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Friday, March 24, 2006

A Brief History of Mining in East Tennessee

Always a hot topic in modern culture especially among environmentalists, mining has made more than an impact on the environment but it has also found a place in the history books and in the hearts of many residents of the Appalachian region. Mining was among the first industries to come to these remote regions and provide jobs for many who would have had no other means of earning a living. Never among the highest paying jobs, mining for mineral deposits the ancient Romans are thought to be the first civilization to develop a means of extracting deposits from the ground and refining them into a usable form for weapons and tools. These same techniques are used today in the coal regions. Mining has touched many families in more than a financial way. Mining also claimed the lives of many men who provided the back breaking labor to extract the ore from the ground and move it to smelters for refining.
(view of Nolichucky River fom ShinBone Ridge)

Mining is thought to have started in East Tennessee in the 1770's in the Bumpass Cove area (pronounced Bump-us) near Embreeville in Washington and Unicoi Counties, a small mountain community located on the Nolichucky River in the southeastern corner of Washington County has a long mining history. Ores in the Bumpass Cove area, about three miles southeast of Embreeville, were first mined for lead and reportedly used in bullets fired at the British in 1780 in the battle of Kings Mountain. Smelting began as early as 1815, when Elijah Embree and others sporadically produced iron from the Bumpass Cove ores in beehive furnaces made from slabs of native rock found close to the operations. Ore from these mines were also shipped by rail to Charleston, SC to be used in the making of cannon barrels fired during the civil war or as we say down here, "The War of Northern In Aggression".

In 1889 English investors formed the Embreville, Iron and Railway Company (all successor companies corrected the spelling to "Embreeville.") Embreville Freehold purchased the forty-five-thousand-acre John Blair Estate, and in 1891 a railroad, later acquired by Southern Railway Company, was completed from Johnson City to Embreeville. That same year the company formed the Embreeville Town Company to develop a town of thirty thousand inhabitants. In 1892 the company completed a smelter with pig iron output of around 150 tons per day. All efforts to develop commercial iron production proved futile and in 1900 American interests took over the British holdings. The Embree Iron Company acquired the property in 1903 but was also unsuccessful in commercially producing pig iron. The company was able to stave off dissolution in 1913 when the presence of commercial zinc deposits was recognized. Embree Iron Company began producing zinc and then lead and quickly paid off its debts. Although ore reserves dwindled after World War I, the company continued to operate during the Great Depression. Manganese production began in 1935, and in 1939 the company was the nation's largest producer of metallurgical grade manganese concentrates, boasting an output of 73,000 tons. Manganese reserves were rapidly exhausted, however, and the company was liquidated in 1946. By 1951 the Appalachian Zinc Co. was reported to have shipped some zinc ore from these mines. As a result of this the The Appalachian Mining & Smelting Co. had begun active operations by the end of the year at its lead and zinc properties near Embreeville.

(photo of mine workers in Bumpass Cove)

Today the mines are silent, the landscape scarred forever. Remnants of the buildings and company owned homes still stand as a reminder of a time when iron was king and hard work was the rule of the day. My grandfather worked in these mines. I grew up playing in these mines. We hardly ever look at these lost and forgotten places with a smile on our face and a warm feeling in our hearts because of the impact these operations had on the world around us. Even more than that, the impact that these mines had on American history will not make the evening news, but in archives, photo albums and memories of those who lived the life of a miner, the 6pm news just would not understand the enormity of having to move a mountain with a pick and shovel just to feed your family.


  • At Friday, 24 March, 2006, Blogger D L Ennis said…

    Very interesting article Mark! Mining supported a lot of families in this country for a very long time and it has always been tough and dangerous work and remains so. These people should not be forgotten and because of people like you perhaps we can all remain aware of their contributions and sacrifices. Thanks for the article!

  • At Saturday, 25 March, 2006, Blogger Leslie Shelor said…

    Awesome article. many of the people in my area went to work in the mines during the 1920s and 30s. One man was killed and his family was affected by the loss all their lives.


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