The Mountain Goat Railroad was constructed in 1853, as a spur of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. It carried coal from the mines of the Mountain, beginning in Sewanee and then extending to Tracy City, Coalmont, Gruetli-Laager, and Palmer. It also functioned as a passenger railroad. The Mountain Goat was decommissioned in 1985.
The Mountain Goat earned its name in part due to the climb up onto the Cumberland Plateau from Cowan. This was at the time the steepest slope in the world for a railroad line.
We are proud to partner with the Cowan Railroad Museum in sharing the history of the railroad and the stories of its people.
Below you’ll find historical information on the Cumberland Plateau, the coal industry, the Mountain Goat Railroad, and more!
The original Mountain Goat!
Discovery of Coal on the Plateau
Around 1845, Thomas Wooten, the young son of Benjamin Wooten, original white settler of the area that is now known as Tracy City, chased a groundhog from a field of corn about ½ mile north of the current Tracy City central business district in a place called The Heading. The groundhog ran up the side of a hill into a sourwood stump. Thomas Wooten dug into the stump where he unearthed a black substance that he showed to his father. Benjamin Wooten recognized the substance as coal. He began extracting small amounts of it which he took to the valley near Winchester and sold to blacksmiths.
Nicholson, James L., Grundy County, pp. 20-21.
Leslie Kennedy’s Discovery
Around 1850 a young Irish immigrant, Leslie Kennedy, found outcrops of coal while hiking on the Cumberland Plateau. He thought that it might have value. He traveled to Nashville seeking someone to finance the exploitation of his discovery. An attorney, William N. Bilbo, agreed to accompany Kennedy back to the forested plateau and look at the discovery. Bilbo was impressed and purchased land from Benjamin Wooten as well as other land from the heirs of Samuel Barrell who had been a partner with Felix Grundy in speculative acquisition of extensive lands of the plateau.
Nicholson, James L., Grundy County, p. 28.
Sewanee Mining Company
William N. Bilbo traveled to New York City to search for venture capitalists who might be interested in purchasing the lands he had acquired on the Cumberland Plateau. Samuel Franklin Tracy was found along with four others, J. Bridges, John Daw, Nicholas Fesedder, and William Warne who after inspecting the lands formed the Sewanee Mining Company in 1852, capitalized at $1,500,000 with paid in capital of $400,00, and purchased Bilbo’s holdings for $50,000. The company’s name, Sewanee, was taken from the name geologists had given the bituminous coal seam that was to be mined.
Nicholson, James L., Grundy County, pp. 28-29.
The Goat Road
Major A.E. Barney, a civil engineer, accompanied the investors in the Sewanee Mining Company in the investigation of the plateau as a potential coal mining location. The construction of a railroad from Nashville to Chattanooga was in progress and had reached the base of the plateau below Sewanee; a tunnel was being dug there, since the height of the plateau at that point was too severe a climb for railroad locomotives of that day. Barney designed a rail line that connected to the main line with a bridge at the north entrance of the tunnel. Construction on the branch line designed by Barney began in 1853 and proceeded up the mountainside eight miles to ascend the 800-foot elevation from the base near Cowan to the top at the place now known as Sewanee. The assent is at a nearly 2% continuous grade or at a climb of about 100 feet per mile. At the time it was built it was the highest incline of any railroad in the world. The tracks were so designed that locomotives could drag 15 to 18 empty cars up the grade and control about the same number of loaded cars down. The branch line, first named The Goat Road and later The Mountain Goat, was completed to the lower coal bank (Midway – St. Andrew’s vicinity) in 1855.
Arbuckle, J.W. & Shook, Alan C., The Mountain Goat, pp. 4-7.
In 1856 the first coal was shipped from the lower coal bank. The veins of coal in that location were thin and the quality poor so the tracts were extended 10 miles to where coal had been first discovered on Benjamin Wooten’s farm. The Wooten mine was opened at the site where Tom Wooten had chased the groundhog and the first shipment of coal was made from that mine on November 8, 1858. A post office was opened September 14, 1858 named Tracy City and a progressive mining community developed laying the foundation for it to become the birthplace of the New South following the Civil war.
Arbuckle, J.W. & Shook, Alan C., The Mountain Goat pp. 4-5.
The University of the South
In 1858, Sewanee Mining Company offered the Bishops of the Southern Dioceses of the Protestant Episcopal Church 5,000 acres of land on the South Cumberland Plateau for the location of the southern university they were striving to form. The land had become expendable when the mining company determined it did not have coal reserves appropriate for mining operations. Other land owners offered an additional 5,000 acres. In addition, Sewanee Mining Company offered 1,000,000 board feet of lumber over a 10-year period, free transportation for materials, and 20,000 tons of coal. These inducements along with the Mountain Goat Railroad providing access and transportation were sufficient to convince a majority of the Bishops to select the site for their planned southern university. The site was named University Place and the university, The University of the South. The deed of land required that the university have students enrolled within 10 years.
Nicholson, James L., Grundy County, pp. 35-37.
Wiebel, A.V., Biography of a Business, pp. 10-12.
