Tennessee Mountain Stories

Jamestown, Tennessee “The Obedstown of the Gilded Age"

Northup Falls; You can still hike to it: Scott at Backwoods Adventures knew just where the trailhead is located.

Northup Falls; You can still hike to it: Scott at Backwoods Adventures knew just where the trailhead is located.

Our tour of the Upper Cumberland begins this week in the Fentress County-seat, Jamestown.  We may be starting in the center of the touring area, but remember I was prompted to write this after the Highway 127 sale which of course originated in Jamestown.

In reading more carefully the six page article in the 1940’s era “March of Progress” publication, Jamestown is presented largely as an industrial opportunity.  Sure, there is a casual mention that Jamestown is located “upon the exact spot of an old Cherokee camp bearing the name of ‘Sand Springs’.”  And there is a quick history of the town.

According to this publication the first deed for land in the county was issued in 1800 to Alvin C. York’s great-great-great grandfather, Conrad Pile, a close personal friend of Davey Crockett.  It is also proudly noted that Pile and Crockett hunted the area woodland together.  Historical note is given to Mark Twain’s father who contracted the first courthouse and acquired about 100,000 acres of virgin forest to ensure, “my heirs are secure”.  However, the parents of the famous writer left Jamestown for Missouri just three months before Samuel Clemens was born.  And of course no historical account of Fentress County would fail to mention Sergeant Alvin C. York, the hero of World War I – of course this publication refers to that great conflict as the World War.

Today we might write such an article with an eye toward tourism and therefore focus on the history and activities of the area.  While this article certainly details the rustic beauty the Jamestown area has to offer, it is clearly geared toward the industrialist.  The sections on oil, gas and coal are downright technical as they discuss the type of coal, the era in which each of the resources would have developed and comparison of production across the region. 

If you know much about Fentress County history at all, you know a little about coal’s importance.  This document cites Tennessee’s 1939 production as 5.2 million tons.  That’s one-third of what West Virginia produced in 2002.  The difference between coal production then and now is phenomenal – in 1939 miners wearing carbide lights largely chipped away at coal seams with sharp picks whereas today’s mines have heavy drilling equipment.  Of course the Wilder mines had electricity even before TVA strung power lines across the mountains for they were creating their own power in a steam plant.  Therefore those “big mines” as we often refer to them, benefitted from the automation electricity afforded.  So I’m pretty impressed that seventy-five years ago Tennessee’s coal production was even worth comparing to a modern mine.

The story turns to the nearby community of Allardt where Mr. Max Colditz had been keeping climatic records for fifty years.  Using his data, the writer was proud to report that Fentress County enjoyed consistent rainfall throughout the year.  Mr. Colditz summarized the Plateau’s conditions as, “the winters are mild.  There is never a winter month that has not some days in which children can play in the sunshine outdoors.  The summers are pleasant, the heat never oppressive and most always a breeze.” 

Of final note from this article is the presence of the railroad.  I really wish it had given more details but simply mentions that the Oneida and Western Railroad has an eastern terminus in Oneida, Tennessee and that its daily passenger service “penetrates what was formerly called the ‘Wilderness Country’.”  I suppose that passenger service could get you anywhere in the country if you changed trains enough, but I would have loved to hear what direct points could be reached from Jamestown.

It’s hard to read this sort of article without looking through my twenty-first century lenses.  However, I find it a fascinating view of history for it’s not someone’s perception of what folks were thinking about our county before World War II, but it was written by contemporaries of the time.  This had to have been written in the height of The Great Depression and I know folks in Fentress County, and all over the Cumberland Plateau, were suffering.  However, there is so much hope in this article.  It isn’t a plea for someone to bail them out; they aren’t looking for outsiders to bring charity to this poor Appalachian community.  In fact, here we have a group promoting the great beauty and resources of the land and people, and I found it thoroughly refreshing to read.

I will try to make readable pictures of the actual pages of this article and post them on Pinterest if you would be interested in reading them.