Hell With the Lid Off: Dade Coal Mines 1886

Historically Speaking

Donna M. Street

November 5, 2014


Hell With the Lid Off : Dade Coal Mines 1886


Even though I am ashamed of the treatment of the convicts at Cole City between 1873 and 1908, as a historian (by college degree) who believes that history should be reported as factually as possible no matter how ugly the details of the truth happen to be, I have been fascinated by its operation and growth since I first heard of it the late 1970’s.  When my students at Davis told me about the “coke ovens” I really thought that they were just telling their young teacher a tale.  It didn’t take long before I began to dig through every old Georgia history book at West Georgia College in search of proof. It wasn’t hard to find, but the amount of proof found on the internet through the Georgia Archives has been incredible.  I am under no illusion that I will ever find all of the things that I want to find without some serious study at the libraries which hold the papers of Joseph E. Brown.  I want to see a map and more pictures, but that will be one of my continuing quests.  Today, I will share with you an article dated July 20, 1886 (page 6).  It was a Tuesday and it was printed in the Atlanta Weekly Constitution.  I will print most, if not all, of the article and as usual italics will denote quoted portions.  Warning this is a really long article but it has many tidbits of information about the work and operation of the mine will be interesting to readers who are interested in mining activities here. The article is entitled DADE COUNTY COAL MINES.


“There are two classes of persons who go to Dade county coal mines—members of the legislature and long-term, able-bodied convicts. 


Other people go occasionally, but not often, for the state of Dade is an out-of-the-way place, and besides that, visitors have little business fooling around convict camps. 

I went up to Dade the other day to see Colonel Towers, principal keeper of the penitentiary, suppress an insurrection, and when the riot was over, I had spare time enough to take a glance at the coal mine and the arrangements for handling the dusky diamonds.


I must draw on the resources of the composin’ room to help me in my description of the interesting points about the Dade coal mines.  The coal company owns a standard gauge railroad running from Shellmound in Tennessee to the mines, which are in Georgia.  The road is not a common carrier by transacts business for only the company.  It is six or eight miles in length and runs up the valley.  The valley is very narrow and the mountains on each side are about a thousand feet high.  To illustrate, the road runs along the bottom of a great big V and I do not exaggerate the steepness of the mountain sides by the illustration taken from the typo’s case.  The country is very wild.  The mountains are covered with dense, tangled woods, and deer and turkey abound in the neighborhood.  As the train goes from Shellmound to the mines it passes the mouth of the Nickajack cave, which can be plainly seen.  The entrance is about one hundred feet across and is a big black hole in the mountain side.  A creek coming down the valley enters the mouth of the cave, disappears in the darkness and goes beyond the knowledge of man.  On one occasion Colonel J. W. Renfroe, postmaster of Atlanta, rode horseback nine miles into this cave and came out ignorant of its size.  There is no telling how big it is. 

Note: the land in and around cave was flooded in the1980’s by TVA in order tocontrol flooding in the area surrounding the cave.

From the railroad the location of the old Castle Rock coal mine can be seen.  The track of the inclined plane railroad catches the eye.  Two tracks side by side run up the mountain at an angle of about forty-five degrees.  When the mine was being worked coal was let down by cars on three tracks, one car to a track, so arranged that the loaded car would pull the empty car to the top of the mountain.  The cars were run on the principle of twin well buckets, and made speed that would stagger a cannon ball express.  One day Senator Brown and Mrs. Brown went up in one of the cars.  The next trip the cable broke and there was not enough of the little cars left to make a decent toothpick.   

At the end of the standard gauge road are the coke ovens of the company.  The ovens are in the valley and are 256 in number.  In them the coal is burned to coke for use in smelting iron from iron ore.  To stand on the mountains at night and look down at the coke ovens when they are fired up reminds me of the remark of a man who undertook to describe Pittsburgh—“It looks like hell with the lid off.”  The coke ovens hold thirty to forty thousand bushels of coal at one time. 

