Social Control, Social Displacement and Coal Mining in the Cumberland Plateau, 1880-1930.
  by Dr. James B. Jones, Jr.
Every Day in Tennessee History

Along with the change to factory production was a basic shift in the source of energy, from human to steam. The industrial revolution was ultimately driven by steam-engines fueled by coal. As it progressed so did the demand for a plentiful and cheap source of coal energy. In America that source was bituminous coal, found in the Appalachian Mountains which run from Pennsylvania to northern Alabama. In Tennessee the portion of that mountain chain where coal is found is the Cumberland Plateau. It extends in a northeast and southwest direction across the state, forming the dividing line between Middle and East Tennessee. The Cumberland Plateau is divided into the northern and southern coal fields consisting of 21 counties. By comparison with Kentucky and West Virginia, the Cumberland Plateau is relatively poor in coal resources. Nevertheless, it was sufficiently rich enough to catch the attention of investors eager to cash in on fueling industrial growth.

Very little is known about coal mining in Tennessee before the 1850s. The successful exploitation of coal in Tennessee's Cumberland plateau depended largely upon improved transportation. As transportation was made more efficient by railroads, and as capitalist organization evolved to a higher degree of efficiency, the pace of coal mining in the Cumberland Plateau would increase. One nineteenth-century mining engineer in the Volunteer State noted: "the building of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad [in 1854] marked an epoch in the history of Tennessee's coal mining." By 1855 coal mines near Whiteside, on Raccoon Mountain in Marion County, were opened thirteen miles west of Chattanooga.

Most likely the first successful commercially organized and capitalist backed effort at coal mining on the Cumberland Plateau was also bound to the completion of the Nashville and Chattanooga (N&C), and occurred in Grundy County at Sewanee. About 1850 the Sewanee Mining Company was organized, with the New York financier Samuel F. Tracy as President. The coal lay near Sewanee, and in 1853, a branch railroad was built from the main line of the still unfinished N & C to Sewanee. The presence of a large field coal further east prompted the extension of the railroad from Sewanee to the new town of Tracy City. It is significant here to note that Tracy City is the earliest example of a pattern of outside, organized, capitalistic exploitation of Tennessee's coal reserves. Today that settlement exists under its original name, Tracy City.

Coke, a residue of coal, was used as a fuel for iron production and became also a product of coal mining in Tennessee. Beehive coke ovens, so called because of their internal shape, were constructed around 1859 at the Tracy City location in Grundy County and at the Etna operation in Marion County. The remains of some are part of the state park at Tracy City, while others may be found in Dunlap [NR] and in Whiteside, Glen Mary, and Waldensia. Additionally, along the Cumberland River there were some small time operations which helped fuel the U.S. Navy gunboats during the Civil War.

The first iron made solely with Tennessee coke was produced at Tracy City about 1872. Increased iron production was credited with producing increased coal output and thus, it was said, to a lowering of the price of coal.

The lowering of the cost of coal can be attributed more directly, however, to the infamous convict lease system. In brief, from the late 1860s to the 1890s, convicts held by the State were leased for to mining companies to do the work of miners. The revenue aided the State in attempting to lower its staggering debt, the result of overly enthusiastic financial support by the State for railroad expansion in the 1850s. Tennessee Coal and Iron (TCI) was foremost in leasing convicts for mining, because it kept labor costs down. Indeed, Tennessee's so-called "Zebra Law" gave the mining companies a steady supply of workers by putting prison stripes on a man for as petty a crime as the theft of an eight cent fence rail. In this early example of state subsidies for industry, the state government abandoned laissez-faire principles and underwrote coal mining and aided coal companies by minimizing costs, competition and risk. The majority of leased convicts were Negroes. The use of these black convicts was, moreover, a calculated move on the part of TCI. Local free-white miners on the Cumberland Plateau did not acquiesce. For example, in January, 1871, in Tracy City, white miners, realizing the unfair impact of leased convicts upon their wages, struck for higher earnings and the withdrawal of leased convict miners. The miners even made a audacious nocturnal armed assault on the prison compound with the intent of setting the convicts free. This early example of class-consciousness and industrial labor violence in Tennessee history ended as most strikes did in the nineteenth century, as a victory for management. As A.S. Colyar, vice-president of TCI candidly divulged about the use of convicts many years later:

One of the chief reasons which induced the company to take up the system was the great chance it had for overcoming strikes....I don't mind saying that for many years the company found this an effective club to hold over the heads of free laborers.

