Origin of the New South

The story of the development of the southern steel and iron industry begins in Tracy City at the Wooten Coal Mine. This story of the New South is told in the sixth gallery. The Sewanee Mining Company had been formed in 1852 to develop coal mining on the plateau. It built the Mountain Goat railroad from the Nashville to Chattanooga main line in Cowan up the mountain to Sewanee and began mining operations at Coal Bank (near present day St Andrews – Midway) in 1856. There was little coal there and what coal was there was of poor quality. The company then extended the railroad tracks ten miles through the forest to the site where coal had first been discovered about 1845. The Wooten Mine was opened with the first load of coal shipped on November 8, 1858. The Sewanee Mining Company had exhausted its financial resources by 1860 and filed for reorganization as Tennessee Coal and Railroad Company. It faced lawsuits from Tennessee creditors in a Tennessee state court and foreclosure of bonds in federal court by New York bondholders. The Civil War intervened with first the Confederates taking over the mine and in July 1863 the Federals securing control of the plateau and the mine. By the end of the war the mining operations at Tracy City were in shambles. In 1866 Arthur St. Clair Colyar, an attorney representing the Tennessee creditors, effected a settlement wherein, in a reorganized company, $400,000 of common stock was issued, purchased by him, and used to pay off the Tennessee creditors. The New York bondholders agreed to take new mortgage bonds from the reorganized company to settle their claims.

Colyar was one of the architects of the New South. These advocates believed that the future of the South following the Civil War depended on the South moving from economic dependence on a single agricultural crop with occasional cottage industry to diversification of agriculture and a more industrialized modern economy that could produce products in mass. With this objective in mind, Colyar and those associated with him set about to determine if the bituminous Sewanee Seam coal mined in the Wooten Mine could be converted into coke with sufficient heat intensity to be used in blast furnaces with iron ore and limestone to produce pig iron. Pig iron is the basic ingredient for the manufacture of iron and steel products. The Fiery Gizzard makeshift blast furnace was erected to determine if coal from the mine would coke. The Fiery Gizzard produced fifteen tons of pig iron before it fell apart, proving that coke burned from Sewanee Seam coal could be used successfully in blast furnaces to produce pig iron. One hundred and twenty coke ovens were built at the Wooten Mine site in 1873 and Tennessee Coal and Railroad Company contracted for the use of convicts from the Tennessee State Penitentiary to work in the mine and tend the coke ovens.

The gallery depicts how Tennessee Coal and Railroad Company grew into a reorganized Tennessee Coal Iron and Railroad Company that by 1892 controlled 60% of the coal and iron ore reserves in Tennessee and Alabama and most of the iron and steel production resources between Chattanooga and Birmingham. It had become an industrial empire. In 1904 it moved its offices from Tracy City to Ensley Town near Birmingham. In 1907 it was acquired by United States Steel Corporation in a transaction approved by President Theodore Roosevelt as not to be in violation of the Sherman Anti Trust Act.

Coal mining on the plateau continued with the formation of Tennessee Consolidated Coal Company by E. L. Hampton, the railroad station agent at Tracy City. In 1905 the Mountain Goat Railroad, by then owned by Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railroad, was extended to Coalmont. In 1917 it was extended again to Palmer where coal mining operations were continued until the 1990’s when mining ceased on the plateau due to labor discord and environmental issues with the coal. The Mountain Goat Railroad tracks were removed in 1973 from Coalmont to Palmer and in 1985 from the rest of the route.

After Sewanee Mining Company in 1857 found coal mining unprofitable at Coal Bank and the area that is now Sewanee,  it offered 5,000 acres of its holdings in that area to trustees of the Southern Dioceses of the Episcopal Church for the establishment of a Southern University. Had not the mining company’s railroad up the mountain from Cowan and the Nashville and Chattanooga main line been in existence, the site would not have been considered even with the generous offer of land. Thus, land unsuitable for the mining of coal but with a railroad for access became the site for The University of the South.
This university brought many people with cultural experiences different from those who had pioneered the area. There was a thin but well distributed native population of about 150 people in the vicinity.  To this native population were added clergymen, academics, administrators, civil war widows, construction workers and even a Negro servant group. The mix produced a new culture with the university being the major economic force. There were clashes within the cultural mix but in time they resolved differences. Today the university has, among other things, become a renowned center for learning that includes environmental and ecological study of the Cumberland Plateau through its Environmental Studies Program, a Landscape Analysis Laboratory, Forestry and Geology Programs as well as through other disciplines and endeavors. Today its campus has grown from the initial gift of 5,000 acres from Sewanee Mining Company to over 13,000 acres, much of which is used for environmental learning and lessons in preservation and conservation of the land.