Jerry Summers: Durham, Ga. Coal Mines

Wednesday, August 12, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Durham is an unincorporated community in Walker County, Ga., that is probably unknown to the majority of the public except for descendants of the miners and families that worked in the mines.  Durham was first called Pittsburgh like so many other towns that intended to simulate the big steel metropolis in Pennsylvania.  The name of the community changed to Durham after the mining area on Lookout Mountain was purchased by the Durham Iron and Coal Company.

Originally the Cherokee Indians lived in this area but were driven out on the Trail of Tears in the late 1830's.  This allowed industrialists to come into the rich coal mining region and to develop the resources.  Black convicts provided much of the labor to extract the coal from the mines that had begun operating before the Civil War.  When the mines were opened in 1891 foremen were hired to oversee the convicts.  The prisoners lived in barracks and were kept under heavy guard night and day.

The first load of coal from the Durham mines went on exhibition at the Georgia Avenue depot yard in Chattanooga on January 5, 1892.  Originally the coal was hauled from the mines by mule-driven wagons to a winding precarious railroad constructed in that time frame. The Durham line crossed the Chattanooga Southern Railroad that went to Gadsden, Ala., and on to Chickamauga, Ga., where the Central of Georgia Railroad passed through. The coal was examined by coal dealers and manufacturers before it was transported by rail to Coalburn, Alabama, where it could be made into coke. 

With the discovery of vast deposits of bituminous coal, Durham eventually evolved into Durham Coal and Coke Company, a town with the company providing housing, company store, and company-built churches.  By 1910 Durham had a butcher shop, a movie theatre, gambling hall, pool hall, barber shop, ice house and three boarding houses for the miners.  Business was so brisk that newcomers had to wait six months for a company house to become vacant.  The Durham post office was listed as Pittsburgh, Georgia and was in operation from 1900 until 1946.

After the first shipment was made in 1892, the mining of coal continued on and off until the 1940s.  The Chickamauga Coke Ovens are still present today just north of downtown Chickamauga on Georgia Highway 341.  Twice a day trips were made hauling coal by the trains to the ovens where it would be burned at high temperatures without any oxygen present to remove the impurities from the coal.

In order to make iron and steel, coke is necessary because it burns longer, hotter and steadier than coal and this was what the foundries needed in the Chattanooga market.  By 1904 the Durham mines were producing 700 to 1,000 tons of Coke in the Chickamauga ovens every day with approximately one-fifth of the ore being manufactured into coke.  This process continued operation into the Great Depression years when the large seam of coal eventually ran out.

The railroad was abandoned in 1951 and the narrow iron rails on the Chickamauga and Durham line were taken up and the wooden trestles rotted.  During the coal boom of the 1970s the ugly practice of strip mining was extracted from the area.  While the rails were removed in 1952 a majority of the former right-of-way can still be traced although some of it has been encroached on and part of it goes through a private nature preserve.  Eventually the right of way was given to Walker County but plans to build a walking trail from Chickamauga to Lula Falls were withdrawn because of opposition from land owners along the property.

A one day trip to visit the Town of Chickamauga and the coke ovens can be an interesting and historical journey.           

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com  

Train to Durham mines went by Lula Falls
Train to Durham mines went by Lula Falls

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