Embreeville – Bumpass Cove
Contributed by Penny McLaughlin
Embreeville and Bumpass Cove are small mountain communities located in the southeastern corner of Washington County and at the northern border of Unicoi County. The cove, lying between Rich Mountain and Embreeville Mountain, is some four miles long and almost two miles wide. Its watershed is drained by the Bumpass Cove Creek into the Nolichucky River. Numerous remains of the Cherokees, where their villages were once located, have been found at the mouth of the cove. This has been one of e richest mineralized areas in East Tennessee, a fact which throughout its history has caused years of great productivity when the mines were active, and years of idleness and financial stagnation when the mines were closed.
The first metal to be mined in the area was lead. Bullets form this source were supposedly fired against the British in 1780 at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Tax lists of the 1780’s show William Colyer assessed for 350 acres of land in Bumpass Cove containing a lead mine commonly called “Colyer’s Mine.” In 1812 William P. Chester bought 260 acres near the mouth of Bumpass Cove and built a forge for iron ore. He later sold the forge to Elijah and Elihu Embree.
The Embrees were third generation ironworkers. Their grandfather, Moses Embree III, had served his apprenticeship as an ironworker in Pennsylvania in the late 1720’s. The Embrees were active members of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly called Quakers. In the 1780’s Moses’ son Thomas Embree hired a Quaker stonemason named Seth Smith to build a stone house near what is now Telford, Tennessee. Elijah and Elihu Embree lived in this house as children. This “Limestone House” still stands a few miles southwest of Jonesborough. The two Embree brothers acquired many additional acres, built forges, furnaces and nail factories, and by 1820 were widely known for their high-quality cast and forged iron products.
Elihu Embree is best known for his connection with early efforts to free slaves in Tennessee. In 1819 he published at Jonesborough the Manumission Intelligencer, weekly newspaper and later The Emancipator, a monthly publication. These were the first periodicals published in the United States devoted exclusively to the abolition of slavery. Publication stopped when Elihu died in 1820.
In 1830, Elijah Embree formed a partnership with Robert L. Blair, John Blair, William Blair, and three others which was known as the Washington Iron Manufacturing Company. Elijah died in 1846 and was buried on the side of a hill overlooking the town which bears his family’s name. This small old cemetery has not been used for many years and is now overgrown and unkept.
Under the Blairs, the “Pleasant Valley Iron Works” soon became the largest producer of iron in East Tennessee. During the Civil War, Duff Green, a politician and industrial promoter, acquired the iron works. Called the Confederate Iron Works, it proved to be of great value to the East Tennessee campaign. In 1864 the following appeared in a Jonesborough paper: “200 conscripts wanted. The above number of good able-bodied men can be detailed for service at the Iron Works of Gen. Duff Green, to make iron for the Government by applying to me at Jonesborough, Tenn. Teams and wagons also needed. Good wages paid.” In 1865, after the war had ended, Green, along with Calvin Hoss, Charles J. McKinney and other associates, incorporated the Tennessee Mining and Manufacturing Company. With the collapse of the Confederacy and the paralyzing effect of Reconstruction, Green and his associates were unable to continue payments on the business; the mines reverted to the Blair family, who had owned them before the war.
In 1890 British capitalists purchased the land and operated under the title of Embreeville Freehold Land, Iron, and Railway Company, Limited. The Embreeville Town Company, a companion organization, was created under English law to develop stores, banks, and other businesses to support the mining company. A town site was laid out just north of the furnace stack. Streets were graded and houses built for officials in an English style of architecture. A number of these houses still stand.
The Southern Railway built a spur line from Johnson City to bring in coke for the new hot-blast furnace. In 1892 the Company employed 250 men and produced a daily output of 35 tons of high grade iron. However, the financial panic of 1893 caused the furnace to shut down, again forcing a slump period. In 1903 Embree Iron Company, created by New York and Chicago interests introduced hydraulic mining. The operation was not successful, and in 1909 the fires were extinguished for the last time.
Reorganized in 1913, the Embree Iron Company began to mine Zinc. From 1914 until his death in 1936, T.N. Wyman was vice-president and general manager of the Embree Iron Company. Intensive churn drilling to locate deposits of zinc and lead, especially in the area at the head of the cove call Peach Orchard, resulted in the discovery of rich deposits. Large shipments of zinc and lead continued through the post-World War I period. Many pick-and-shovel men were hired to work in the mines. Boarding houses accommodated some of these men who left their families for the week to walk over the mountains to the mines. Small log houses sheltered other workers and their families and this area became known as “Poletown.” The company built a small track up to Peach Orchard to haul ore, carry the men to and from the mines, and bring groceries up from the company store. Over forty head of mules were kept to pull the tram cars and to work in the mining operation. At first, coupons called “scrip” were used as a means of exchange at the company store; later, a lightweight metal coin called “doogaloo” was used. A number of blacks worked for the company at this time, and evidence of an unmarked cemetery for these workers still exist.
By 1930, the area was again in a slump. It was not until 1935 that more drilling took place. Due to the limiting of imported manganese, companies sought new deposits in this country. In 1939, the Embree Iron Company was the largest producer of metallurgical-grade manganese concentrates in the United States. Yet the ore, mined by power shovel was quickly exhausted. Some hand mining of zinc, lead and manganese resumed in the Peach Orchard area in the 1940’s but another boom period had ended. Tri-State Mines bought the mining interests in 1952. Within three years, Tri-State removed most of the remaining ore.
In the late 1950’s property once owned by the company was put up for sale. This was the first time that many families could purchase property in their own community. Before this they had rented their homes from the company. By 1960 the last of the mining was finished. All except the families of the older settlers, whose roots were in the area, had left to seek new employment.
In the early 1970’s some of the previously mined land was selected for landfill use. For years, several local residents had felt that unauthorized waste was being dumped at the site. It was not until a flash flood in July of 1979 that wider attention was given to the problem. The water carried questionable waste from the site and unearthed other materials. In December, 1979, the Bumpass Cove landfill was closed. While the landfill has been covered, it continues to be monitored by officials of the Tennessee Department of Health.