Miners continued to object to the use of convict labor, and especially obnoxious to them was the use of felons as strikebreakers, but they could point to other injustices also. Some were paid in scrip, which required them to spend their wages at the company store, a practice that would continue into the twentieth century. [Tennessee Ernie Ford's "16 Tons."] Many were forced to sign "iron-clad" contracts forbidding strikes.

By July 1891, violence erupted in Briceville, Anderson County. Three hundred armed miners freed convicts, compelled them, officers and guards to march to Coal Creek (now Lake City) to entrain for Knoxville. A few days later the governor, wisely accompanied by a battalion of state militia, proceeded to Briceville. He successfully pleaded with them to observe the convict-lease law then returned to Nashville, leaving the convicts and the militia at the mines. A few days later, another force of miners, numbering in excess of 2,000, coerced the soldiers and the convicts to return to Knoxville. The governor again travelled to Briceville and ordered fourteen companies of militia to mobilize at Knoxville. After several days of negotiations, it was agreed that the soldiers would be withdrawn and that the convicts and guards would return to the mines, while the miners would invest their "confidence in the governor and general assembly" to rectify the situation.

After more unkept promises and further violence the convict lease system was abolished in the fall of 1892, in the midst of the gubernatorial election campaign. But, a substitute system was found in the form of a new penitentiary in which the convicts would mine coal for the state in Morgan County, at Brushy Mountain, in 1893. Forced convict labor thus is one key to understanding the early success of coal mining in the Cumberland Plateau.

Another clue to understanding the successful large-scale extraction of coal in the Cumberland Plateau was the expansion of the railroads, 1850 - 1930. This can be demonstrated in the case of the Etna mining operation in Marion County in the late 1850s. Coal production at the Etna mines was put at some 8,000 tons in 1854, the year the N&C was completed. One year after the railroad was finished, 1855, coal production at Whiteside jumped to 21,000 tons, a 43% increase.

"Without railroads" said one Tennessee business journal in 1891 "iron and coal would have remained hidden...there would have been no way to develop or transport them....The first essential...was the construction of the railroads." The two were bound in the dynamic of cause and effect.

What followed in the wake of the railroads was, according to one optimistic 19th century industrial source, "in general a period of advancement." Said another late nineteenth-century source: "The influence of these railroads is seen in the progress made beginning with 1880." If defined in terms of coal production a case can be made demonstrating "progress," or at least a progression, as coal production rose consistently from 1870 to 1910. Figures for every decade from 1870 to 1910 illustrate the claim: 1870, 133,000 tons; 1880, 641,000 tons; 1890, 2,170,000 tons; 1900, 3,400,000 tons; 1910, 7,000,000 tons. However, if we focus upon the irretrievable extraction of coal resources, the devastation of the landscape, and displacement of an entire sub-culture, it is harder to make a case for progressive betterment.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, coal fired the boilers of factories, ships, locomotives as well as domestic hearths and furnaces and even the new electrical power generating plants in the growing cities. It was the fuel of choice. Without it, the drive for industrial maturity in the United States would have been considerably slowed. Industrial America was a coal/coke-junkie.

Inasmuch as it was so critical for domestic and industrial uses the bituminous coal fields of the southern Appalachians would inevitably be tapped. While the pace of coal mining in Tennessee quickened as railroads entered the Cumberland Plateau in the 1880s and 1890s, its real heyday occurred 1900-1920.

Southern coal was better than northern coal, and it was delivered to American consumers at a lower cost. Lower cost was due to the geologic location of mountain coal which made mining it easier. Additionally, railroads then usually charged less for long hauls than for short ones, and coal operators in the South paid lower wages, and leased convicts, which reduced the production cost considerably.

After 1900 the demand for Appalachian coal was stimulated by a number of factors. The number of coal mines grew in proportion to the rise in market demand, and it didn't cost much to open a mine. In the ten years prior to 1919, the total number of coal mines in America increased by more than 33%, and the greatest percentage of that increase came in the South. Increases in steel production and manufacturing of war materials caused by the conflict in Europe also helped.

