Tennessee Mountain Stories

Zenith Coal Mining Community


Janice Matthews Smith discusses in her book, Looking Back, the mining operation and surrounding community of Zenith, Tennessee.  Zenith today is a forest, high bluff, a few homes and no sign whatsoever of industry.  However, in 1913 the O&W Railroad arrived at Zenith and as always happened where the train stopped, a community grew.

This community, as with so many early 1900’s communities in Appalachia, grew around coal mines.  The first mines that were opened weren’t very profitable.  However, other areas proved worthy of the investment and the mining operation continued in Zenith for thirty years.

Across the Eastern United States organizing and strife surrounding unions in coal mines has become legendary.  Fentress and Scott counties can claim their own share of that drama and the violence in Zenith actually broke the community and ultimately ended the mining operation.  Mrs. Smith records no less than 4 shootings at the mines.

The first victim she lists is an unnamed man shot in then neck in a home, although she doesn’t say if it was his own home.  “Union men hid behind the bluffs and surrounded Zenith” at that time.

Zenith Mines.jpg

The second shooting involved Sheriff Wolford Smith.  He was shot from the bluffs hitting him in the leg when he stepped out of the company store.

The next law enforcement officer involved in a Zenith shooting was Sheriff Taylor who responded to a call that Bud Markel was at the company store with a .38 special.  Bud Markel was not a local man but had come to work in the mines.  He befriended Ed Slaven and stayed in the Slaven home.  However, he drank and he was a mean and destructive drunk.  Mr. Slaven told Bud he’d have to change his ways or find somewhere else to stay.  He got drunk again and went into the company store with the weapon and that’s when Sheriff Taylor was called in.  Markel offered to surrender, allowing the sheriff to move in close to him and then he shot him in the chest.  His friend grabbed the sheriff’s gun and shot Markel.  Both men died from their wounds.

At least one more shooting is remembered when someone shot into the store at Mt. Helen.  No one was reported injured at that time.

The final shooting victim Mrs. Matthews details was Cap Woods.  He was tasked with driving the payroll from Union Bank in Jamestown to Zenith; concerned by all the violence in the area he swapped trucks with a foreman from the mines, although the foreman drove Mr. Woods’ truck along behind him.  As the pair reached “Noah Buck” hill, shots were fired from both sides.  Ten men were arrested and fearing a lynching, they were held in Nashville until the trial when all were cleared.

The Zenith mines closed around 1941 leaving many men unemployed.  Some went to work in the Wilder coal mines while others found mining positions in Kentucky and Virginia.  Still others went to the logging woods which continue to employee folks on the mountain today.

The railroad tracks were taken up from Zenith in 1955.

Next Friday, March 29th, I’ll be at Hall Family Pharmacy in Clarkrange signing books. I’m hoping I can meet a whole lot of you readers so be sure to make plans to come by!

Logging and Timber

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Two weeks ago when I introduced “Looking Back” here I said, “Tenessee’s Cumberland plateau has been rich in natural resources, chiefly coal.”  While it’s true that the plateau supplied a lot of coal to America’s industrial machine, I want to amend that statement – coal is not chief among our natural resources.  Logging has been an important industry on our mountain really for a century and a half.  Timber is still an important resource for us.

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Last week’s article about East Jamestown’s Incline Railway certainly introduced the importance of this resource.  While we may think of the railroads coming to the mountain just for the coal industry, the O&W which served Jamestown and Oneida was largely associated with the Tennessee Stave and Lumber mills.  I might call the Stearns Coal and Lumber company their chief competitor as the two had legal battles for who would be able to build the railway.  Note that the Kentucky company also included lumber in their company name.  It seems that everyone recognized the importance of both natural resources.  In fact, Jason Duke looked at coal, railroads and lumber all together in his book Tennessee Coal Mining, Railroading & Logging… (Turner Publishing, 2003).

TImber Crew.jpg

I got to thinking about logging on the mountain, and looking through some other books I have so I thought I’d share a few early pictures, especially from Fentress County, Tennessee Pictorial History Volume 1…the First One-Hundred Years (Fentress Courier, 1998).  These show work-hardened me moving enormous logs with horse power.  One picture I wish I’d found for last week’s incline article actually shows a crude incline skidder. 

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I’ve always heard legends of floating logs to market and have asked a million questions about it with few answers.  I guess I can imagine floating logs on the Tennessee River or the Cumberland River, but we’re not a river-land, at least not the way Chattanooga, Knoxville or Nashville were in their early days.  I understand that the Baldwin Gulf was a whole community established around logging and they floated the logs down the East Fork of the Obey River.

This is certainly a subject we will re-visit.  And I’m hoping to explore the East Fork of the Obey River so I’ll share that with you.  I hope I’ve never made out like I was an expert on history in our area and I tell you what reading some of these books and especially old tales like A.R. Hogue’s book from 1916 reminds me how little I know!  But it sure is exciting learning, isn’t it?  I’d love to hear your stories about logging, just click COMMENTS below.



Jamestown’s Incline Railway

Incline Railway.jpg

Railroads are fascinating – as many a boy (regardless of his age) can tell you.  There is a romance about the era of rail travel when we still packed in large trunks and dressed in milner’s plumage.

I was fascinated to read in the “Looking Back” book about an incline railway that was built from Wolf River up to The Basin in East Jamestown, Tennessee.  I have never heard about it before and it drove me to research the purpose and history of these railways.

The practical side of rail lines lies in the ability to move heavy loads over rough terrain with minimal power.  It is a tool that has been utilized for centuries.

