The Birth of South Pittsburg, Tennessee
By: Dennis Lambert
South Pittsburg, Tennessee is located in Marion County on the west (north) side of the Tennessee River and borders the Alabama/Tennessee state-lines. The city, which currently has a population of about 3295 citizens, had its beginnings when English investors purchased the land near the banks of the Tennessee River for the establishment of a city destined to be the commercial hub of the mining and coke manufacturing operations in the Sequachee Valley. Within this city would be established a set of blast furnaces for the making of pig iron, which would utilize much of the iron ore and coke mined and manufactured at different locations up the valley.
The first substantial influx of white settlers to this section of land moved in shortly after the Cherokee removal in the late 1830s. These pioneers worked the land near the banks of the Tennessee River for agricultural purposes and planted orchards of apples and peaches on the slopes of the surrounding mountains. These early Marion County residents were widely spaced and no attempts were made to establish an organized community until after the American Civil War. However, a moderate size cemetery on the side of South Pittsburg Mountain near Whitacre Point attests to the lives of many of these early pioneers with some graves dating back as far as 1829.
Even though South Pittsburg was yet to exist, the land where it would one-day stand would see the near constant passing and re-passing of Union and Confederate troops throughout most of the American Civil War. This resulted in both armies setting up camp here on numerous occasions and even the construction, by the Union Army, of a pontoon bridge across the Tennessee River near the mouth of Battle Creek at Alley’s Ferry prior to the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia in September 1863.
The most notable war event here was the bombing of the Union Army’s earthen redoubt, Fort McCook, in August 1862. This fort, which was located at the mouth of Battle Creek near where the Sonic Drive-In restaurant now stands, was continuously bombarded by heavy artillery for twelve hours on the night of the 27th. Confederate forces entrenched on the ridges in the New Hope community on the opposite side of the Tennessee River from here timed this attack simultaneously with an attack on nearby Bridgeport in an effort to gain control of this part of the Sequachee Valley. Both assaults were successful in their intent with the Union Army vacating the fort at Battle Creek during the night leaving it and much of the stores and supplies to its Confederate victors.
Eventually the Union Army would regain control of the area by late summer 1863 and continue its grip until the end of the war. Despite not having a major battle here, the area was ravaged by the thousands of soldiers passing through the area during the war who took livestock, foods and other necessities from the area farmers for the benefit of their cause. This resulted in hard times for many of these families following the end of the war as they attempted to rebuild their lives.
The key to the development of mineral lands in the Sequachee Valley and vital in the birth of South Pittsburg would be a branch railroad into the Sequachee Valley. This branch line, chartered in 1860 for the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, would lead off from the main line of the N. & C. RR at nearby Bridgeport, Alabama and have its terminus in Jasper, Tennessee some fifteen miles away. The coming of the Civil War and its impact on the area delayed the completion of this branch line into the valley, which would be known as the Jasper Branch Railroad. Following the end of the war, the N. & C. RR completed the branch line’s construction. Mr. O. R. Beene was the first person to ship a Sequachee Valley product over the new railroad. This first shipment consisted of nine bales of cotton shipped out on March 12th 1868.
In 1868, shortly after the completion of the Jasper Branch Railroad, the first coal mine was opened in the mountain near Whitacre Point, which overlooks present day South Pittsburg. Coal mining in the Sequachee Valley was now in its infancy and its future development in the valley would not have been possible without a railroad to move the products to market.
Growth of the area was slow but substantial enough to warrant the establishment of a post office. On August 10, 1869, a post office opened under the name of Battle Creek Mines in what would one day be called South Pittsburg. Woods Wilson was the first postmaster at this post office, which is the predecessor to South Pittburg’s present day post office.
In 1873, the attentions of several English men intimately connected with the iron trade of the north of England were drawn to the large possibilities of the iron trade of America. This interest brought about the formation of a syndicate later chartered in London under the name of Southern States Coal Iron & Land Company, Limited.
This company, which represented wealth and experience, was formed for the purpose of tapping in on the lucrative iron trade in the United States. The syndicate’s primary representatives were Welch metallurgist Thomas Whitwell, English iron master James Bowron, eminent fire-brick manufacturer Joseph Cliffe and a banker of Quaker descent by the name of Mr. Pike.
