Orme, Tennessee - 100th Anniversary
A Centennial Review of Her History
By James Dennis Lambert, Jr.
Copyright, August 30, 2002
Venturing along a country road (Jackson County Road 98) surrounded by pastures and mountains in northeast Alabama near Bridgeport, visitors to this somewhat remote region normally are destined to visit Russell Cave National Monument, which is about four miles distance from the road’s beginning. Sometimes, however, these travelers venture farther down the valley road just to see what may lie at its end. To their surprise and amazement they discover an old wood framed railroad depot with a rustic sign on its side proclaiming “ORME” sitting near the road’s edge, but no railroad.
Not realizing they have crossed the state-line where the type of asphalt in the road changed, these travelers are now in the Marion County, Tennessee community of Orme where a century before a bustling coal-mining town was being built. Today, with the depot and a few surviving workers’ cottages still standing to recall its glory days, the small isolated town is merely a quaint little village to her residents.
Before the turn of the 19th century, the area at the end of Doran’s Cove had been for some time a section of land inhabited by only a few farmers who broke the ground each planting season to sow a new crop. The children of the area attended a small one-room schoolhouse, which straddled the Alabama & Tennessee state-line and required students from their respected states to use schoolbooks from that state. Soon, however, that way of life would forever be altered as the winds of change swept the area with the discovery of coal in the surrounding (plateaus) mountains.
The first coal mined from the mountains surrounding Doran’s Cove was around 1892 resulting in the establishment of a small community called Needmore. This mining operation was small scale with limited investments. And without an avenue to transport the mountain mineral out of the cove to market, these first mining operations were soon all but abandoned.
About 1899, Chattanooga businessman, Frederick Gates, acquired an option to buy the coal mining property, which included most of the small settlement of Needmore. Mr. Gates, realizing his investments would be in vain without a railroad into the cove to transport the coal to market, attempted for sometime to have the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway build a branch road into the cove. The railroad was reluctant to do this as original reports from surveys done in the vicinity of Needmore indicated that coal in the region was limited and it would not be economically feasible to build a ten-mile branch track to the site.
A Capt. John Frater, who had years of experience in the mining business, had been hired as an advisory engineer over the mining operations by Gates. Frater later met with N.C. & St. L. Rwy. president, Maj. J. W. Thomas in an attempt to acquire a branch line into the cove. The meeting did not produce immediate results, but blueprints later sent to the railroad official showing the coal veins owned by the Needmore Coal Company in Doran’s Cove did bring about a change of mind for Maj. Thomas.
Mr. Gates and the railroad entered into an agreement in early 1902 and soon the grading for a new branch railroad into the cove was begun. Later that year, Gates sold the mining operation to R.O. Campbell, who renamed the company, Campbell Coal & Coke Company. The first entry into the coal veins was in July 1902 at a point of 1540 feet above sea level.
By August the 10.42 miles branch railroad and was completed by the C.C.&C. Co. and the N.C. & St. L. Rwy. with the latter having expended $81,267.02 in its construction. The new railroad, which switched off of the Jasper Branch Railroad about a mile below the Bridgeport, Alabama depot, had Johnson’s Crossing at 2.70 miles, Cumberland Junction – a spur into the railroad’s quarry at 4.60 miles. In addition was the section house at Mount Carmel at 5.10 miles, passenger and freight shelter, sidetrack and spur to Widow’s Creek Coal Company at Montegue at the 8.00 miles mark, Crownover at 9.00 miles, Alabama & Tennessee State Line at 9.50 miles and Orme Depot at 10.42 miles. Also at Orme was a set of scales for weighing loaded coal cars, water tank, sidetrack, house track and a three-track yard.
With everything in place for full-scale mining operations including an incline over a half-mile long and beginning employment for 125 men, Mr. Campbell built a commissary, store house, office building, workers’ cottages and three-story hotel in the old town of Needmore to accommodate the workers and their families. In addition he built a large schoolhouse not far from the depot for the white miners and their families and a small schoolhouse/church for the black miners and their families, which was located a little farther up the mountain. In turn he had the town’s name changed to Orme in honor of his son, Orme Campbell. The first Orme coal hit the market in September 1902.
That same year the town was incorporated and a mayor, recorder and five aldermen chosen. A post office had already been established in the community in 1892 under the name of Needmore before being changed to Orme.
Mr. Gates, who retained the name Needmore, began a new mining operation just across the Alabama line on Monteque Mountain near Russell Cave. The mining operation under the name of Widows Creek Coal Company resulted in a small community called New Needmore.
