Friday, September 30, 2011
Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary
The state wasn't through with convict labor, however. Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was built to house convicts who would mine coal directly for the state. The mine mouth opened within the prison walls and coal was shipped via a convict-built railroad spur. Initially a wooden stockade, the current castle-like complex was built in the 1920s.
While it operated, Brushy housed one of the more famous felons in U.S. history. James Earl Ray, the convicted killer of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was also one of the few inmates ever to escape. He was at large nearly two days, but never made it out of the mountains surrounding the prison. A few years ago I actually met the Tennessee Highway Patrolman who found him. This trooper was providing security for one of our emergency drills for the nuclear facilities in Oak Ridge. He told me he had been part of a line of officers methodically searching across the mountain when he stepped on something soft and heard an "oooff." Ray had found a depression in the soil and had lain there covered with leaves. The Trooper didn't see him and just stepped on him by accident. I guess history is the product of simple fate.
Kingston, Tennessee, attorney Chris Cawood in 1995 published Tennessee's Coal Creek War: Another Fight For Freedom, a fascinating account of the Coal Creek War.