Reconstructing our History

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

In 1989, an article about our historical efforts appeared in the "Southern Living Magazine" (90). Various other articles had been sent nationwide by the Tennessee Department of Tourism. These articles caused visitors from as far away as Pennsylvania to make the drive down to seethe Dunlap Coke Ovens.

In 1989 we received a call from an attorney requesting our complete address: a few days later an important envelop arrived with a document stating that a Rhea County historian Mr. David Henry Gray, had passed away and the Dunlap Coke Ovens Park was to be beneficiary of 30% of his residual assets from the sale of his estate. As a result, the Coke Ovens Museum became a reality as over $71,000 was left to reconstruct "The Commissary"

Mr. Gray had determined that our project was worthy of his bequest from attending a lecture presented by me at a monthly historical meeting in Dayton, Tennessee over a year prior to his death. We were unaware that he had included us in his will and even today the story is still amazing to those who hear how it came to be. He had felt that our project needed a boost and his estate could provide funds to get it underway: it is believed that Mr. Gray had never seen the Park except from pictures presented at the historical meeting he attended.

By 1990, the reconstruction of "The Commissary" was well underway, with an additional $5,000 donated by the Studer Coal Families who operated the mines in our region. Soon a truckload of concrete block was donated by a local trucking company. Today the massive three-story structure is almost complete with many local and regional coal heritage artifacts being houses in the building. The historical association is presently holding meetings in a finished portion of the structure.

A large outdoor amphitheater exists on the grades where the original dinky steam locomotives pulled the charging cars full of coal to the top of the coke ovens: each grade level allowed rail service to easily reach the charging hole on each side of the rails. The coke oven walls now serve as a backdrop for the stage, built from railroad trestle beams from the upper Sequatchie Valley Railroad, which was abandoned in the 1980's. Totally constructed with private funds and donations, the site is home of the yearly Coke Ovens Bluegrass Festival. In 1998, the park will host the 12th annual festival, highlighting bluegrass music while letting visitors get a glimpse of history. Proceeds derived from the festival provide operating funds to further enhance what is already a major effort by the all volunteer staff to maintain the 62 acre park. Present efforts by the Coke Ovens Museum Association and the Historical Association are ongoing to acquire 318 additional acres which actually would encompass the total incline railway and mine entrances on top of the Cumberland Plateau.

The Dunlap Coke Ovens Park had become a major tourist attraction in Dunlap, Tennessee, and for many local citizens it is hard to believe that at one time the site was the worst eyesore in the city. It is hoped that future developments will continue and more improvements will allow the history of coal to be preserved so that no one will forget the fires that once burned in our city.

Works Cited

"Dunlap Mine" "The Cupola" October 1920 Nelson, Unknown first name, "The Southern Tennessee Coal Field", published by the State of Tennessee, 1919.

Sequachee Valley News: 13 July 1899; 4 October 1900; 26 December, 1901; 6 March 1902; 17 April 1902; 7 April 1904; 15 March, 1906; 1916. Articles used from these sources have no authors' names or titles. Thomas Hill was the owner, publisher, editor and writer of this newspaper. Although the county and valley name is spelled Sequatchie, the same word is spelled Sequachee in the title of the newspaper.

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

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