatment of prisoners in a local newspaper. An investigation was immediately conducted, the minutes of which are still sealed (by gluing the minute book pages shut). However, a peek through the bottom of the seal reveals that Thorn had at least six allegations against Kennedy, including: desecrating the Sabbath; “practicing intemperance”; and abusing “prisoners in a most offensive and brutal manner.” Despite being sealed, the results of the investigation became evident soon after, as Rev. Thorn was immediately removed from the facility and advertisements were authorized for a new Workhouse chaplain. Thorn’s allegations of abuse or mistreatment at the Workhouse would not be the last.

Although Pittsburgh’s oil boom played a major role in the early days of the Workhouse, the demise of the region’s refining industry had far less impact. Even as the region’s oil refining supremacy waned, the Workhouse not only survived, it thrived as it dominated the supply of oil barrels for the refineries that remained. In 1877, they secured a contract with Standard Oil to supply 4,000 barrels per week, and renewed the contract annually for years to come. Other customers included the Bear Creek Refinery, Model Oil Co., Atlantic Refinery, Solar Oil Co., and Weaverly Oil Works (some providing popular escape routes for inmates). Production capacity increased over the years, but the Managers were careful not to flood the market with barrels and kept the purchase of supplies to a minimum to reduce costs. Daily production capability rose to 1,000 barrels per day and the total number produced averaged around 20,000 barrels per month.

In the end it was not the failure of regional refining hegemony that ceased Workhouse barrel production. The final stroke came through the marriage of labor unions and political bosses, resulting in devastating government regulations. Following the great strikes and Railroad Riots of 1877, laborers found that great strength lay in the solidarity of the masses. Unions grew in numbers and strength as they put their power to the test in politics. As the industrial behemoth of the United States, Pennsylvania was the cradle of the growing labor giants, especially the Knights of Labor. Unions viewed prison labor, especially those that used machinery, as an enemy to their efforts to raise wages for their members, as they could undercut free labor and draw work away from them. The elimination of this threat became a primary focus as they grew. Politicians were quick to harness the power of the growing unions, wooing the massive voting bloc at any cost, and that cost would be the demise of the prison labor system. As penal historian Blake McKelvey states, “Pennsylvania politicians sold their state’s penological (prison management system) birthright for labor votes...” 

The Democratic Party was first to succeed in winning over the unions, who helped them secure victory in the Republican stronghold of Pennsylvania. They rewarded the unions with the first of a series of restrictive laws aimed at prison labor. In 1883, they passed legislation banning the practice of contracting inmate labor to outside businesses and forcing prison products to be branded with labels stating their origins (similar to today’s “Made In China” labels). Republicans soon joined Democrats in the competition for the union vote and together they recognized Labor Day as a state holiday in 1889. With both parties pandering for union votes, the future of mechanized prison labor was limited.

The beginning of the end came quietly in 1897. The opening shot was a review of mechanized prison labor by the Pennsylvania Secretary of Internal Affairs. While the office had regularly reported commercial industrial statistics for years beforehand, the 1896 Annual Report (published later in 1897) included Pennsylvania’s penal facilities for the first and only time. The Secretary noted that the anomaly of including penal statistics was made “upon special request and blanks furnished for this purpose.” The statistics recorded the days, men, machines, and products produced by all of the penal institutions in Pennsylvania. What should have been proof of the success of the institutions in relieving the burden of prison costs to taxpayers instead became damning evidence of an assault against free labor and private enterprise.

The legislative offensive opened on February 4, 1897 when Rep. Charles Muehlbronner (a Republican from Allegheny County, which was dominated by the Knights of Labor) introduced House Bill No. 153. The proposed legislation would eliminate machinery from prison labor production and place limitations on how many inmates could participate in the production of goods. With little opposition, the bill raced through the House of Representatives before moving to the Senate as Senate Bill No. 511. There, the issue was not whether the Bill would pass, but how far the restrictions would reach. Senator Perry Gibson (R-Erie County) offered the only alternative, which was to halt immigration, as he believed that was the true enemy of the working man, not convict labor. After some regional spats and further restrictions enacted, the Bill passed. On June 18, 1897, Governor Daniel Hastings signed Act No. 141, known as the Muehlbronner Act, into law (1897 P.L. 170). As if the legislation were not repressive enough, eliminating the use of machinery and limiting the percentage of inmates allowed to work by hand, the Pennsylvania Attorney General took the law further. His interpretation of the law pushed the legal restrictions on prisoners well beyond what was intended by legislators. Pursuant to Pennsylvania law, on January 1st 1898, oil barrel production at the Allegheny County Workhouse and Inebriate Asylum ceased.
This table, published with the 1899 Annual Report, reflects the disastrous consequences of the Muehlbronner Act, as well as the dominance of oil barrel production, noted as “Cooperage”.

The results were disastrous. The Workhouse annual report for 1899 stated it bluntly. It began by reciting the primary mission of the institution as stated in its original articles of incorporation. It was to employ the committed inmates in a capacity “that shall be most profitable to the institution”, a goal that was to relieve citizens of the burden of supporting them. In fulfilling this goal, the institution “had succeeded in placing the Workhouse in the front rank of successful institutions, as the previous Annual reports set forth. The inmates were well-cared for, their earnings for over-work were increased, their self respect thereby advanced, and the heavy cost of maintenance reduced to a minimum….The Act of 1897, commonly known as the Muehlbronner Act, has changed all of this; and the once-prosperous institution is now little more than an asylum for vagrants and a training-school for idleness”.

