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Home Features Our Back Yard: A scenic road trip through New River's historic mining...

Our Back Yard: A scenic road trip through New River’s historic mining settlements

Narrow and winding S.R. 116 passes through many communities along the headwaters of New River in the Cumberland Mountains. Places like Coal Creek, Beech Grove, Briceville and Rosedale are situated along the state highway, almost all of them born in the heart of the coal mining era, and almost all of them virtually deserted today.

S.R. 116 links the tiny village of Petros in Morgan County — best known as the home of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary — to Rocky Top, formerly Lake City, in Anderson County.

But there’s more than one way in and out of these mountains, and the best way for Scott Countians to complete a trip along S.R. 116 is to follow New River all the way through, which means leaving the highway behind at Ligias Fork and following the river along the old Tennessee Railroad route through Smokey Junction, Montgomery Junction and Norma back to S.R. 63 in Huntsville.

It’s a scenic road trip at any time of the year, with plenty of places to step out of the vehicle and stretch your legs. It’s particularly beautiful during the fall, when the autumn foliage is at its peak, but there’s enough history along this route to make it an intriguing drive regardless of the season.

If you started at the 63-27 intersection in Huntsville and made a complete loop, it would be an 80-mile drive that would take a couple of hours to complete. Of course, you’ll likely want to take a little longer to complete the loop by taking in some of the historic sites along the way.

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If you want to take a S.R. 116 road trip, head south on U.S. 27 to Wartburg, then continue south on S.R. 62 to Joyner before turning onto S.R. 116. 

The first stop, once you’ve rolled through the tiny town of Petros, is the historic Brushy Mountain State Pen. 

Brushy opened in 1896, in the aftermath of the Coal Creek War. The “war” was ignited by miners from places like Coal Creek and Briceville who were protesting Tennessee’s convict labor system, which sent convicts to work in the mines and reduced the need for conventional labor. The rebellion was squashed by the state’s militia, but it convinced the state legislature to pass a law abolishing the convict labor system and replacing it with a state mine that would be operated by prisoners. That led to the construction of Brushy.

The castle-like structure that is seen at Brushy Mountain today was built in the 1920s to replace the original wood structure. It was constructed from stone that was mined by prisoners from a quarry near the prison. Brushy went on to become perhaps Tennessee’s most notorious maximum-security prison. 

Today, Brushy Mountain is a tourist attraction that is open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. General admission is $16 for adults and $10 for children and tours are self-guided. You might also choose to have lunch at the Warden’s Table restaurant, which offers a variety of southern foods, served cafeteria-style.

Back on the road, S.R. 116 begins climbing the first mountain that the highway crosses. The peak is a ridge connecting Frozen Head Mountain to Big Fodderstack Mountain. If you’re up for a hike, you can park and take the gated forest service road to the top of Frozen Head (elevation 3,284 ft.) about 2.5 miles away. There, you can climb an observation platform and see for miles and miles — Watts Bar Lake, the towns of Kingston and Rockwood, the Great Smoky Mountains, and so on. A shorter destination is the Prison Mine, the coal mine that was worked by the inmates at Brushy.

The observation tower at the top of Frozen Head. Originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the fire tower at Frozen Head was used to spot fires throughout the Cumberland Mountains | Ben Garrett/IH

From there, S.R. 116 winds downhill and into the valley, along the headwaters of New River. You’ll drive through Fork Mountain, one of the several abandoned mining towns along S.R. 116. Not to be missed is the Fork Mountain Baptist Church on the right. It is situated across New River from the highway, and the only way to get to church is to walk across a steel footbridge over the river. Services are still held at the church at 2 p.m. on Sunday afternoons.

The only way to get to Fork Mountain Baptist Church is across a footbridge that crosses New River | Ben Garrett/IH

A short distance on up the road is another scenic church, the Beech Grove Baptist Church. Like Fork Mountain, Beech Grove was an historic mining camp in the early 20th century.

Beech Grove Baptist Church is located along winding S.R. 116 | Ben Garrett/IH

Just beyond the baptist church at Beech Grove is the community cemetery, which is certainly worth a stop. There are a number of veterans’ graves at the cemetery, which is one of the most unique cemeteries along the S.R. 116 route. The Beech Grove Cemetery consists of nearly 200 graves, many of them marked by headstones fashioned like a cross.

A military veteran’s grave at Beech Grove Cemetery | Ben Garrett/IH

Back on the road, it’s only a couple more miles to the Baldwin Coal Preparation Plant at Devonia. This mammoth facility is arguably the most interesting site along S.R. 116. It was built by West Coal Company and is named for the late Hubert Baldwin of Oneida, though it was later owned by multiple other companies. It was situated at the end of the Tennessee Railroad, which extended 42 miles into the mountains from Oneida. 