The syndicate made two separate lands deals in the United States, which did not pan out for the required combination of minerals needed for the iron industry. It was at this time that James Bowron was advised to come abroad in part, for health concerns, and to search for land within the United States containing both coal and iron. Fellow associates of the syndicate delegated the authority of a spot purchase of suitable land in the United States embracing both coal and iron in reasonable contiguity.
In 1875, after spending two years making a full examination of land in nearly every State in the Union, Bowron’s interest targeted three sites in Marion County, Tennessee. This interest resulted in the purchase of a considerable amount of land in the Cumberland Mountains, which formed the northwest wall of the Sequachee Valley. This property contained coal suitable for coking. In addition was the purchase of valley land containing red ore and another purchase of land in the valley containing brown ore suitable for the operation of charcoal furnaces.
These land purchases in east Tennessee resulted in the beginning establishment of the city of South Pittsburg. This name being chosen to reflect the hope that the infant city would acquire a similar status as its Pennsylvania namesake of Pittsburgh where the iron industry dominated. Other Sequachee Valley communities established as a result of the English syndicate’s purchases were Whitwell, which was named for syndicate president Thomas Whitwell and Victoria, which was chosen in honor of Great Britain’s reigning monarch, Queen Victoria.
Great care was taken in the development of South Pittsburg as streets and avenues were graded and blocks with ample sized lots platted for the growth of the city in respect to commercial, industrial and residential needs. Some choice lots, known as “Contour Lots,” near the base of the mountain were utilized by several members of the syndicate, later known as the “Old English Company,” for the building of their permanent residences.
South Pittsburg, Tennessee became officially known as such on May 23, 1876 when the old Battle Creek Mines post office opened under the new name. This change of names signified the establishment of a permanent community. Richard Clark would be its first postmaster.
With the roots of this new city just beginning to take hold, the growth of South Pittsburg, Tennessee would be greatly impaired in the year 1877 after unfortunate circumstances abruptly halted further development in the city and its iron trade foundation. Mr. Bowron died suddenly in 1877 before work on the city’s development was progressed much beyond the planning stages. Shortly after Bowron’s death, Mr. Whitwell was killed in a mine explosion in 1878 just at the time that negotiations for the property of the Tennessee Coal and Railroad Company, which was to pass under the control of the English company, were approaching a head. Mr. Cliffe and Mr. Pike also died during this time, which resulted in the complete loss of the driving force behind the Southern States Coal, Iron and Land Company. This company and its investors with all its proper planning and execution of those plans for this iron trade endeavor and the communities born from it could not have foreseen the untimely death of so many of its leaders in so short amount of time.
The syndicate, however, did not whither away with the deaths of its leaders. It did, however, lack the financial means and will to proceed with the plans initiated by its founders. The furnaces at South Pittsburg sat partially constructed while the town itself consisted of a hotel known as the Read House, a few houses and many vacant lots, which became overgrown with vegetation in the absence of builders during this idle time in early history of this Tennessee town.
In 1882, after nearly four years of near idleness, the syndicate, Southern States Coal, Iron & Land Company, was brought under the control of the Tennessee Coal & Iron Railroad Company in a consolidation, which placed the land in American hands. This move brought about new development in South Pittsburg, but mostly in regards to industrial concerns. The town itself was, for the most part, ignored with many of its streets being washed out into gullies and once carefully set curbstones fallen into the roadbeds after the ground, which held them in place, was washed away.
During the first years of ownership of the T. C. & I. RR Co. only a few improvements in the city itself were made. One of these was a row of workers’ houses, known as “Graham Row,” which was located on Holly Avenue between Third Street and Fourth Street. They were built by new company manager Thomas A. Graham during a short-lived resuscitation of building within the city. Also included in these improvements was the establishment of the South Pittsburg College as a non-profit institution to confer degrees and instruction in the higher branches of education. The college building, after it ceased operations, would become a public school for the city and predecessor to the current schools in South Pittsburg.
In 1886, Nashville banker William M. Duncan purchased the South Pittsburg town site from the T.C. & I. RR Co. in order to promote new interest in the development of the town. In December 1886 the South Pittsburg City Company was organized and in turn purchased the town site, including 3,000 acres, together with a contiguous tract of 700-acres from Dr. Joe Bostick. The new company, which was granted a charter of incorporation by the State of Tennessee, immediately began to reorganize the town and reclaim it from its neglected state.
