A Rocky Top road trip
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but when driving through the mountains of East Tennessee, finding a straight line is a difficult task. In fact, there are many highways that have you going way up north just to get somewhere a little bit farther south. One such road is Highway 116 from Rocky Top (a.k.a. Lake City or Coal Creek) to Petros, home to the infamous Brushy Mountain Prison. It’s the perfect route for a fall road trip.
Begin your journey just off I-75 in the small town of Rocky Top, heading along US 25-W to the small downtown area. At the Shop-Rite you'll take a turn onto 116 which runs along Coal Creek, the origin of the town's original name. 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 there today. Just outside of Rocky Top, you'll pass through Fraterville, an old coal mining community forever linked to Tennessee's deadliest mining disaster. 216 miners died there in a 1902 explosion. Today, the highway is named in their memory.
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. 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. Today, historical markers, cemeteries and a Coal Mining Museum in Rocky Top help tell the stories of both the Coal Creek Wars and the Fraterville and Cross Mountain disasters.
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 and the spectacular colors of fall. 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. A farewell note from one of the fallen miners is etched into his tombstone.
After Briceville, the journey along 116 takes you to new heights and has you wondering just where you might end up as the highway takes an abrupt turn north even though the signs tell you otherwise. (Eventually, it will turn south again.) This is the wildest section of the road and the stretch where you will likely see the most brilliant colors of the journey as you cross a mountain and winds through Frozen Head State Park.
At the end of this fall drive 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 draws thousands of people as a tourist attraction. The grounds are home to a distillery, a restaurant, a gift shop and of course the old prison itself is open for tours including a special ghost tour. Check out https://tourbrushy.com/tours for more information about operating hours and tour prices.