Jerry Summers: Grundy Lakes And Coke Ovens

Thursday, May 26, 2022 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Another close by and interesting historical one-day (or more) trip 45-60 miles from Chattanooga off I-24 West is Tracy City.

Other than stopping at the famous Dutch Maid Bakery to purchase a delicious assortment of sweets to abandon your diet, Grundy County can provide much more.

The history of the area is complex.  Cloaked in both violence and secrecy, its origin and journey through time has been preserved by the several cooperative organizations that began with the Grundy County Historical Society (GCHS), located in Tracy City at the Heritage Center (HC).

Located at 465 Railroad Ave., Tracy City, Tennessee 37387; Mailing Address:  P.O.

Box 1422, telephone (931)-592-6008, e-mail: heritagelibrary@benlomand.net it contains substantial data about Grundy County.

It consists of a museum, library, and research center.  Eight galleries “depict themes of history that grew out of the plateau that had national or international impact.”

The GCHS also contains additional accounts of at least four other chronicles and preservation organizations in the adjourning areas.

The eight galleries include:

1. Development of the plateau through geology era with an emphasis on the formation of coal;

2. Chickamauga Native Americans (1775-1828);

3. Development of Summerfield Community where Lillian Johnson developed an agricultural cooperative in 1915 known as KinCo. (In 1932 she donated property to labor organizers Myles Horton and Don West for development of the Highlander Folk School.)

4. The story of Monteagle Sunday School Assembly is also reported from its creation in 1882 for a Southern adult education and social movement named after a town in New York that still exists today.

5. A mural of Beersheba Springs that was an unsuccessful competitor for the location of the site that is today the University of the South (Sewanee).  It was acquired in 1941 by the Methodist Conference of Middle Tennessee and still operates as a conference and retreat center;

6. The development of the southern steel and iron industry in Tracy City at the Woolen Coal Mine that started in 1858 and the erection of 120 coke ovens in 1873 and the alleged abusive use of convict labor from the Tennessee State Penitentiary by the Tennessee Coal and Railroad Company;

7. The development of the Swiss Colony in Gruetli-Laager with immigrants from Switzerland from 1869 to about 1920;

8. The development of the lumber industry which was a major economic driver of the Cumberland Plateau economy with a major harvest of timber from 1880 through 1920.  A second harvesting of trees occurred in the fast-growing pine category that was accelerated by a pine beetle infestation.  Today a conflict between paper companies and conservationists continues.

Today much of the original remains of the sinister history of the human abuses in the area are being allowed to revert to nature and the renaming of areas such as Stockade Lake are part of the Southern Cumberland State Recreation Area operated by the state of Tennessee.

Four man-made lakes ranging from one to 16 acres provide an interesting recreational area under the supervision of a resident park ranger.  Canoe floats as well as guide-provided hikes are available to see and learn about the interesting and complex history of the locale.

In 1883 the Lone Rock Coke Ovens, 120 in number, were built by the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company. Contract prison labor was used from 1866 to 1896 under a contract with the state of Tennessee.  This often resulted in conflicts with Tracy City miners who viewed the practice as being restrictive on employment opportunities.

The overwhelming majority of the prisoners were black, and they toiled under inhumane conditions that did not result in a stockade being erected until April 1, 1871, and it was burned on April 14, 1892 by miners intent on sending the convicts back to the state penitentiary by train.

The written or oral history of the numerous conflicts between all races and all aspects of life in Tracy City and the surrounding communities continues to slowly die and fade away.

With the coming of the Great Depression during the 1930s, workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps built the dams in 1938-1939 that would create the Grundy County Lakes and cover the valleys.

What would be discovered under the waters would have to be a matter of speculation?

The creation of the lakes, the replanting of trees and shrubbery has turned the area into a recreational area that is close to Chattanooga and provides another destination to be visited on the Cumberland Plateau.

* * *

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)

 


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