Preserving Our History

By Carson Camp, as it appeared in The Running Water Historical News - Marion County, TN - June, 1995

Over the years, the 250 mine homes were slowly torn down for lumber, the equipment was cut up for scrap and the 268 beehive coke ovens were vandalized. In time, the areas around the ovens became a city dump overgrown by vines and trees. By 1980 only two original wooden frame mine homes existed along with the superintendent's mansion. The area around the coke ovens had become a forest and was still being used for a garbage dump by local residents. Few could recall what was once a major industrial site as little visible evidence remained to tell of its past historical significance and how it drastically altered the routine lives of many local families.

In the early 1980's Dunlap lost the railroad depot that had been built in 1888, which for so many years had contributed to the history of the region. For the want of a single dollar bill, it was destroyed because local leaders could only see repair costs instead of the landmark that needed to be saved. Only when the wrecking crews came to destroy the building was there an outcry, but it was too late. From this tragic lesson came the realization that something had to be done to preserve the local history.
Because my grandparents had worked in the Dunlap mines, I had heard the stories of the operations near my mountain homes. The mine areas were now vast forests with only chimneys sticking up where the mine families once lived. The incline railway was a route my mother and father used to hike to get to the city from their Cumberland Mountain homes before the automobile became the main source of transportation. And I listened to my mother tell of the death of her 33 year-old father. He was a shot driller in these old mine portals, and the black dust he inhaled damaged his lungs to the extent that he died far before his time. The pain of his death still haunts my mother because her only memory of her father was his death. She was barely three years old when he died at their small Cumberland Mountain home.
Only when a rare photo was reprinted in a local newspaper did I really understand the magnitude and importance of this industry to the history of my family and our region. The picture of a small "dinky" steam locomotive at the old Number 2 mine on Fredonia Mountain began my quest for answers to this great history. In time, over two hundred rare photographs were discovered by local residents who had stored them away in old trunks and closets. These pictures, published as a free service of our local newspaper, caused a major historical preservation movement. As a local photographer and artist, I had the equipment to duplicate and copy these pictures that told of the lost heritage of the Dunlap operation.

With these pictures I organized a group of interested citizens and we founded the Sequatchie Valley Historical Association, a nonprofit organization interested in preserving our cultural resources and educating local citizens that our heritage was important and should be collected and documented. As my interest was in the mining field and with the old coke ovens located at the dump in the downtown area we set this project as our first goal. After seeking permission from the landowner, the Sequatchie Valley Historical Association attempted to conduct a tour of the coke ovens to spur interest in the site as a possible park for the city. This first successful tour brought eight-five people and was our first exposure as a historical group. The day before, we had to bury five dead dogs which has been dumped at the site.

From this simple walking tour new information was discovered by our organization and by May of 1985 the property was officially listed as a state historic site. In September 1985 we had successfully managed to get the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In December that same year, we had been offered the property including the coke ovens as a donation from officials of the Bowater Southern Paper Company. As we were a newly formed organization we had not received a tax exempt status from the I.R.S. For this reason, we approached the City of Dunlap Commission and asked if they would help by accepting property on our behalf. Reluctantly, the commission agreed on the condition that we could not request funds from the city to maintain the historical site.

With voluntary assistance of the National Guard Engineers Unit Number 212, we set about the task of removing tons of trash that covered the roadside going to the park. With Chattanooga Television stations airing stories about the efforts of our group, we picked up support of the local unions in Chattanooga. Local #917 donated men and equipment to our cause. Hundreds of volunteers pitched in with wheelbarrows, axes and equipment. By 1986 we had won a certificate of commendation from The American Association for State and Local History.

In 1987, The Sequatchie Valley Historical Association had received the national "Take Pride in America Award" which was presented at the White House by then President Ronald Reagan. Local historical members made the drive to Washington to receive the honor in the Rose Garden of the President's mansion. The Historic Dunlap Coke Ovens during its first year of operation as a park, listed more than 10,000 visitors. With rest rooms being built and picnic tables being donated, soon the once trash dump had become the talk of the town.

The Tennessee Coal Fields
The Boom Years in Dunlap
The Company Town
Reconstructing Our History

The Sequatchie Valley Historical Association
114 Walnut Street Dunlap, Tennessee 37327
(423) 949-2156