Friday, September 30, 2011

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary at Petros, here in Morgan County, has a storied history. Although founded in 1896, its roots go back to 1881. Tennessee, like many southern states following the U.S. Civil War, used convict labor in mines and other industries. Persons convicted of crimes would be leased to corporations that would house them in return for their otherwise free labor. In 1881, miners at Coal Creek, in Anderson County, demanded of their employer, The Tennessee Mining Company, that they be paid in cash rather than script, and that they be allowed to employ their own checkweighmen instead of having company-paid checkweighmen.  On April 1 the company rejected their demands and shut down operations. The company demanded the miners sign a binding agreement as a condition of reopening the mine, which the miners refused. On July 5 the company reopened the mine with convicts they had leased, indirectly, from the State of Tennessee. A series of armed actions by miners followed in which convicts were freed and placed on trains heading out of town. Violence escalated, politicians vacillated, newspapers took sides, changed sides, and then changed sides again. After much violence and several deaths on both sides, the state concluded in the early 1890s that leasing convicts to industry wasn't profitable and ended the practice.

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.
The prison finally closed in 2009, to be replaced by a new, modern, maximum-security complex a few miles north in the Flat Fork Valley at the southern edge of Wartburg, the county seat.

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.

The mountains surrounding Brushy didn't promise easy egress from the prison. They're tall, steep, and heavily forested. Across the mountain to the north lies Frozen Head State Park, at the head of the Flat Fork Valley. It's one of the prettiest spots I've ever seen. Pity there's a maximum-security prison on the way in.

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.


  1. There are few coal mines left in the UK. I used to work for the International Labour Organisation representing miners from all over the world, helping them to fight for better conditions, safety in mining and, in some countries, like South Africa, for human rights.

    The US was a member too.

  2. Very interesting. I had no idea there was a mine entrance in a prison but I do remember James Earl Ray's escape.