Mountains, miners and moonshine
Driving the back roads of East Tennessee may give your navigation systems a workout. Going from one place to another might look easy on a map or go into your GPS with ease, but in some places you’ll end up going a long way in one direction just to get to a place a short distance in the other direction.
Several years ago, I took a trip from Rocky Top, TN (formerly Lake City) over to Petros on state highway 116. It’s a back road through narrow valleys, across steep mountains and through once thriving coal mining communities. That trip became the focus of one of my first blog posts, but after a recent trip on the same route, I thought it was in need of some updates, so here goes.
Rocky Top is more than just a song you hear at UT Football game. In Anderson County, it’s the name of the town where this magical journey through the mountains begins. This winding mountain road follows Coal Creek (the original name of the town which was followed by Lake City). This drive is set against a backdrop of stunning natural beauty, shining examples of courage and strength, and a bit of dark history.
The vestiges of the area's rich coal mining history come into view all along the highway even though the industry is barely present in this part of the county now. The first stretch is the Fraterville Miners Memorial Highway, a tribute to 216 miners who died at a nearby mine in a 1902 explosion, the deadliest such incident in Tennessee’s history.
About a decade before the Fraterville disaster, the area was the center of a mine worker uprising that later became known as the Coal Creek Wars, a story explained in the Coal Creek Miners Museum and even in the new Tennessee State Museum. Mining companies in the area began using convict labor in the mines, effectively putting wage earning miners out of work, so they rose up in defiance. There was also a mine explosion at Cross Mountain in 1911 that took the lives of 84 miners. Today, historical markers, cemeteries and the museums help keep the rich history of the area preserved for future generations.
Driving into the small town of Briceville a small frame church sits up on a hill just yards away from the highway. According to a historical marker at the site, the church was built in 1888 by Welsh coal miners. The small white building is topped with two spires and has two entrances on the front side. From the church, you get an awe-inspiring view of the surrounding mountains. The cemetery at the church is also filled with history as 22 miners who died in the Fraterville and Cross Mountain mine explosions are buried there.
After Briceville, the journey along 116 takes you to new heights and has you wondering where you might end up as the highway takes an abrupt turn north even though the signs tell you otherwise. This is the wildest section of the road and is part of what is known as “The Devil’s Triangle.” Switchback curves are frequent here and the road meets up with the Windrock ATV trails where the road heads through a small gap near the top of the mountain. This portion of Highway 116 is the New River Road as it follows along Tennessee’s New River for several miles before the road heads through the back side of Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area.
At the end of road is the community of Petros (pee-tross) home to the historic Brushy Mountain Penitentiary. The prison was in use from the late 1890's to 2009. It played a role in the Coal Creek Mine Wars, housed James Earl Ray (M.L.K., Jr's assassin) and in more recent years Byron Looper, a man convicted of gunning down a Tennessee State Senator. Today, Brushy Mountain has reopened as a tourist destination complete with prison tours, a museum, restaurant, gift shop and the End of the Line Moonshine Distillery. Ghost tours are also available. (On this recent visit, I didn’t have much time there, so I’ll have to go back to get enough for a post just on Brushy Mountain.)
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