Tracy City: Birthplace of the New South
Coal was the early economic driver in Tracy City and Grundy County. Sewanee Mining Company located its headquarters there. In 1860 the company was reorganized as Tennessee Coal and Railroad Company. Following the Civil War, Arthur St. Clair Colyar assumed the reigns of the company as its president and led it to preeminence in development of industry in the South. The company experimented in 1873 with a makeshift blast furnace named the Fiery Gizzard and determined that Sewanee Seam coal could be converted into coke with sufficient heat intensity to smelt iron ore into pig iron used in the production of iron and steel products. One hundred and twenty coke ovens were built near the Wooten Mine on the perimeter of downtown Tracy City. From its Tracy City location the company from 1881 to 1892 expanded its operations, greatly increasing its holdings in Tennessee and extending them into Alabama. The company bought five other mining companies. By the time it had completed these acquisitions its holdings represented more than sixty percent of coal and iron reserves in Tennessee and Alabama. Tracy City and its downtown is a monument to the origin of the industrial development of the South following the Civil War, known as the New South.
Wiebel, A.V., Biography of a Business, pp. 16-30.
Coal Mining and Prisoners
Tennessee Coal and Railroad Company led the way in the use of convicts from the Tennessee State Penitentiary to mine coal and tend coke ovens. The lease of convicts for labor in private enterprises was permitted under a law known as the “Zebra Law”. The state authorities rationalized that the lease of convicts relieved the state of the expenses of housing and feeding the prisoners and at the same time generated revenue from the leases. The practice was considered so profitable to the state that persons were frequently incarcerated for long sentences for minor infractions. Most of the convicts leased for coal mining were black. The lease practice smacked of a form of extension slavery in the face of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited slavery.
Convicts made their first appearance at Tennessee Coal and Railroad mines at Tracy City in 1870. They were leased for $1.00 per day per prisoner and housed in a stockade built for federal soldiers stationed at Tracy City during the Civil War. Arthur St. Clair Colyar believed in the convict lease system arguing that convicts performing other more skilled trades in prison displaced free artisans who had acquired their positions through extended apprenticeships. Free coal miners resisted the use of convict workers, feeling that they were taking work away from the free miners, and on occasions invaded the stockade in which the prisoners were housed, corralled them in coal cars, and sent them back to the prison in Nashville. This dramatic action did not, however, prevent the prisoners from being returned for work in the mines. In 1896 the prisoners were at last removed from the mines and the “Zebra Law” repealed in 1897.
Shapiro, Karan A., A New South Rebellion: The Battle Against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coalfields 1871-1896.
Nicholson, James L., Grundy County, pp. 67-68.
Monteagle Sunday School Assembly
In 1882 the State Sunday School Convention of Tennessee proposed to examine the possibility of holding a “Sunday School Congress” during the following summer “along the Chattanooga railroad between Murfreesboro and Chattanooga”. Other southern states were invited to send representatives to a meeting at Tullahoma August 17-19. A site selection committee was appointed to examine sites. Monteagle presented inducements that included 100 acres of land and $5,000 from John Moffat, founder of Monteagle; 1,000 acres of land, $5,000 and 60% passenger round trip fare from Cowan to Monteagle on the Mountain Goat Railroad from Tennessee Coal Iron and Railroad Company; and from Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad, a 1 ½ percent per mile excursion rate for passengers attending Monteagle Sunday School Assembly annual assemblies and further, for a period of 5 years, 1/3 of the revenue derived from passengers attending the assemblies.
The first assembly was opened on July 17, 1883 with over 1,000 people in attendance at some time during the assembly. This Chautauqua, known as the “Chautauqua of the South,” has conducted successive assemblies during each summer since 1883.
Jervis, Oliver W., Monteagle Sunday School Assembly: “Chautauqua of the South.”
Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad
The main line of the railroad from Nashville to Chattanooga had been completed on January 6, 1854. It was the means by which coal, other goods, and passengers could be transported to and from the base of the plateau at Cowan to more distant places. Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad (NC & St. L) owned and operated the main line. In 1887 NC & St. L acquired the Mountain Goat branch line.
Priestley, Mary Patton, Dad’s Railroad: The Mountain Goat
Nicholson, James L., Grundy County, p. 69.
Tennessee Coal Iron and Railroad Company Move to Alabama
In 1904, the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) moved its headquarters from Tracy City to Ensley, Alabama. It had grown to become the South’s largest steel producer. In 1907 it became a subsidiary of United States Steel Corporation and subsequently became Tennessee Coal & Iron Division of United States Steel Corporation.
Tennessee Consolidated Coal Company
E.L. Hampton, a railroad station agent at Tracy City, picked up the pieces of the coal and coke operation left by TCI and formed in 1905 Tennessee Consolidated Coal Company. In that same year the Mountain Goat Railroad was extended to Coalmont and mining and coke operations opened there. In 1917 the Mountain Goat was further extended to Palmer. Tennessee Consolidated Coal Company continued the mining of Sewanee Seam coal with its offices located in Tracy City until 1969, when the offices were moved to Jasper, Tennessee following a prolonged nine year period of coal miner conflict. In 1972 the railroad removed the railroad tracks built in 1917 from Coalmont to Palmer, and in 1985 ceased train operations and thereafter removed the remaining tracks. Trucks were used to haul coal from the mines but coal mining in Grundy County was nearing an end and today no longer exists.
– Oliver Jervis, Grundy County Historical Society