There were still other factors in the equation besides convict labor, geography, railroads, and profits, more at stake even than coal. Few areas within the continental United States had evaded the influences of the industrial transformation that had swept America in the late nineteenth century. One that had escaped was the Cumberland Plateau, indeed, the entire southern Appalachian region. Here the people remained isolated, passed over by the forces of industrial-progress. Just as the Plateau's terrain limitations, its restrictive transportation network, and the relative absence of slavery limited the growth of commercial agriculture, so these conditions also fostered the survival of traditional cultural patterns and a family-based social system and economy. These Appalachian cultural patterns would be disturbed as a result of coal mining, an activity that was promoted by the New South Movement.

The New South movement can be traced to the early 1870s. At about that time southern journalists, businessmen, and politicians, but not, significantly, mountain folk, began promoting the potential of the southern mountains throughout America and in Europe. The vast untapped resources of the South were exalted not just as a means of making great wealth but more as a source for the boosters' magnanimous objective of revitalizing southern society. Lying in the very heartland of the South, the mountains harbored the materials necessary for building a 'new civilization'-- a New South patterned in a more modern industrial mold. The New South Creed included the mining of coal. According to Tennessee's most pronounced New South promoter, Joseph P. Killebrew, in 1874:

...the sum total of mineral fuel preserved for the use of the inhabitants of the south is practically infinite. Every valley and ravine that issues from the [Cumberland] plateau lengthens the outcrops and facilitates access to the beds. In...time...a thousand villages, towns and cities will grow up in the broad limestone plain before it; a thousand factories and mills will make these towns hum with life, and all this life will base itself on the mountain coal....

There was, however, a problem with ushering in this "mountain coal millennium," a cultural conundrum posed by the mountain people in the Cumberland Plateau. First of all, they were already the life there! However, northern capitalists and mining engineers from the "civilized" world saw mountain people as "backward." Partly as a result of the local color school of literature, the mountaineers became "poor whites," or "hillbillies." Visitors from the North identified the mountain people with other 'backward people' whom the leading industrial nations at the time were seeking to develop and to whom the term 'natives' was commonly applied.

Along with the exploitation of coal resources was the transformation of the mountain people, who became the objects of a massive domestic Protestant missionary movement. Missionaries sought to bring these folk into the mainstream and promise of American life. This was in keeping with a larger context. Just as nineteenth-century American and European imperialists sought to develop overseas colonial empires and "uplift and christianize" brown-skinned natives abroad, so they also worked to develop the natural and uplift the human resources of the Cumberland Plateau to usher in the blessings of the industrial age. Religionist-intellectuals justified exploiting the land by arguing that if industrial development "Americanized" the mountaineers - who, it should be pointed out, were already Americans - it would "uplift them." As C. Vann Woodward succinctly and sardonically noted: "Profit motive and missionary motive have often gone hand-in-hand in the development of 'backward people.' "

What can be said about the "discovery" of the mountain people in the late decades of the nineteenth century? By the 1880s Northern liberal intellectuals had abandoned the Negro as their cause celebre and amazingly discovered that in their living conditions, needs, and lives, white mountaineers resembled blacks. Unlike African-Americans, however, they were less numerous, geographically self-contained and nicely defined. Also, then so-called 'scientific' thought moved toward the theory of inferior races, and as white historians began to popularize a proslavery view of the South, Appalachian Anglo-Saxons began to replace blacks in the national awareness. In this manner the white man's imperial burden applied also to white Americans, including the benighted natives of the Cumberland Plateau. Thus nineteenth century American imperialism had its internal aspects too, and embodies part of the common regional heritage of the Appalachian experience.

Belief in the ideas of progress and the moral prerogative of uplift served to excuse exploitation and made mining coal almost a divine mission. What this really meant was that Appalachia and the Cumberland Plateau were in the way, they blocked more than progress - they blocked the forward march of civilization itself.