Wikipedia records that the earliest documented inline was used in Austria in 1515 to provide freight access to Hohensalzburg Castle at Salzburg.  Most incline railways are industrial tools, often found in mines.  Most of the pictures of mines I’ve seen include a rail line up out of the underground mines and into the tipple for loading.  I never thought of these as an “incline railway” although they always consist of rails laid on an incline – so that obviously fits the definition!  These inclines do not require the steel rails I always associate with railroads and the earliest versions moved cars over wooden rails.

The Wolf River Incline Railway was always about moving the timber from the Wolf River Valley up to the rail lines for distribution and use across the country.  The Tennessee Stave and Lumber Company originally had a mill in Verdun and the logs had to be moved from under the mountain to that mill.  It’s a tough haul on a stretch of highway the Department of Transportation has struggled for years to keep from falling off the mountain.  Laying rails was ingenious in those days before heavy trucks were widely available. 

Steam shovel at The Basin at the top of the Incline

Steam shovel at The Basin at the top of the Incline

Doyle Jones reports that the mill was moved to the head of Wolf River in 1922, so that accounts for the picture above showing sawn lumber loaded at the bottom of the incline.  When the mill was built in the valley, pre-assembled huts for the workers were lowered down on the incline and positioned near Blowing Cave and up Rotten Fork.  Steam engines 30, 40 and 50 were also lowered down the incline and the tracks ran into the tract timber about 12 miles. 

Building the railroads both the O&W from Oneida to Jamestown as well as the incline and her associated rails was back breaking work.  While it supplied jobs to a lot of local men, others were brought into the area.

 Inclines can be powered by a wide range of energy sources including manpower, horsepower, steam, or even water-balances.  I haven’t found any record of the power source for the Jamestown Incline.

Old Louvaine Community


Tenessee’s Cumberland plateau has been rich in natural resources, chiefly coal.  The history of coal mining is colorful the world-around and much has been written and recorded about our coal mining towns around Wilder, Sandy and Davidson.  However, there were several other mines as well as timber operations and the communities that sprang up to support those operations.  When a friend handed me a book ab out “Old Louvaine & Zenith in East Jamestown, Tennessee” I nearly cried out because Zenith has been a community I’ve heard about my whole life but know very little about.

Train at Louvaine.JPG

This book, written by Janice Matthews Smith includes dozens of pictures of the O&W railroad, depots and steam engines.  It has pictures of the incline railway from Wolf River to The Basin, as well as  folks who lived in the area in the early part of the 20th century.   It is a wealth of information and a treasure-trove of pictures – I can hardly wait to share it with you!  However, as is often the case, it leaves me with unanswered questions and you dear readers are my very best resource so PLEASE click comments below and share what you know about these subjects!

Louvaine is not a community I’m familiar with, however I find Louvaine Road off the Pickett Park Highway and very near the Big South Fork park.  Mrs. Smith records that Hwy 154 was previously known at the Old Louvaine Road.

East Jamestown Post Office.JPG

The timber industry has been big business on the plateau since long before coal was discovered, and in fact we’re still cutting a lot of trees off the mountain.  Around 1912 logging was supporting the Tennessee Stave and Lumber Company.  This company moved to the top of Wolf River to an area known as The Basin around 1922. 

Louvaine boasted a store owned by the lumber company and housing a post office.  The East Jamestown post office operated from 1928 – 1955 and I can’t find a post office specifically for “Louvaine”.  The mail car would slow down just enough to toss a bundle of mail out the window where postmistress Rhonda Sims would pick it up and carry it into the postoffice to be sorted. 

Louvaine Hotel.JPG

Mrs. Sim’s husband ran a blacksmith shop across from the post office.  There was a school at East Jamestown and tool sheds built by the railroad.  John and Gulie Tays built a hotel / boarding house for the workers at the lumber mill and the railroad.

Mrs. Smith’s book lists 21 families living in Old Louvaine.  This was a thriving community that has now disappeared as so many of the boom towns did.  I’m thrilled that one native of Louvaine has assembled pictures and memories to share with all of us. 

The Music of the Old Country


Despite Tennessee Mountain Stories’ focus on the Cumberland Plateau, I often run across people and families that while their geography doesn’t fit the model, their culture certainly seems to.  And as I recently talked with a friend about her grandfather, and the similarities to my own ancestors, I thought I’d share this story, his resourcefulness and love of music with you today.

Carl Harney was born in 1907 in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.  He moved first with his parents then on his own and with his wife to Arkansas, Mississippi and eventually to Southeastern Ohio.  Music was a part of his life from the earliest age, but he never received any formal instruction.  In the 1930’s he traded five dollars worth of groceries for an old fiddle and seems to have rarely been without an instrument from that day on.  In his late 40’s an injury forced him out of his job at a stave mill – work he had been doing all of his adult life.  By that time his love of the fiddle had grown to the point that he began building them himself. 


He left a wealth of memories in the hearts of his children and grandchildren, as well as slew of foster children he and his wife Minnie helped to raise.  A number of the instruments he built are still treasured by members of the family as well as wooden toys, knives and kitchen tools.  Minnie Harney said he sang from the time his feet hit the floor until he went to sleep at night.  However, in his last years a lung disease prevented him from singing the old songs he’d learned throughout his life.  Still he could play and would spend hours sitting beside a tape recorder playing his fiddle.  Those recordings as well as a stack of records, produced right in his living room while he played along with family members and neighbors, still survive as well.

I’ve mentioned here before how the music of the mountains came from the old country and was kept alive by the people for all these generations.  Well the Harneys settled a little further west but the same kind of culture came with them.  They too kept alive a part of their ancestry and passed it along the same way it had been passed for centuries – by planting the songs in the minds of children who would sing them throughout their own lives to be heard by yet another generation.  Isn’t that a beautiful picture to imagine?