Thursday, March 11, 2010


If you drop off the Westel Exit (338) on I-40 in Cumberland County, and travel north up Mr. Vernal Road, past the old Westel Powell School, until it intersects with Milestone Mountain Road, and then travel west on Milestone until you round a big curve and start down a long hill, you’ll be very close to some serious history. It is history evident of the “second great industrial revolution”!

At the very bottom of the hill, you will cross a modern-day concrete bridge over Mammy’s Creek. Hidden immediately to the right of the bridge is Lake Waldensia. Stop on the bridge and roll your windows down and listen, you should be able to hear the water as it falls over the old Lake Waldensia Dam, where a water wheel once powered a sawmill. The dam’s reservoir once provided all the water needed for washing the area’s mined coal.

This lake also served local residents as a respite from summer heat well into the 1980s.

If you pull to the left on the far side of the bridge, and park near the yellow gate, you will be about 50 yards from a double line of beehive coke ovens that were constructed around 1904.

These abandoned coke ovens, neglected for over 80 years, are covered in undergrowth and even large trees. It’s surprising to learn that they once represented a bustling and burgeoning industry – the coal and iron industry.

I first discovered this area back in the late 80s when I hunted deer near the then Bowater pine forest. The land was sold to the State of Tennessee in 2006.

I first thought these ovens were part of Civil War history, but I’ve since been educated. Nonetheless, it is a very mysterious looking place and it’s kind of creepy, especially if you are alone, to see nature slowly reclaiming it. Now, only dark ghostly mouths, ringed with red lips and mossy brick teeth give up the secrets of the place. It makes you think twice about stepping inside one of the earth’s dark open mouths for a better look at the white ringed vent openings in its roof!

In the latter part of the 19th century, the steel-making industry came to the secluded forests of the Cumberland Plateau and transformed it into a bustling development of progress.

The availability of coal in the Tennessee Mountains and the demand for steel were so great, that entrepreneurs from around the country ventured to the Plateau to make their fortunes in “black gold”.

As the steel industry continued to grow in the early 20th century, fields of coke ovens and smelting factories began supplanting forests throughout the Plateau region.

One of those companies was the Waldensia Coal and Coke Company. The Waldensia Company purchased 8,000 acres of Cumberland County, Tennessee land.

The Waldensia Company under took in 1901 the effort to build a large complex to support their coal mining and coke making business. Among the supporting facilities were 80 cottages, a commissary, a hotel, offices, a school*, a post office, a train depot, many coke ovens, a large coal washing facility, and a railroad! It was all completed in 1904.

*I’m not sure if the little red school on Westel Road was this school or not, but it was built in 1901, burned in 1924, rebuilt and abandoned in 1955. Therefore, the time period is roughly the same.

A sawmill was also constructed to prepare the wood for their building needs, and most of the required logging was done on their own property.

The lake was created by the building of a dam on Mammy’s Creek, where it still stands today. Since the lake and dam are on private property today (2009), you have to view the lake, and falls that cascade over the dam wall, through a large growth of hemlocks. I was told by the owner that someone had recently fallen on the property and was currently suing him over a broken hip. Therefore, “private property” signs have been posted and a fence is being built around the beautiful lake.

I suppose this means that the cool waters of the lake and the shade of the hemlocks will never be freely available to the general public again. Such a shame…why do Americans have to sue so much?

But…more on the coke ovens pictured (click to enlarge).

Generally, the coke ovens found in the Cumberland region were used to convert the bituminous coal mined in the local mountains into industrial coke, a relatively clean-burning fuel used in the smelting of iron ore. In a process known as “coking,” coal was shoveled into beehive-shaped coke ovens insulated with a layer of dirt and then ignited.

After laborers sealed the doors with brick and mud, the coal was left burning under low-oxygen conditions for two or three days and could reach temperatures of nearly 2000°C (or 3600°F). In this process, the volatile parts of the coal were combusted and escaped as gases through a hole in the roof – what remained was the desired coke, which was almost pure carbon, and the by-product slag.

The property was sold to the Chicago-Tennessee Coal & Coke Company in 1908, which operated the facility until 1921. After the closure in 1921, Connellsville Coal & Coke Company bought the property in 1925 and continued to operate it until 1929.

The “Great Depression” brought about the end of the mines and ovens forever.

Now, it’s all but lost to time and privatization. There are certain areas of our country that should be considered “wilderness pockets”, protected and preserved for posterity.

More photos HERE.


pogo said...

