WINDROCK MOUNTAIN—Today, it’s home to giant wind turbines that tower high above the Tennessee Valley and off-road vehicles that race up and down its gravel roads and steep slopes.
But 50 years ago or more, this mountain a few miles north of Oliver Springs was home to as many as 700 coal miners and their families. The mines have been closed for decades, but the memories have lived on, mostly in fond recollections and old black-and-white photos.
Now volunteers are taking action to help preserve the history of the miners and their families. As part of that effort, they unveiled a Windrock Coal Miners Memorial wall on Saturday. It includes the names of more than 1,000 miners who once worked on the mountain.
The red brick-and-granite wall has been under construction for about six months, and several hundred people turned out for Saturday’s dedication ceremony at Lower Windrock at the end of Windrock Road, about three miles from downtown Oliver Springs. Some wept softly as they gently caressed the names of their loved ones on the memorial wall. Others proudly posed for pictures. It was an important day for many.
“It’s one of the greatest things that’s every happened to me, to see this,” said Carl Lively, 91, who started working in the mines on Windrock Mountain in 1939 at the age of 16. “We’re happy as we can be today.”
The ceremony included music, a reception at the nearby Union Valley Missionary Baptist Church, short dedication speeches, recognition of the 15 former coal miners who were present, and a candle-lighting ceremony in honor of those who were killed in the mines or have died since.
The volunteers, who include former coal miners and their families, broke ground on the wall in November. A Coal Miners Committee of four people—Kathy Russell Byrge, Trish Lively Cox, Fred Duncan, and Wayne Morgan—led the effort.
“If there are windows (in Heaven), I hope my daddy can see it,” Byrge said. Her father Dexter Russell worked on Windrock Mountain for 27 years.
Charlotte Woods of Morgan County found the name of her father, Robert Lively, on the 31-foot-long wall on Saturday.
“It meant everything,” Woods said.
Her father started working in the mines when he was about 13 and worked there for 30 or 40 years.
“That’s all he talked about,” Woods said.
With the help of volunteer construction work, the wall, part of a longer six-year planning effort, was built for about $7,000, Byrge said. The small site at the base of the 2,000-foot-high mountain was donated by the Union Valley Baptist Church, where Morgan is pastor.
Families once lived on top of the mountain as well as at its base. Both camps had schools, stores, and churches. There was a two-room school on top of Windrock, with an estimated 40 to 50 students.
There was even once a grand piano on top of the mountain, said Rena Pride Benoit, who gave a short speech on the history of the mountain during Saturday’s dedication ceremony. In November, Carl Lively said there were 105 homes on top of the mountain and 65 at the base.
Benoit said the mine, which operated from 1904 to 1960, was the longest continuously running coal mine in Tennessee. She said there is still a lot of coal in the mountain.
The L&N Railroad once came up to Lower Windrock. Workers said four types of coal were mined from two seams inside the mountain. A piece of equipment known as a monitor could carry 20 tons of coal down the mountain. After the early 1950s, most of it went to Kingston, where a coal-fired plant produces electricity for the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Lively said the mine once produced about 2,000 tons of coal per day using coal-cutting machines, shuttle cars, a loader, and conveyor belts. Miners, who were happy to benefit from workplace advances such as hard hats and headlamps, recall earning up to $3.25 per hour or $27 each day, depending upon the type of labor.
“It was easy work after we got the machinery,” Lively said. “Buddy, it was a lot of work when you had to use a shovel.”
The mines operated in eight-hour shifts around the clock.
“It’s impossible to tell the history of Oliver Springs without telling the history of those men,” Mayor Chris Helpler said Saturday.
For workers, the hills were once alive with the thuds and scrapes of shovels and shuttle cars, and the clanks and whirs of coal-mining machinery. Families remember the playful cracks of baseballs bats and joyful cheers of youthful kickball games.
“All of these things were a part of this small mining community,” Benoit said. “All of us here want to keep Windrock alive for future generations.”
Most families came off the mountain in the 1950s, with some going to Oliver Springs and others moving elsewhere. Jo Hall Hickman of Harriman said her father’s family was the last to leave Windrock Mountain in about 1960. Her father, Sam Hall, started working on top of the mountain when he was 14.
“I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter,” Hickman said.
See photo gallery here.