The Baldwin coal washer is quickly becoming surrounded by kudzu and other new growth | Ben Garrett/IH

The Baldwin coal washer was last used seven years ago and is quickly being overtaken by undergrowth. Unfortunately, it’s also been subjected to graffiti and vandalism. 

The Baldwin Coal Preparation Plant along S.R. 116 | Ben Garrett/IH

Behind the coal plant and easily accessible is the old New River Railway passenger train, which was parked at the end of the railroad line when the excursion railroad went bust over a decade ago. It’s been sitting there ever since and, sadly, has been nearly destroyed by vandals. The owner of the train has plans to soon move it from the coal plant and refashion it for off-rail tourism use. 

The Baldwin Coal Preparation Plant at Devonia | Ben Garrett/IH

The Baldwin Coal Preparation Plant is located in Devonia, which was the United States Post Office designation for the Moore’s Camp mining community. The post office was established in 1920 and operated until 1975. In addition to Moore’s Camp, Devonia served the communities of Rosedale, Fork Mountain, Braytown and Charley’s Branch.

The excursion train that was used by the New River Railway is parked at the end of the Tennessee Railroad line behind the Baldwin coal washer | Ben Garrett/IH

Back on the highway, you’ll continue along the headwaters of New River, and past the Rosedale Elementary School. The six-classroom school was long the place where the kids of the miners of places like Fork Mountain, Moore’s Camp and Beech Grove were educated. It was abandoned in 1991 and fell into disarray but it has since been restored by the same folks who operated the New River Railway and caters to ATV riders. 

The former New River Railway excursion train has been subjected to extensive vandalism | Ben Garrett/IH

A little further down the road is the New River General Store, built in 1937. It’s owned by Scotty Phillips — who also owns the excursion train and the elementary school. Phillips is the grandson of William Lewis Coker, who built the store. There’s a swinging bridge across New River behind the store.

At one time, there were thousands of people who lived along S.R. 116, and there were eight general stores along the route. The New River General Store is the last, and is probably on borrowed time itself. There just aren’t enough people who pass through this place anymore. Back up the road in Moore’s Camp, there used to be a population of 1,000. Now the population is seven.

The New River General Store was built in 1937 by W.L. Coker and is operated today by his grandson, Scotty Phillips | Ben Garrett/IH

Not too far down the road from the general store, the highway crosses New River on a concrete bridge, and a fork in the road presents itself. To turn left is to head along New River Road, following the river towards Shea, another old mining camp that’s largely abandoned. To turn right is to continue along S.R. 116 towards Rocky Top. 

There’s plenty to see towards Rocky Top, of course. You’ll pass through Briceville (originally built by Welsh immigrants shortly after the Civil War and first called Slatestone Hollow, also site of the Coal Creek War, and site of the Cross Mountain Mine explosion in 1911 that killed nearly 100), Fraterville (site of the 1902 mine explosion that killed more than 200 miners), and The Wye before you get to Rocky Top.

But the best route is to leave the pavement behind and head north along the well-maintained gravel road towards Smokey Junction. Before you do, however, you may want to head to the top of Red Oak Mountain and the Red Oak Baptist Church. Red Oak Lane turns left off the highway just a hop, skip and a jump from the New River Bridge. It winds up the mountain for several miles and there isn’t a single house along the way. You’ll find yourself wondering why people would still travel to this mountaintop for services. Maybe it’s because they want to be closer to God; after all, you won’t find another church any higher in the sky anywhere along the Cumberland Plateau than this one. 

Red Oak Baptist Church sits at the very top of Red Oak Mountain | Ben Garrett/IH

Behind the church, on the narrow peak of the mountain, you’ll find the grave of Pharaoh Phillips, the grandson of Rev. Moses Phillips, who joined with Rev. Sterling Adkins to start Nicks Creek Church in the valley below. 

After driving back down the mountain, you’ll head north along Stoney Fork Road to Shea, then take a left onto Shea Road towards Smokey Junction. 

Like most of the other old mining towns along the route, there’s not much left at Smokey Junction, of course. But Hembree’s Grocery is still open, and certainly still worth a stop. 

From there, it’s just a short distance to Montgomery Junction and home of what might have been the most sophisticated mining camp along New River, the Roach Creek mining community. You can’t get there with a two-wheel-drive vehicle, unfortunately, and there’s not much left to see, anyway, though it was once a thriving place called home by hundreds of people.

Further down Norma Road you’ll pass the stately home of Dr. D.T. Chambers, who was murdered during a home invasion half a century ago, and Norma High School, built in 1930 and used until Scott High School was built in 1971. 

By the time you emerge at S.R. 63 in Fairview, you’ll have driven through more than a half-dozen old mining camps that provided jobs, homes and livelihoods to literally tens of thousands of people through the years. There’s a lot of history tucked away in those mountains, and it’s well worth a half-day’s drive to explore it.

Our Back Yard is presented by First National Bank on the first week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series. Story ideas? Email newsroom@ihoneida.com!
Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.

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