By Robin Ford Wallace
The Dade County Historical Society hereby invites
all interested parties for a jaunt down Memory Lane, with the caveat that physically
it will be more a hike than a stroll. The society will host a field trip on
Saturday, March 30, to the abandoned Cole City coke ovens on Sand Mountain.
Donna Street, the group’s vice president, advised
prospective attendees to wear sturdy shoes. Getting to the coke ovens requires
45 minutes to an hour of moderately challenging walking. Hikers will gather at
about 9 a.m. on the 30th at a site Ms. Street will announce later. She may be
called for more information at (706) 657-7305 or (423) 227-6057, or emailed at
The coke ovens at Cole City are a natural point of
interest to the Historical Society in that they bespeak Dade County’s colorful
past as a mining boom area, complete with saloons and saloon fights. “There
were murders and there were trials and there were hangings,” said Ms. Street.
Ms. Street, who turns up in these pages quite often as
a reliable source of local history, dug up records showing that Dade Coal
Company, which operated the coke ovens, was commissioned in February 1873. DCC and its sister companies nearby, Rising
Fawn Iron Company and Walker Iron and Coal Company, were all controlled by the
same man, Joseph E. Brown.
Brown, a former Georgia governor and senator,
pioneered the exploitation of the Dade-Walker area for coal. “It wasn’t great
coal,” said Ms. Street. “It wasn’t great for fires, but it did turn out to be
great for making coke, which then turned into steel.”
And Brown could `put steel to good use: At the time he
began his mining ventures in northwest Georgia, he was president of Western and
“They were bringing coal from Pennsylvania,” said Ms.
Street. “They could get it here for $8 a ton, but using the convict lease, he
could get it where it needed to go for $1.60 a ton.”
The convict lease program was a system whereby private
companies essentially purchased prisoners from the state for unpaid labor. By
all accounts, it could reasonably be described as Slavery: The Sequel.
In the 1870s, this business of buying and selling
people had been abolished not all that long ago, and as Brown and crew
demonstrated, not all that completely. Brown, whose views on the institution
may be intuited from the data set – his two terms as governor took Georgia
through secession and the Civil War – used his political clout to contract with
the state for as much free labor as his businesses could use.
“In 1875, there
926 convicts at the Dade County Coal Company,” said Ms. Street. “There were 90
white males, 805 ‘colored’ males, 30 colored females and one white female – and
one of them had two babies.” For that year, DCC paid Georgia $1,632.03 for
these people, she said.
But the intent of the convict lease program, explained
historical articles Ms. Street found on the subject, was not so much to make
money for Georgia as to relieve the state of the expense of keeping them. In
some cases, companies were not required to pay the state anything at all for
the laborers, just to feed and house them.
Though not necessarily very well. One of Ms. Street’s
articles mentioned rules that had been established for leasing the neo-slaves,
including humane treatment and the services of a clergyman to aid in their
From all accounts, however, there was little or no
state inspection or supervision, and critics at the time described conditions
for the prisoners as “frightful” and “epitomized hell.”
Contemporaneous investigations found inadequate diets
for the prison labor, unclean drinking water, cruel working hours, and men kept
in cages at night or chained up like dogs.
To what extent these conditions existed at Dade County
Coal, specifically, was unclear from the documentation.
For the Cole City site (note spelling – Ms. Street
says the name comes from a Cole family, not the coalmining operation), Ms.
Street found documentation mentioning 63 coke ovens, but said she understands
there were over 300 at one point.
So what happened to that sizeable coal operation? Why
do the coke ovens now molder abandoned deep in the woods? “They stopped because
the convict lease system in Georgia stopped,” said Ms. Street. “The convict
lease system was stopped in 1908 by a legislative act.”
Brown, meanwhile, had died in 1893. Without him, and
without the luxury of unpaid labor, the coal operation in Dade dwindled and
died. The land the ovens sit on is now in the hands of three separate property
owners, with whom the Dade Historical Society arranged permission for the March
Whether or not you’re up for the hike, Ms. Streets
reminds you that the Historical Society welcomes public attendance at its
bimonthly meetings, which almost always include entertaining programs. You can
become a member for $10. Meetings are at
3 p.m. in the Dade County Library on the first Sunday of every other month. The
last meeting was this past Sunday, so the next is on May 5.