Mr. Campbell, whose mines were named Battle Creek Mines after the name of the coal seam being mined, later sold his mining operation at Orme in 1905 and the company’s name was changed to the Battle Creek Coal & Coke Company
In Orme, coal, which was said to have been the best domestic coal mined from the Sequatchie Valley, was mined at an average rate of 1000 tons per day by 1905. Coal was moved from inside the mine by mule powered rail cars to the entrance on average of 2,750 feet. From this point the coal was moved to a tipple at the head of the incline by locomotive; thence to a lower tipple and railroad in monitor cars holding ten tons each over gravity plane 2,957 feet in length. A compressed air plant was constructed that same year to facilitate the use of air-powered tools and machinery inside of the mine. The mine was ventilated by a seven-foot and later ten-foot Stine pattern exhaust fan, which was distributed throughout the mine by the multiple system.
Over the next 40-years the mining operation, which changed owners a few times, took the lives of several miners and injured dozens more. As is the case with all mining operations, risk to life and limb come with employment.
The town of Orme continued to grow at a study rate as miners and their families moved into the valley town. Most necessities were found in Orme at the commissary, which accepted not only cash for payment, but also company script. For those things not found in Orme, such as certain types of entertainment, specialty clothing and foods along with other wants, residents would take the morning train into Bridgeport where they would shop or see a silent movie. They would then stay the night or take the afternoon train back to Orme.
It is reported that a strike by miners in the year 1939 was the beginning of the end for large-scale mining operations in Orme. This, combined with a depletion of the most easily accessed coal in the region, officially ended the company run mining operation in 1941. Later the following year, 1942, the N. C. & St. L. Rwy. pulled up the tracks into Orme and abandoned its right-of-way, which was, for the most part, converted into the country road now leading into Orme. The rails and other iron materials from the vacated rail-line were given to the war effort for recycling into war materials including the still-operational locomotive, which was cut up with torches into scrap metal at Orme.
The town’s population dwindled to about 150 residents after the large scaled mining operations ceased and has remained about the same up to present. Smaller scale mining operations, however, continued in the valley up until about 1970 with the mines being worked under a sublease by individual miners. These miners and the small companies they formed in turn paid a royalty to the mine’s owners. This coal, which was used primarily in the cement plant at Richard City and later by the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Widows Creek Steam Plant at Bridgeport, was transported from the cove by way of trucks.
The community is still incorporated and is one of the smallest municipalities in Marion County with a mayor and two aldermen. For a time the post office was operated out of the old depot, which is privately owned, but ceased about 1970 and now mail is delivered from the South Pittsburg post office. The depot, which also was operated as a grocery store for a time, now sits vacant as a silent monument to a moment in time.
The old commissary, which stood a few hundred feet down from the depot, was torn down around 1945. Brothers, John & Frank Sullivan operated the commissary for several years and later it was ran by Riley Payne who had worked at the commissary since the age of eleven when he delivered groceries and other supplies by bicycle after school.
The two-story schoolhouse, which taught students from first through eighth grades with higher grades attending school in South Pittsburg, operated until 1961 when the school was closed. All students from Orme are today bused out of the cove to attend schools in South Pittsburg. The old school house was razed in 1982.
With the old hotel also having been torn down in 1945 very little remains in Orme to testify to its glorious past. The town, today, on its 100th anniversary, consist of a few dozens houses, the depot and a new city hall/community center, which was built in the 1990’s on the site of the old commissary. Most of the residents are life-long and many of the older ones love to tell the story of Orme’s coal mining past. A few have taken steps, at least, to preserve pieces of the town’s history by collecting historical items, which they hope will one day be displayed in a museum within the community.
Carl Mount, who is considered the community historian, has been collecting mining artifacts from around Orme since his childhood. He has recently agreed to allow several of these items to be displayed in the soon-to-open Bridgeport Railroad Depot Museum since that city has a historical link to Orme. These artifacts include mining carbide lamps, a charge tamper with brass end, parts of a mining car, some of the last coal mined from Orme and several other Orme related items.
Orme’s glory days may be a thing of the past, but for those who live there the town will always be glorious. It is their hope that the community will see her bicentennial in the year 2102.
Contributors and reference materials used in this story other than those of the author:
Walter Raleigh Clack
“Ghost Railroads of Tennessee” – Copyright 1975 by Elmer G. Sulzer
“Old Mining & Miners of Marion – 1800s” a compilation of various text and photographic materials related to mining in Marion County, Tennessee by Nomie Webb – Copyright 1993
August 30, 2002