After 1890, the American Protestant Home Missionary societies found the unique nature of Appalachia undesirable. They needed an explanation to guide them in consolidating the region into the nation. After 1890 these missionary societies and of the new social science practitioners turned increasingly to Appalachia to test their own propositions about the relationship of culture, environment, and population in American history.

Samuel Tyndale Wilson, Presbyterian clergyman, scholar, and president of Maryville College in Blount County, Tennessee, was fairly typical. He believed (as late as 1915) that the mountain folks' plight could be annulled in just one generation by three means: 1)the economic or material development of the mountains; 2) the perfecting of the public school system, and; 3)an increase in the number of uplift agencies. It was the duty of Christian uplift organizations to prepare the mountain people so they could take advantage of the abundant opportunities said to be presented by industrialization. This meant that the mountaineers, whom many considered shiftless, slothful, and capricious, had to be taught that their traditional ways were improper. They had, as an entire cultural group, to learn to respect the time clock and adjust to the routines of industrial production, whether they wanted to or not.

One interesting example of this teaching process was found in the "Merry-Makers Club," at the Glen Mary Coal and Coke Company, in Scott County, in 1895. Organized for minor-miners, it had as its main object to secure healthful and innocent amusements for hard-working boys, to teach them that they could have real down-right fun and that there is nothing wrong in it....their motto is 'work while you work, play while you play.' They meet every week at the house of the directress, who reads aloud for an hour...and then all play games for another hour. During the summer months... a comfortable room has been built for...the 'Merry-Makers'....The boys are living up to their motto, and are working better than they ever did before.

Thus their traditional values were in a sense being altered, and playing polite parlor games apparently made for better workers.

It is important to reiterate that economic modernization was thought to be the leading means by which the mountain people could be integrated into modern society. (No one seems to have asked them if they wished to be integrated.) Railroads were the initial recourse to such ends. As one New South booster claimed: "Help has come to these marooned people. The Chesapeake and Ohio railroads...and the Louisville and Nashville system...have worked wonders along their routes, as is evidenced by thrifty towns, with churches, institutions of higher learning, mills, furnaces, and mines, which now may be seen where formerly all was stagnant." The arrival of the railroads were part of a larger national phenomenon. Island communities were being replaced by everywhere communities, as the process of erasing differences was transforming American culture into a more unadulterated form.

Foreign mining corporations created changes in land ownership in Appalachia and the Cumberland Plateau. Take for example the American Association, Ltd., of London, England a major developer in Campbell and Claiborne counties. Its tactics were to buy the rights of a single heir to a piece of property left to several family members. When the other heirs would refuse to sell, the company would go to court and ask for a judgment. Invariably the court would decree that it could not be split, and that it should be sold at public auction to the highest bidder - also invariably the American Association. At one time, as Ronald D. Eller points out, in 1889, 2,000 acres of land granted to its original settlers in 1839 were bought at auction for 200 dollars. This British company would through such tactics end up owning 80% of all the land in Campbell and Claiborne counties. Perfidious Albion, indeed.

This change in traditional land ownership patterns translated not only into coal production, but also into the displacement of the native populations in these two Tennessee counties. It was the result of a concerted and conscious strategy exercised by a powerful imperialist English corporation. Such actions led to transitions from the alleged dormant era of individual land ownership in the Plateau to the presumed millennium of progressive absentee land ownership complete with a property’s miner class, were typical results of capitalistic development in the Appalachian Mountains, if not in the world.

Before industrialization mountaineers made a living on small mountain farms and organized their lives around family-life, work, hunting, and the change of the seasons. The independent yeoman farmer would be transformed into a incidental industrial worker in just fifty short years. After the coming of coal mining and modernization the mountaineers were ladles and their families lived in company towns with a blend of ethnic and racial groups.

Many eastern and southern European immigrants were recruited to work in the coal mines of the Appalachian Mountains. Most often they were brought to coal fields to break strikes by native miners. Natives generally distrusted foreigners, if the following from the 1895 Annual Report of the Tennessee Bureau of Labor, Statistics, and Mines is any indication:

in Tennessee we do not experience and feel the full effect of the Pole, the Hungarian, the Russian, and the Italian as some of our sister States do, but we have a small nest of them in our mining districts; they do not understand our language, nor can they adapt themselves to our customs and laws; they work for themselves, live for themselves, and are...the tools of their employers, to do their wishes...[W]henever you see one of them on the road...he has a double barrel shot gun or Winchester rifle on his shoulder.