The report accentuated their plight with pictures demonstrating “the results of repressive legislation. Two large shops of costly but idle machinery; two large gangs of utterly idle men. Could they be brought together, the prison might be made to pay expenses, the men would have training in active, useful work.” “They are not benefited by their imprisonment, nor is society the gainer in any way.” The passage of this law would force the Allegheny County Workhouse to permanently exit the oil industry. Now without its most profitable avenue of income and the expiration of temporary levies, the survival of the Workhouse was thrust back on the tax rolls, contrary to its original goal, and paving the way for its eventual failure. The final profits from the oil business came when the machinery was sold as scrap metal.

“Men Without Work”: This was the caption to this image from the 1900 Annual Report as the Managers demonstrated the change in the operations since legislation all but banned productive work.
It did not take long for the disastrous effects to erode the mission and operations of the Workhouse. “Since the Muehlbronner Act went into effect,” the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette reported in 1898, “the insanity and disease caused by idleness, and increase in the cost of their maintenance, have been so marked that a number of representatives have investigated the conditions of the prison….” Additionally, “more than two-thirds of the prisoners have been idle and have been compelled to endure solitary confinement in their cells. The loss to the state caused by the suspension of work has been great and the several of the county and state institutions which previous to the Muehlbronner Act were self-sustaining or nearly so will ask for large appropriations in 1899.”

Now financially crippled, the Workhouse would never support itself again. While the Workhouse would continue with other hand-craft labor ventures, they barely sustained themselves and did little to raise institutional revenue. Costs reverted to taxpayers, in violation of its core mission. The legislation, stated penal historian Blake McKelvey, “made a farce of prison labor in Pennsylvania … and did more than any other factor to degrade the…great penitentiaries of the Keystone State from the first rank of American prisons.” Now little more than a common prison, the Workhouse continued its downward spiral, gaining a reputation for horrible conditions and punishments for political undesirables.

Radicals, socialists, and striking workers often found themselves residents of the Workhouse over the next forty years, including Alexander Berkman, the anarchist who attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead Strike of 1892. Striking workers often received lengthy sentences to the Workhouse that normally would be served at Western Penitentiary. “However,” one newspaper reported in 1933, “this is considered too easy punishment for striking miners and they are sent to the workhouse where conditions are much harder and the food much worse.” Another inmate reported that “the workhouse was known as one of the dirtiest, the toughest jails in Pennsylvania.” 

 “Idle Machinery”: Some of the machinery at the Workhouse that was good for nothing but scrap metal following 1897.
The hard times continued for the Workhouse through the remainder of its existence. By the 1960s, not only was the Workhouse failing in its mission to relieve the citizens of the financial burden of inmate incarceration, it was failing its moral mission as well. Rather than cleansing inmates of their vices, the Workhouse exploited them. Corruption was rampant among guards and officials who solicited bribes to manipulate job selection, look the other way, and even provide alcohol to residents of the Workhouse (and inebriate asylum). A former inmate reported in 1962, that $1 could buy a pilfered steak from the kitchen, $5 could purchase a pint of whiskey dropped over the wall, and $25 could secure a luxurious job in the greenhouse outside the walls, where inmates “receive visitors… and frequently stage drinking orgies with smuggled whiskey”. Even a guard reported that the “workhouse is a racketeers’ paradise. When a racketeer goes to the workhouse, he grins”.

By 1963 the financial drain from the institution forced the sale of the farmlands, reducing the Workhouse to the original walled grounds. The land would go to create RIDC business park, which remains today along Route 28. With the buildings deteriorating, the rising costs of housing inmates, and the state relieving counties of incarceration functions, the Allegheny County Workhouse closed its doors eight years later. The grand (and mostly successful) experiment of a self-sustaining prison that rehabilitated its inmates had come to an end.

The history of the Workhouse can be clearly defined in two periods: the successful era before the Muehlbronner Act of 1897 and the steady decline that followed. The first 25 years were a success principally through the triumph of the oil barrel making factory. The profits generated from this industry were clearly the driving economic force for the institution, proving the success of prison labor in creating a self-sustaining prison, or one close to it. By achieving financial solvency, the institution could also fulfill its moral mission by providing rehabilitation, spiritual guidance and occupational training. Not only did the Workhouse relieve taxpayers of nearly all costs for incarceration, the economic footprint spread in the region, creating more jobs outside the prison walls. The institution’s failure was not of its own making or even that of the regional petroleum refining business, its principal industry. Only through the machinations of labor unions and politicians, who demonstrated that they were better at soliciting votes than the management of prisons, would the Workhouse fall into insolvency and eventual ruin.

Ruins of the Allegheny County Workhouse: Now toppled, this is one of two stone pillars that flanked the main entrance to the Workhouse. Fragments of the institution’s walls are all that remain today. 
Content was previously published in the Oilfield Journal.