Been there many times! Used to drive almost up to the dam and sit there and party. Swam in the lake a time or two also. It was a great place to take a date and have a picnic since you were usually assured of privacy. It breaks my heart to see people come in to our part of the country and buy up the places we had access to as youths and put up big NO TRESPASSING signs. First the Bluff, now Lake Waldensia.

Mushy said...

How recently have you been to the bluff? I was there in February, when I fell and broke 3 ribs, so I know the chain is down now.

I also have permission to go out to the Pepper, if you want to go!

FHB said...

Well there's a Hobbit in one shot. Cool. There seems to be no end to the cool spots around there.

Suldog said...

This was wonderfully educational for me. I had no idea what a coke oven was until now. If I had seen one of those, I would have just thought it was an unused tunnel of some sort, or maybe an old storage facility. Cool. Thanks for the lesson!

Also, thanks to Mrs. Mushy for the shot that shows just how big they are compared to a pretty woman :-)

BRUNO said...

Yeah, put the WIFE in the hole, oh brave-one!☺

I'd have guessed BUNKERS myself, if you hadn't explained it!

I guess "coking" isn't unlike the process for making charcoal, in a way, is it?

PRH....... said...

Photos remind me that Lawn Mowing time in nearing, even here in Ohio!

Shrinky said...

I can't believe it took me to a half way onto this post before I finally realised you were referring to COAL coke ovens - I was thinking, so THAT'S how they used make (amphetamine) coke in the olden days? Hehehe - du-uh - talk about a blond moment, eh? You do discover the most lovely and interesting spots Mushy, love the photo's.

Matt said...

the "person" if you can call them that who went in the woods and fell to get rich is a moron!!!!no matter who owns the property, mother nature taught them a lesson!!!when people trash a place and no trespassing signs go up you can't blame the owner only disrespectful visitors!who ever sued because they fell should let it go or be jailed!!

David said...

I camped on the lake about 43 years ago for three nights with two others to earn my camping merit badge. I went down Westel Rd just a few weeks ago trying to find it again, but it sure was different and I couldn't find anything. When I was there, I-40 was still dirt west of Westel but the bridge over it had been built. I remember the iron-water artesian well (was it foul!!!) and the ovens. That was really a solid dam. I wish I could visit the lake again, but I might visit the ovens this fall when it cools down some. Thanks for all the great photos and the scanned photos, too. Wish I could have seen it in operation. Was that a hotel? I think I was told so. Dave

Diana said...

I am searching for Grandmother burial sight death notice says she passed 6/3/1923 Frankie Susan Mcgaha Ward in Waldensia and buried at Waldensia Dad spoke little of his Mom as she passed when he was just 6 as did both his sisters one Ethel Ward there in Tennessee and Mae Ward in Alabama Dad did speak of the water fall the mountain views spoke of living on waldens ridge rockwood and Waldensia his father worked in the saw mill for a time and then with the iron mill What happened tp waldensia and what cemetery might I be looking for reply to Thank you so much

Chuck Sutherland said...

Paul, I enjoyed this post. Your writing was great, as was your research. Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge with us. Tennessee is a better place for having folks like you. :)

Lisa said...

Hi, you can search the heartland series, my great grandfather "Mancil Barnes" did an epsiode about the coke ovens, its been years since it was made but im sure you can find it. I also have copies of it, sadly my pappaw is not with us anymore, he always had great stories of the mountain. There was a small school on millstone back in those days, of course its not there anymore. I have a pic of it somewhere and some of the hotel and others, if I can find them i will post them. And yes I agree whoever made the lawsuit needs to be jailed or let it go, because of their ignorance I can't visit a place that is very special to me and my family.

Lisa said...

Hi, you can search the heartland series, my great grandfather "Mancil Barnes" did an epsiode years ago about the coke ovens, he grew up on millstone and moved just to daysville road later in life so he never moved from the mountain, sadly my pappaw is not with us anymore, he always had great stories of millstone. There was a small school on millstone back in those days I do have a pic of it and the hotel, and others if I can find them i will post them for you. I also agree that whoever made the lawsuit needs to go to jail or let it go, because of their ignorance I can't visit a place that is very special to me and my family.

Unknown said...

I have pictures of me and some friends sitting on the dam about 10 years ago. Love it on millstone mt. I still travel through there a lot but it is most definitely gated and has a house right above it now....can't even sneak in. Lol I found this post because my daughter just came home from my dads asking if her papa had ever taken me to the coke ovens when I was a little girl. I said yes but wasn't completely sure how to explain to her what they were used for. Great article. I love learning about the history of my hometown. Pictures are great too.