Tennessee Mountain Stories

Meet Harry Lane - Author of Tennessee Memories

Last week I introduced Tennessee Memories by Harry Lane. His son (and one of my favorite people!) Derek Lane shared a little more information about the author so I want to pass that along to you this week.


Harry Lane (1936-2013) loved Tennessee, though he didn’t live here until his late twenties. He grew up in the hot coastal plains region of southern Georgia, studied geology at Georgia and geography at Kansas, and only moved to Tennessee when he began teaching geography at Tennessee Tech in 1964. He very much enjoyed the tremendous variety of landscapes in Tennessee, from the mountains in the east, to the Cumberland Plateau just east of Cookeville, to the Nashville Basin, and the fertile plains of the west. His love for the state extended to the four-season climate, the interesting place-names, the Scotch-Irish mountain heritage of many Tennessee residents, and its music. He even bought a ‘mountain dulcimer’ from a local craftsman and learned to play it. From the early 1980’s on, he captured many of the state’s natural wonders on film, and was also a painter in oils, watercolor, and acrylic. He was always a skilled writer, and his hobby list also included stone masonry, wood-working, calligraphy, and occasional poetry. Many of his former students remember him as a good instructor, a demanding but fair and kind professor. His wife of almost 53 years, Melba, still lives in Cookeville, and his three sons and four grandchildren live in Utah, Tennessee, and Illinois.

Tennessee Memories by Harry Lane

Harry Lane in the center with his brothers Larry and Emory

Harry Lane in the center with his brothers Larry and Emory

A couple of decades ago, a professor from Tennessee Tech named Harry Lane wrote a booklet of “Tennessee Memories.”

Mr. Lane was born in South Georgia and traveled throughout the United States and Europe; yet he loved the Tennessee mountains and I have really enjoyed reading about his affinity for our homeland. I hope you too will enjoy these writings as I share them over the next few weeks.

What is this place called Tennessee?  By Harry Lane

Unedited introductory article of “Tennessee Memories”


Once upon a time, the Lord made a place that had a very pleasing variety of land-scapes, from mountains, hills, and valleys to plains and a plateau.  He blessed this place not only with beautiful landforms, but also with a benign climate that is not excessively hot in the summer nor exceptionally cold in the winter.  He blessed it with autumns and springs that are lovely enough to make angels sing and sinners smile.  The “bottom lands” of the river valleys, the limestone lowlands between the eastern ridges, and the plains of the west, He made fertile and productive, and He cloaked the whole of it with verdant forests, cut by fresh, sparkling waters of innumerable streams.


This favored place stretched for hundreds of miles from the mountain in the east to a great river valley on the western border.  The Lord peopled this land first with a stout-hearted population having reddish skins.  These people named the eastern part of this territory – and the large river that crossed it – Tanasi.  The people with white skins, who came much later form far across the eastern ocean, used this name to signify a larger region; the spelling became Tennessee, and so it remains today – Tennessee, sixteenth member of the United States, renowned and loved by Americans everywhere, but most of all by its own citizens.

Tennessee is called home today by some four million persons, but it is known to all Americans and many foreigners as the state that has produced folk heroes and famous historical figures such as Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, James K. Polk, Andrew Johnson, Sam Davis, Cordell Hull, and Sergeant Alvin York.  It is known as a state that retains much scenic splendor, for the volunteers who have fought with valor in many wars, and as the home of country music and walking horses.

Tennessee is renowned for the great mountains that cross it in its easternmost part – mountains shared with North Carolina – that are the highest in the eastern United States.  It is known for the national park that is located in those Great Smoky Mountains – the largest and most-visited park east of the Mississippi River.

The state is famous internationally for the Tennessee Valley Authority, a giant socio-economic undertaking that has resulted in the harnessing of a great river system for multiple purposes:  flood control, improved water transportation, power production and industrial growth, and recreational opportunities.

Tennessee’s name has been sung by millions of tongues across the U.S.A., for its name has been an integral part of a thousand songs, many of which have become internationally popular.  This is partly due to Nashville’s prominence as the country music capital; more broadly, the city has become of the most important electronic-recording centers in America – producing a broad spectrum of recordings while focusing on country music.

Perhaps most of all, Tennessee’s name evokes from many millions of Americans “down home” thoughts and feelings – thoughts of grass-roots America, rich with valuable traditional and folklore, keeping still its scenic beauty and its contact with the past while belonging to modern America with its countless advantages and opportunities.

In short, Tennessee is a varied land, rich with scenery, human resources, history, and tradition.  One of the best keys to the hold that the state places upon the minds of its people is that, although many leave the state, a great proportion of those who do so eventually return.  Few can resist the call of the Volunteer State.

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.

Logging and Timber

Giant Log.jpg

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.

Lumber from the Big Woods.jpg

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. 

Cedar Rafts.jpg

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.