The entrance of the Dade coal mine is from the top of the mountain, and that mountain like the other is a thousand feet high.  At the top is a broad plateau, two miles across.  The company has a forty acre garden up there, and the convicts have all the vegetables they could possibly want. The Dade coal is not let down in the way that was in use at Castle Rock when that mine was being worked.  A narrow gauge railroad runs from the top of the mountain.    It is all very simple when you see it done.  The grade of the road is three or four gauge railroad runs from the top of the mountain.  As the sides of the mountain are almost it become interesting to know how the trains get up there.  The track, starting at the base, runs partly around the mountain, climbing just a little bit.  Then a switch is put in and the track goes back toward the starting point, but goes just a little higher up the mountain.  The zig-zag, whip-saw business is kept up until the top is reached and the railroad looks like a big W turned sideways. 

To ride the little train as it climbs the mountain is the next thing to being up in a balloon.  The passenger car is about the size of The Constitution’s elevator, and it seemed that to sit anywhere except in the middle would turn over.  One looks out of the window and sees that he is sailing along on a level with the opposite ridge.  Tall trees below seem like grass and weeds.  You feel that a bird has caught you up and is flying away with you.  The only thing to dispel the idea is the clatter-clatter of the little train and the jerking of the miniature car as it is snatched along the track by the stout little engines.

“S-s-s-s-s-spose!”  I asked, “Sp-sp-spose th-th-this the-the-thing r-runs off!”  

“Then it’s good bye John,” was the consoling reply, “but it has never yet jumped the track.”  

. . .When the top of the mountain is reached one finds the entrance to the coal mine.  It looks like a big gopher hole and a little railroad track descends into it at angle of thirty degrees.  Little coal cars are pulled up this track, which is about 300 feet long, the motive power being a stationary engine which is located near the entrance to the mine, and which winds a cable onto a drum.  I went down in the mine.  It was as dark as Egypt.  The mine is about one hundred feet underground and consists of a great number of tunnels which cross each other at right angles.  The mountain is completely honey-combed.  Three or four hundred men work in the mine; three hundred of them being convicts.  The men wear small lanterns on their caps and look like so many overgrown lightning bugs when seen in the distance down the dark tunnels.  When I reached the foot of the “slope” and found myself in the mine I was accompanied by the engineer, Captain Evans.  A tall young man with large handsome eyes and a big brown moustache tipped his cap and bowed gracefully to the captain.  By the yellow light which flickered in his cap I saw that he had a very striking face and I was so impressed by his appearance that I asked the captain who the good-looking convict was.  He replied:  “His name is Hammond.  He came here from Rome, and is in for murder.  He tried to escape once and was shot in the back.” 

The coal miners lie on their sides to pick the coal.  A number of mules are kept at work in the mines pulling the little coal cars from different parts of the mine to the slope.  A great deal of track is required to get the coal out of the mines, about twenty miles of it being underground, running through the various tunnels.  About six hundred tons of coal are mined every day, but none of it is sold except to the Western and Atlantic railroad.  The company takes ten car loads daily. The rest is burnt into coke for the iron furnaces at Rising Fawn and Chattanooga.  No one can form an idea of the extent of the Dade County Coal Mine unless he goes there and sees it for himself.   

I recently had an email and phone conversation with the Great-great granddaughter of Captain Evans and will write about that at some future time.  It was interesting that she found me by reading this newspaper online.  She found my contact information in an article about two years ago when the Historical Society hosted the hike into the Coke Ovens.

Speaking of the Historical Society, our November meeting will take place next Sunday at 3pm at the public library. Please join us on Sunday afternoon, November 9 if you are interested.  Also, support the library on Tuesday, November 11 between 4 and 7:30 pm for McLibrary night when our local McDonalds shares their profit during those hours.  It has been very successful in the past and will continue to be with your help.  Hey, it’s Veteran’s Day, take a Vet to Mc Donald’s for a fun evening.










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