As you may know, I make frequent trips to the eastern Kentucky coalfields researching and exploring old mining sites and railroads. I knew that Tennessee also had its share of coal mining back in the day, but I was surprised to learn about a sizeable operation just down the road from my house near the community of Westel in Cumberland County. It was called the Waldensia Coal and Coke Company and even had a double line of beehive coke ovens, which I will talk more about soon. Mainly, I learned that sometimes you don’t need to venture very far from your own backyard to find something of interest.
We began last Sunday morning along the banks of the Emory River north of Harriman, TN. After a few hours of scavenging and exploring, we decided to locate the former coal mining operation of Waldensia. We had read about it for the very first time only a few hours earlier. First, it was a short ride into Harriman for lunch and… to deal with an unexpected low tire. I added some air at a convenience store and gave it a thorough inspection. I couldn’t find a foreign object in it nor did I notice anything unusual (side note: from experience, I am a magnet for picking up items in my tire). I figured adding air would resolve the issue, so we continued on. We made it about half way to the destination when I was alerted by the tire sensor that I, again, had a low tire. Luckily, there was another convenience store nearby. At that point, I was certain there was some kind of an issue. We tried that trick where you wet the tire with soapy water and watch for the bubbling from a potential air leak. It didn’t take long to discover a small puncture in my tire. I desperately ran inside the store to inquire about a plugging kit and, thankfully, they had one left in stock. Once the tire was plugged and refilled with air we, yet again, continued on our way.
When we finally arrived at Waldensia, we were greeted by the sound of Mammy’s Creek rushing over a small dam in the nearby woods. This dam, and associated lake, was built by the Waldensia Coal & Coke Company to provide a source of water for washing the coal from local mines. Sadly, this part is located on private property and cannot be seen from the road due to hemlocks and other vegetation blocking the view. I plan on trying to get permission in the future for some pictures.
The double line of beehive coke ovens was built in the early 1900’s to convert the mined bituminous coal to industrial coke, which was then used in smelting iron ore. The ovens are mostly preserved despite being old and overgrown. This is likely due to so few people knowing about their existence. They are a very short walk from a pull-off on the side of the road, but knowing exactly where to go always helps. We quickly found out that spring and summer is probably not the best time to visit. I am not just referring to the swarms of mosquitos and steamy Tennessee weather either. Since this place isn’t in a park or any other kind of designated area, it is almost completely unkept. I remained constantly aware of my surroundings because the last thing I wanted was to run upon a snake or even be bitten. I can imagine that in the fall and winter you are able to see and explore so much more of this area with far less critters to worry about. I will be visiting again and doing a follow-up blog with more information and pictures then.
Until just a few months ago, I had no idea coal scatter tags even existed! Most of us have at least heard of coal scrip before, which are tokens of varying denominations that could only be used to pay for items at the company store. However, scatter tags are completely different. Most are made of aluminum or cardboard and are about the size of a quarter. They were mixed in with the coal as it was loaded on rail cars at the mine. Many coal mining companies used scatter tags with their branding on them as a form of advertisement from the 1920’s through the 1950’s. This allowed customers to recognize their preferred coal source since it all looked the same.
How I first learned about coal scatter tags is an interesting story from one of our many trips to the Harlan, KY area. As I was metal detecting along an abandoned L&N mine spur, a curious local stopped and asked what I was looking for. I told him about my fascination with the area’s history and collecting railroad artifacts. He seemed very intrigued by this and told me about finding scatter tags along the railroad as a child. I probably had a puzzled expression on my face when I asked, “scatter tags, what are those!?” I was a bit shocked that something, apparently common in the early coal mining scene, could have evaded my ears for so long. Needless to say, most of my spare time in the coming days was spent researching what they were and how to find them. I think learning about scatter tags may have started something, because now I can’t seem to get enough!
If you are serious about collecting coal scatter tags and want to obtain a displayable collection, then you are probably better off purchasing them. Luckily, they are fairly inexpensive. If you prefer to be adventurous and find them, then that is also an option. Keep in mind that the scatter tags you find will likely not be the same quality as those you buy due to their prolonged exposure to the elements. But, should you choose to look for them, make sure to consider location and equipment. Always be mindful of not trespassing on private property or putting yourself in danger when deciding where to search. Remember that just because a railroad track appears abandoned does not always guarantee that it is. Do your research first with a reputable source. For equipment, you are going to need, at minimum, a functioning metal detector and something durable to dig with. A handheld pinpointer is also a good investment as it will guide you to an object’s precise location. We use an ACE 350 and AT Pro as primary metal detectors and also a Garrett pinpointer some refer to as a “carrot.”.
Below is a gallery of individual scatter tags from my collection. In the caption, you will find each respective mine’s location.
If learning about Tennessee coal mining history while surrounded by nature sounds appealing to you, then consider adding Laurel Snow State Natural Area to your bucket list. It is only a short drive from downtown Dayton, (which is known for the Scopes Trial), to the parking area and trailhead. The history buff will be taken back by the old mine openings, railroad remnants, and reservoir. The nature lover will also feel at home since Laurel Snow is home to many pristine creeks and streams, unusual plants, breathtaking overlooks, and towering waterfalls.
The mining history of this area dates back to 1877 when Sir Titus Salt, of England, acquired 40,000 acres of land in Georgia and Tennessee. Included in this purchase was 800 acres that became Dayton Coal and Iron Company and, eventually, the Laurel Snow State Natural Area of today. In 1887, Titus Salt Jr. took over the project in Tennessee until his death at age 44 of the same year. For the next 38 years, which brought an end to the mining operations, it was under the control of British and Scottish successors. During peak production, up to 1,200 men earned their living here. Over the course of their existence, the Company built and operated 7 coal mines, 375 coke ovens, 2 blast furnaces, 17 miles of rail, and around 200 employee houses in the area.
The last time I visited Laurel Snow I was lucky enough to have a conversation with a local historian. He was eager to share his wealth of knowledge about the area with me and I was fascinated by the interesting stories he had. My favorite was probably the one about the mules. In the very original days, mules were used to pull carloads of coal out of the mines and transport them to the furnaces and ovens. Apparently, some of these mules stayed in the mines continuously and, due to the darkness, went blind. They were still able to continue their duties, despite not being able to see, because they had performed the same job for so long and could remember exactly where to go. When I heard this story it absolutely blew my mind!
Below I will give you a “picture tour” showing some of the significant places and things you will see while visiting Laurel Snow. Enjoy!