Take a trip up Roach Creek in eastern Scott County today, and you won’t find much to indicate that a thriving coal operation and modern company town were once present here. There are signs of the two-mile coal railroad that once extended up the valley from Montgomery Junction along the Tennessee Railroad — at one point, where the old Montgomery Road crosses the rail bed, the original timbers from the railroad are exposed; at another point, you can see the small trestle across the creek. But, for the most part, the passage of time has erased what remained of the abandoned coal town here.
There was a time, though, when Roach Creek was home to the most modern coal-mining operation of its time. Located a couple of miles from New River off present-day Norma Road, the Roach Creek Coal Co. was formed — like so many of the other early coal and timber endeavors in Scott County — by businessmen from Cincinnati.
The year was 1921 — 99 years ago. A group of Cincinnati businessmen were prepared to begin extricating coal from the Red Ash seam of coal that ran through the Cumberland Mountains. Their new mine was to be located near the head of the valley along Roach Creek — a small stream in the valley between two ridge lines protruding from Roach Creek Mountain just west of Straight Fork. Roach Creek emptied into Montgomery Fork, which was comprised of Jenny Creek and Wild Sow Branch further back into the mountains, just east of the railroad junction near the river.
According to an old Tennessee coal field directory dated 1921, the president of the company was Orville K. Jones, the vice president and general manager was Leo R. Townsend, and the treasurer was Carl Slough, all of Cincinnati, Oh. Jones (1875-1948) was a city councilman and businessman in Cincinnati.
Writing for the Scott County Historical Society newsletter six years before his death, Abb Crabtree — the son of Absalom E. Crabtree (1890-1960), one of the original miners at Roach Creek — said that the Roach Creek Coal Co. originally moved shacks into the valley by train for miners and their families to live in. Later, houses were purchased from Sears, Roebuck & Co and assembled in the Roach Creek Valley.
Once the mining operation was up and running, it was said to be the first fully-electric coal mining operation in the United States … or anywhere in the world, for that matter. And the company homes at Roach Creek — which became known as Dean, Tenn. after the post office was established — are believed to be the first homes in Scott County with electrical power.
The Roach Creek operation was a self-sustaining one. With Gomar Thomas serving as general manager on the site and Charles Lewis as superintendent, the company’s workers sawed their own cross ties to build the two-mile rail line up the valley, and cut their own lumber to build a tipple and other buildings.
By the time coal was actually being mined at Roach Creek, there was a school house — which doubled as a church and, later, a theater. There was entertainment for the small mining town; in his writing, Crabtree remembered seeing Bill Carlisle and Kitty Wells both perform at the Roach Creek School. That would have had to have been in latter years; Wells, who broke a barrier by becoming country music’s first big-time female star in the 1950s, was only two when the Roach Creek mining operation started. Both Carlisle and Wells were later inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Up to 50 cottages — purchased from Sears, Roebuck & Co. and assembled on-site — made up the company housing at Roach Creek. There was the school, a post office, a boarding house, a company store and a horse-and-wagon garbage service. An on-site power plant, fueled by coal and water, provided electricity for the mine and the company housing. Several wells were drilled to provide water. Their outhouses even had honey buckets, Crabtree recalled.
Crabtree wrote that Frank Tighe — an early stockholder of the Roach Creek Coal Co., and also the store manager and postmaster — purchased an automobile and had it delivered to Roach Creek by train.
“There were no roads to drive it on to get out of the camp, so he just drove it the best he could within the confines of the camp,” Crabtree wrote.
Roach Creek Coal Co. issued its own script, which came in denominations of pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, half-dollars and dollars.
The company used an electric tram road to move coal from the mine to the tipple nearly 200 ft. above the valley floor. There, the coal was sorted before being sent on down to the valley to be loaded onto train cars.
Although it must have been quite an operation, Roach Creek was never a major coal producer, relative to other companies in Scott County. According to a 1923 report by the State of Tennessee, there were 8,000 tons of coal produced in a year at Roach Creek. By comparison, mining operations in Helenwood were producing nearly 10 times that amount.
The Great Depression spelled the end of the Roach Creek Coal Co. The stock market crash of 1929 was the death knell for the company. However, in 1931, a new company was formed — the Straight Fork Coal Co. — and operations began anew. Mining operations continued for nearly three more decades before the mines were finally abandoned in the late 1950s.
Under the Straight Fork Coal Co.’s tenure, the mining operation at Roach Creek had a company doctor for the first time. In later years, Dr. DT Chambers (1885-1970), a Norma legend, and Dr. M.F. Frazier of Oneida served as company doctors.
While nothing remains of the mining operation today, except for the remnants of the railroad and a few crumbling brick foundations, photos preserved by E. Ray Austin — who has been chiefly responsible for keeping the memories of Roach Creek alive — show the incline railroad that was in use at the mine in 1959.
Later on, the area was strip-mined by West Coal Co.
Today, a memorial to the miners at Roach Creek is located in Huntsville.