How did people from Hungary, Russia, and Italy get to the Cumberland Plateau anyway? Coal companies often sent agents to eastern seaports to attract unsuspecting immigrants who were rushed on trains to the coal fields. Upon arrival they lived under the constant presence of armed guards until they had "worked out" the cost of their transportation. Southern blacks were likewise recruited to work in the coal mines and they, like immigrants, were kept sequestered by the company in separate settlements.

Just as the ethnic mixture of the mountains changed as a result of coal mining, so did the material culture of the region transmute, especially when we consider coal mining towns.

While the mining town's population might reflect a wide ethnic variety, its material culture was more representative of the new industrial order. Mining towns are significant because they mirrored the basic changes in land ownership patterns and in social relationships in the Cumberland Plateau. And above all, according to a 1920 U.S. Bureau of Labor study, the chief reason for providing housing for miners in the Southern bituminous coal fields was to endow mining companies with a disciplined and stable labor supply.

Certainly there were company towns in all sections of the United States, in many other industrial habitats - the southern textile mill village, for example - but the effects of the coal company towns in the Appalachian Mountains were more long lasting. This was because the coal town straightaway determined the nature of community life in a large part of the region. Put another way, it was a potent means to establish the discipline of the urban industrial system upon the rural mountain folk.

Coal towns were prominent in the Southern Appalachians because in the Southern coal fields the towns were usually established along with the discovery of coal. Pioneer coal operators had to develop communities to house their labor supply. It is doubtful that they knew they were carrying out experiments in social control. The coal town provided efficient, expedient and inexpensive housing for a large labor force, and it contained the added prospect of company control over the activities for the miners themselves. Housing played a critical role in this exercise in social control. Since a landless miner and his family became homeless after he left his job he would be disinclined to provoke his employer and therefore remain docile and yielding to the company's dictates. One forbidden activity in any coal town was the formation of a union. What with the threat of losing house and home the coal miner was limited in his social and economic freedom, and effectively controlled. Thus the miner's company-owned house should be interpreted as a social control device.

Before the development of coal towns most mountaineer families lived in log structures. One description written in 1876 had it that the large log houses with gable end chimneys found on the Cumberland Plateau were rarely more than one story high. They are all covered with long split oak shingles, the people there call them 'boards,’ rifted from the trunks of selected trees. There is no sheathing on the roof beneath these shingles.... Looking up through the many openings in the roof one would think this would be but poor protection against rain, but they rarely leak.

Mary Noailles Murfree (Charles Egbert Craddock), was given to a more romantic view. In the local color school she described a typical Tennessee mountain home as a log cabin:

...ambushed behind the beech-trees, hard by in the gorge....all its belongings seemed huddled about it for safe keeping. The bee hives stood almost under the eaves; the ash-hopper was... close in the rear; the rain-barrel affiliated with the damp wall; the chickens were going to roost in an althea bush beside the porch; the boughs of the cherry plum and crab-apple trees were thickly interlaced above the path that led from the rickety rail fence, and among their roots flag-lilies, lark-spur, and devil-in-the-bush mingled in a floral mosaic.

Most of these kinds of dwellings were irretrievably eradicated as a result of mining of coal in the Cumberland Plateau and the entire Appalachian region. Frame construction, while not unknown, was not typically found outside of the valley towns until the establishment of coal-towns.

Most coal seams in the Cumberland Plateau were located in the wilderness either up steep hillsides, or in creek valleys and nearly inaccessible ravines. To get to the coal one had first to construct a branch tramway, to transport men and supplies. Next, work gangs hauled a steam engine and a saw mill over the narrow tramway and began cutting timber for colliery buildings and mine props. Priority was given to constructing structures that would be used to process coal. Often, the mining company offices, power plant, coke ovens, coal tipple, and branch railroad tracks [which arrived soon afterwards] consumed all available land in the restricted valley area, and houses had to be strung out along the creek's bank or placed on stilts along the mountainside or immediately adjacent to the railroad tracks. Company officials often built palatial structures high on the hillside overlooking the town - clearly designating theirs' and the miners' social rank. This pattern of community development was repeated so that by 1920 company mining settlements dotted the Cumberland Plateau landscape, having transformed it from an area of small scattered farms into a region of discrete and isolated self-contained social units. Coal-towns were located as close to the work as possible, this to increase the workers dependence upon the company and so create a stable, disciplined work force.

