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.
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.