Note: This article was first written in 2013. It was written in preparation for a hike that was sponsored by the Dade County Historical Society into the coalmining area on Sand Mountain which was an incorporated city in the 19th century. Cole City has at least two other names: the Big Woods and New Home. The Society is once again sponsoring a trip into the coke ovens remains on Saturday, February 16, 2019. If you are interested in going on this hike, then please call or visit the public library to tell us your name, contact information (phone and email address) and the number of people in your group. You may also register from our Facebook page. We will cut off registration at 70 persons. Since there are people who want to go who are not in great hiking condition the Society and friends will provide some four-wheeled drive transportation. There will also be a portable bathroom placed in the woods. More details for the hike will appear for the next three weeks in this paper as they continue to finalized.
While the rest of the South was deep in carpetbagging and Reconstruction, Dade County had its own badge of honor and/or shame, depending on how you look at it.
Trying to bring industrial development to our geographically challenged area has been an ongoing quest of local leaders for three centuries. Iron, coal and natural gas deposits have brought developers here multiple times. The most successful run was from 1873-1908, when high-powered Georgia politicians got involved and created an incorporated community, a form of government and industries, using a shameful convict lease system to get coal out of the ground and make mining profitable.
In that era, railroads were the future of transportation and coal was the food that fed the engines. There was coalmining in Dade County since at least 1856 and probably earlier. Before the war, the mines on Sand Mountain had been privately owned by the family of Civil War legend John Brown Gordon. They were known as the Gordon Mines and one of the mines was named Castle Rock. Gordon is noted for saying that he lived in Alabama, worked in Georgia and got his mail in Tennessee, which is possible if you live in what we know as Bryant, Ala., work in Cole City, Ga., and get your mail at Shellmound, Tenn. As an aside, he was also the leader of the Raccoon Roughs, which was one of several companies of local men who joined the Confederacy.
I became fascinated with what my students at Davis Elementary called the “coke ovens” in the mid-70s, when the kids told me tales of the ovens and the mines in a place called the “Big Woods.” Of course, I thought that they were just telling stories, and they were, but their tales turned out to be based in fact.
The coke ovens as photographed in the early 1900s.
After talking with my friend and colleague, Byron Ballard, I learned that the coke ovens were real and I began to realize that I didn’t know as much about Dade County history as I thought. That realization began a quest that continues to this day. About 1978, while in graduate school at West Georgia, I copied my first documented proof of what had happened here in the 1880s, and I have randomly picked up items until our recent trip to the coke ovens and for weeks after. (That first trip was in 2013.)
In 1858, Dade County submitted a report to Governor Joseph E. Brown. It was the annual report of education. It listed 671 students with 25 schools, with an assessed tax rate of $150 for the year.
This Joe Brown was Georgia’s governor from 1858-1865. He was an ambitious man. Following the tactics of fictional heroine Scarlett O’Hara Kennedy during reconstruction, he just had to be in on something big. In 1872, Brown became the president of Western and Atlantic Railroad. In February of 1873, by an act of the Georgia Legislature, he and his cohorts formed the Dade County Coal Company. With profit being the bottom line, they took advantage of the convict lease system that Georgia instituted in December of 1866. The system was put in place because most of the jails and prisons in Georgia had been destroyed during the Civil War and a way to manage prisoners in the state was needed. It was also a de facto method of controlling the former slaves throughout the state.
In 1876, Brown leased 100 convicts at $11 for per convict for five years. By 1878, Dade’s was one of three companies in Georgia allowed to lease all of the convicts in Georgia. The leases were for the next 25 years at $25,000 per year. That made the cost of labor really cheap. Coal could be mined in Pennsylvania at about $8 per ton. Brown liked to brag that at the Dade Coal Company it could be mined for $1.60 per ton. In 1875, Georgia had 926 convicts (90 white males, 805 “colored” males, 30 “colored” females and one white woman). Georgia received $10,756.48 from the leases in 1875.
In the years since this article and others were written, I have discovered much about the operation of these mines that was unsavory. Murders, hangings, waterboarding and prison breaks are prevalent in the newspaper of the time. Several notorious criminals were held at Cole City Mines. If I studied only the goings-on at the mine and prison from 1873 to 1908, then I would most likely die before I could learn everything that I want to know about life at these mines.
Donna’s note: Over the next three weeks, we will reprise other articles about the coke ovens. Joy Odom will also be back soon with more of her series on the Chickamauga Battle in 1863 and its relevance to Dade County.
--Donna M. Street