Lost Civilization of Dade


Lost Civilization of Dade
Historically Speaking
Donna M. Street

While the rest of the south was deep in carpet bagging and reconstruction, Dade County had its own badge of honor and shame, depending on how you look at it. Trying to bring industrial development to our geographically challenged area has been an ongoing quest of local leaders for three centuries. Iron, coal and natural gas deposits have brought developers here multiple times. The most successful run was from 1873-1908, when high-powered Georgia politicians got involved and created an incorporated community, a form of government, industries, and used a shameful convict lease system to get coal out of the ground and make mining profitable. Railroads were the future of transportation and coal was the food that fed the engines. There was coal mining in Dade County since at least 1856 and probably earlier. Before the War, the mines on Sand Mountain had been privately owned by the family of Civil War legend, John Brown Gordon. They were known as the Gordon Mines and one of the mines was named Castle Rock. He is noted for saying that he lived in Alabama, worked in Georgia and got his mail in Tennessee, which is possible if you live in what we know as Bryant, AL work in Cole City, GA and get your mail at Shellmound, TN. As an aside, he was also the leader of the Raccoon Roughs, which was one of several companies of local men who joined the Confederacy.
I became fascinated with what my students at Davis Elementary called the “coke ovens” in the mid-70’s, when they told me tales of the ovens and the mines in a place called the “Big Woods”. Of course, I thought that they were just telling stories and they were, but their tales turned out to be based in fact. After talking with my friend and colleague, Byron Ballard, I learned that the coke ovens were real and I began to realize that I didn’t know as much about Dade County history as I thought. That realization began a quest that continues to this day. About 1978 while in graduate school at West Georgia, I copied my first documented proof of what had happened here in the 1880’s. I have continued to randomly search for and pick up items until our recent trip to the coke ovens and for weeks after.
In 1858, Dade County submitted a report to Governor Joseph E. Brown. It was the annual report of education. It listed 671 students with 25 schools, with an assessed tax rate of $150 for the year. Joe Brown was Georgia’s governor from 1858-1865. He was an ambitious man. Following the tactics of fictional heroine, Scarlett O’Hara Kennedy during reconstruction, he just had to be in on something big that would give him fame and make money. In 1872 Brown became the President of Western and Atlantic Railroad. In February of 1873 by an act of the Georgia Legislature, he and his cohorts formed the Dade Coal Company. With profit being the bottom line, they took advantage of convict least system that Georgia instituted in December of 1866. The system was put in place because most of the jails and prisons in Georgia had been destroyed during the Civil War and a way to manage prisoners in the state was needed. It was also a de facto method of controlling the former slaves throughout the state.
In 1876, Brown leased 100 convicts at $11 for per convict for five years. By 1878, Dade was one of three companies in Georgia allowed to lease all of the convicts in Georgia. The leases were for the next 25 years at $25,000 per year. That made the cost of labor really cheap. Coal could be mined in Pennsylvania at about $8 per ton. Brown liked to brag that at the Dade Coal Company it could be mined for $1.60 per ton. In 1875, Georgia had 926 convicts (90 white males, 805 colored males, 30 colored females and one white woman). Georgia received $10,756.48 from the leases in 1875. Continuing next week with tales of murder, hangings, a lady evangelist, the 1880 census, for whom Cole City was really named and the abrupt end of the most prosperous mining era in Dade.
Former Governor Joe Brown had worked his way back up the ladder to a position of power despite reconstruction. He became the President of Western and Atlantic Railroad. He needed coal to run his trains, so he found some. It happened to be on Sand Mountain in the gulf which had coal mines since at least 1856. The Yankees had traversed it to make their way toward Chickamauga. So far I don’t know what happened between 1863 and 1873. There are no Dade County Newspapers for those years. Our microfilmed copies at the library begin in the 1870’s and oddly are a result of the Dade Coal Company and the Rising Fawn Iron Works. The communities that came to thrive because of the industry that came to Dade were unique and are almost forgotten. The 1880 census brings them to life.
The census taker for Cole City was named Robert Lindsay. Even he didn’t spell it correctly and wrote it as Coal City, which still happens today. The legislature of Georgia said it like this, “That the village or association of persons residing at the Dade Coal Mines, operated by Joseph E. Brown, William C. Morrill, John M. Born, Jr. Walter S. Gordon and others, be the same is hereby incorporated under the name of Cole City (in honor of Colonel E. W. Cole).” They also planned the government of commissioners (“five in number) and stated what could and could not be taxed. They mandated the size. “The corporate limits of the said city shall extend two miles in every direction from the present main entrance of the coal mine now operated by the Dade Coal Company. . . .”




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