Promotion of the intended expansion and growth of South Pittsburg by the newly formed real estate company received an added boost when, on November 19, 1886, representatives of the nationally renowned illustrated newspaper, “Harper’s Weekly” were the guest at a large gourmet dinner held in their honor at South Pittsburg. The dinner took place at the recently completed “City Inn” and was sponsored by the South Pittsburg City Company. “Harper’s Weekly” was planning to publish a supplemental run of newspapers featuring cities in the new south and their new industrial base, which would appear in several of its 1887 regular newspaper editions.
By May of 1887, an improvement made in the city, other than the opening of the “City Inn” in 1886, was the completion of the “Marion Hotel,” which contained twenty-rooms and was constructed in anticipation of a planned and well-advertised South Pittsburg City Company land sale/auction. Combined with this was the fact that several industries were now in the throes of completing the construction of their factories and several homes had now been built throughout the city. Additional improvements included the platting of the town site by F. P. Clute and the creation of a map dated 1887 noting blocks and lots, streets, avenues and alleyways throughout the city.
Another notable improvement was the establishment of a city water system supplied by a reservoir, which trapped several mountain streams. This system was able to distribute water throughout the town by iron pipes at 80-pounds per square inch for regular daily use and 200-pounds of pressure per square inch in the event of fire.
A promotional pamphlet titled “South Pittsburg, Tennessee” was published by the South Pittsburg City Company advertising the advantages of the southern town and was distributed throughout the United States in the early part of 1887. The pamphlet also advertised the sale of manufacturing, business and residential lots slated for May 10th and 11th 1887.
The South Pittsburg City Company’s assets at the time of this land auction, in addition to the land for sale, were two (2) hotel buildings, the incomplete National Bank building and four (4) large two story 13-room residences. Other assets were a brick two story store house, twenty-four (24) two story tenement houses, sixty (60) one story tenement houses, a reservoir and four miles of water pipe, a successfully operated coal mine, a handsome school building and a post office building.
Manufacturing concerns within the town at this time, which began with coal mining in the surrounding mountains in 1868, were associated with the iron trade either directly or indirectly. The first of these was the Tennessee Coal & Iron Railroad’s blast furnaces, which was managed by 10-year South Pittsburg resident Joseph Lodge formerly of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. This industry, which utilized coke for fuel and made pig iron, had two 100-ton furnaces on line by 1886 with at least one of these producing iron in 1882. These furnaces were located near the mouth of Battle Creek at the foot of the mountain near where Galaxy Carpet Mill now stands.
In addition to the blast furnaces operated at South Pittsburg by the T. C. & I. RR Co. were their car, machine and repair shops along with a sad iron foundry all located in block #1 where the Bi-Lo shopping plaza now stands. This foundry had a capacity of two tons per day of polished articles.
Coal mining in the mountains shadowing South Pittsburg was the first non-agricultural industry located here with vein entries being made not only below Whitacre Point, but also below Lodge Point near Midway, which is located between here and the Alabama state-line. These mines used state inmates as early as 1887, which were leased from the state for working the mine like that of Inman mines farther up the valley. This type of labor was eventually abandoned in favor of paid labor.
The Perry Stove Manufacturing Company began operations in South Pittsburg in mid-1887. This manufacturer of stoves using Sequachee Valley procured iron had its origins in Albany, New York, which was the largest stove founder in the United States at that time. John S. Perry was the owner of the company, which included a branch mill at Sing Sing, New York. The company eventually moved their complete operations to South Pittsburg after a slow start due to the filling of 500 available labor positions. The company lost its South Pittsburg plant to fire in 1888 and the following year was located in a new brick structure on the same site. This industry, which was known as the Harvest Stove Works Company in 1891 before being known as H. Wetter Manufacturing Company after the turn of the nineteenth century, covered the entirety of block #5 and over half of blocks #4 and #6. After changing ownership and names on several occasions the factory would be last known as the United States Stove Company. This factory ceased operations in the city a few years back and the original building, facing Cedar Avenue, was razed in the spring of 2003.
Other industries located in South Pittsburg by the end of 1887 were the South Pittsburg Pipe Works, Sequachee Hoe & Tool Works, South Pittsburg Brick & Terra Cotta Company, South Pittsburg Railroad, Coal and Iron Company, two saw/planing mills and a gristmill/cotton gin.
The Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway’s passenger/freight depot at South Pittsburg was taxed beyond the building’s capacity during the rapid growth of the city in 1887. This burden of increased rail traffic therefore forced the railroad to separate the departments by building a modern passenger depot at South Pittsburg in early 1888 beside the south half of block #6 and the Perry Stove Works. The new passenger depot at South Pittsburg was constructed in the “Queen-Anne” style of architecture so popular during this period of time in the United States. Jones C. Beene was the agent at the South Pittsburg depot at the time it was separated.
Other areas of rapid development within South Pittsburg, but not as extensive during this early period of development, were retail establishments, housing, churches, schools and parks. This growth was brought about to cater to the needs of all residents within the city.
The City of South Pittsburg was granted a charter of incorporation in November 1887 by the State of Tennessee and a local government was established with John G. Kelly elected as the city’s first mayor. Work was commenced immediately by the new government to secure electricity, telephones and improved water services within the city.
The city’s growth during the years 1887 to 1890 would be unmatched in the history of the Sequachee Valley until overshadowed by an industrial boom which struck the nearby city of Bridgeport, Alabama beginning in 1888. Major investments by eastern capitalists sparked a building period in that city which is yet to be matched by any other city in the valley. These investments in Bridgeport, which led to the community being dubbed the “New York of the South,” also brought about the title for South Pittsburg and Bridgeport, with its similar status, as the "Twin Cities.”
South Pittsburg in the last decade of the 19th century continued to grow at a steady rate with the establishment of new retail and industrial concerns. South Pittsburg also saw the construction of several new downtown buildings by 1900. One of these buildings was the original three-story Opera House on Cedar Avenue, which is where the newspaper South Pittsburg Hustler first called home. The building burned to the ground in 1907 and was replaced by a smaller Opera House the following year.
Additional manufacturing concerns established in South Pittsburg before the end of the century were Eagle Pencil Company, Blacklock Foundry, Shuster Foundry, DeBleiux and John J. Ingles & Company bottling works, Oxley Stave Company and South Pittsburg Milling Company. Blacklock Foundry, after being destroyed by fire in May 19, 1910, was rebuilt by its owner at a new location and is today known as Lodge Manufacturing Company.
At the close of the 19th century, South Pittsburg’s status as a leading industrial city in the Sequachee Valley was greatly echoed when the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway released its records for shipments over their line from here for the first eight months of 1899. These records showed freight receipts for the railroad out of South Pittsburg totaled $143,997.93 by August 21st. It is estimated that 4,042-railroad cars or 162 trains of twenty-five cars each were required to move this freight out of the city to market. In other words one continuous train of thirty-one miles in length.
The dawn of a new century found South Pittsburg in a state of moderate growth and a well established community in control of its own destiny. She boasted of over 4,000 residents and had within her corporate limits everything needed to cater to them. Employment opportunities abounded, retail establishments of various types within easy reach of all citizens, numerous churches of various denominations throughout the city, recreation in the form a city park for leisure and fun and an opera house for entertainment with stage plays. The city lacked little in comparison with cities twice her size and in some cases boasted of near equal attributes with some large cities such as Chattanooga. South Pittsburg was, without argument, the metropolis of the Sequachee Valley.
As with all good things they must soon come to an end. This statement could not hold any more truth than what would occur in South Pittsburg only a few years after the turn of century. The city was affected adversely when the successful operations of the Tennessee, Coal & Iron Railroad Company came to a halt after they decided to move their operations to the Birmingham, Alabama area in search of greener pastures. This move and the loss of employment to hundreds of men working in their South Pittsburg foundries brought about a dramatic decline in population for the city. Unemployed men were forced to either move with the T. C. & I. RR Co. or seek employment in other areas.
The stress inflicted by the sudden population decline also had an affect on local retail establishments, which lost a portion of their business and in some cases were forced to close their doors. Many businesses held on with the limited patronage.
Despite these setbacks including the loss of many of her landmarks to fire over the years, South Pittsburg would show her resiliency to such adverse conditions. Even though she would never see rapid growth like it witnessed before 1900, the city would bounce back to become a leader in the Sequatchee Valley in all aspects of community life. In 2004, her citizens are proud to call the city home like those who came before them.