Houses in coal towns, or at least those of the miners, were usually board and batten frame structures much like railroad section houses. It may well be that miners' houses owed their origins, like their new way of life, to the expansion of railroads. Inasmuch as railroading and coal mining were so closely tied, it requires no cosmic leap of the imagination to understand that coal miners' housing, within the context of the company town, was not traditional, but industrial. Housing quality was an indication of social rank and further reinforced an inclination toward industrial feudalism in a moribund agrarian and egalitarian America. As a 1919 Southern Pine Association promotional brochure put it while discussing the quality of houses for workers: "When considering this question, it is...necessary to distinguish between homes for executives, clerical help, skilled workmen or unskilled labor. Even in these days of democracy, there still exists...class feeling...."

Life in coal towns was not idyllic. Tom Lowry, a retired miner and former resident of the now abandoned Cumberland Plateau coal town of Wilder-Davidson, succinctly put it: "The company just about owned you." Mrs. Della Mullins, a coal miners wife, concurred by saying: "Mining companies were king of the hill. You stooped and you bowed." Indeed, the mining company controlled nearly every essential aspect of community life, from work, shopping, education, retail merchandising, and medical care. The company store became the hub of coal mining community life, while non-denominational and generic wooden frame churches were the general rule for religious expression. The company provided schools and medical facilities as well. Social conditions were feudal and the coal operator was the law-giver.

In the southern mountains company towns functioned to limit the growth of social freedom and self-determination and to heighten social anxieties and insecurities. They shaped the new, but not necessarily better, social environment of the Cumberland Plateau. The coal towns of Appalachia were new communities imposed on the indigenous population as an expedient means to bring about the degree of worker-control and urbanization necessary for industrial development, but they created a system of closed, artificial communities.

So, what happened as a result of coal mining? Well, a few people became fabulously wealthy, a larger number did not. The culture and environmental balance of an entire area was transformed by so-called progress which forced an exchange of the independence and tenacious self-sufficiency of a family farm, for dependence and subordination to the wage system and the coal town. It is not at all surprising that once the coal played out that the transient coal towns would be abandoned. After all, without the need for miners there was neither need for their housing nor the artificial communities. Until a comprehensive survey is conducted, it cannot known just how many of these coal towns are yet extant along the Cumberland Plateau.

By 1930 the industrial system had made it its mark in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Former mountaineers were now miners and socially integrated within the new industrial era and economically dependent upon it as well. While this dependence was not unique to the Cumberland Plateau, the degree of dependence was. The same energies that forged the rest of the United States and the western world transformed the culture of the Tennessee Cumberland Plateau. The period of rapid growth accompanying the rise of industrial capitalism brought to the Cumberland Plateau a period of rapid economic growth and speedy social change. The persistent poverty of Appalachia has come not from any inherited laziness but rather from the particular kind of modernization that accompanied coal mining occurred in the years 1880 to 1930. That era and process of modernization are the primary reasons cultural resources associated with coal mining in the Cumberland Plateau, and no doubt the entire Appalachian region, are important to preservationists and cultural resource management planners.

Jesse C. Mills, the late director of the TVA Technical Library explained the significance of coal mining to the population of the mountains this way:

The mining and removal of coal became the one purpose to which all others were subordinated. The consequence of such one-purpose control was the loss by these mining communities of the mastery of their own destinies, the absence of development of any normal mechanism for self-control, and the forced exclusion of such mining communities from the mainstream of American democratic, social, civic, and economic development. It is an example of capitalism at its paternalistic worst, which is to say that rarely does capitalism do more than allow the accumulation of money at the expense of working people. The greatest good for the greatest number is not among the tenets of capitalism as the foregoing illustrates.

Copyright 1999 by Dr. James B. Jones, Jr., All rights in the above article are reserved.
No portion may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of the author.


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