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Rockwood Tennessee

In 1794 the land upon which the City of Rockwood is now located was owned by the Indians.  A territorial legislature was convened at Knoxville that year and passed an act which provided that a wagon road was to be built from South West Point (now Kingston) to the settlements on the Cumberland (now Nashville).  The Cherokees claimed the territory through which this road must pass and felt the white man had no right to cross their lands.  When the first ferry crossed the Clinch River near South West Point, Indians were standing on the west bank of the river and demanded toll be paid before the boat could land.

This road was the cause of numerous conflicts.  In 1799 the General Assembly of Tennessee recognized the correctness of the Indians' position and passed an “act respecting the road as stipulated by the Treaty of the Holston” and hostilities ceased.  The new road west “began at the old fort where Thomas Norris Clark established a ferry, passed through the valley of Post Oak Springs and ascended the mountain at a low gap…"

“Home-seekers poured in from the Carolinas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and even New England.  They came with North Carolina land grants, either earned in service or purchased from veterans or speculators.  The Walton Road was congested with ‘movers’ during the summer and autumn months - great topheavy North Carolina wagons drawn by oxen, broad-tired farm wagons piled high with household goods, and crude sledges with runners of hickory or oak; befrilled gentlemen astride blooded horses, rawboned farmers on hairy plownags, peddlers and merchants with their trains of donkeys, immigrants too poor to afford horse or ox, plodding through the dust clouds with their meager belongings and children on their backs - all moving west toward the promise of land in Tennessee.” (TENNESSEE, A Guide to the State, p. 48.)

The land at the foot of the Cumberland Mountain where Rockwood was later built was part of Grant No. 209 issued to Stockley Donaldson and James Wood Lackey from the State of North Carolina.  Although many claims were being made by the white man, the Cherokee did not sign over title to their land until October 25, 1805, in the Treaty of Tellico.  It was at this time Chief Tallentuskie was allowed to hold a mile square reserve on land which included what is now known as Brick Yard Springs in Rockwood.  About fifteen years later the old Chief leased this reserve and moved to Missouri where he died.

By 1812 Hugh Dunlap owned an interest in the original Donaldson-Lackey grant and lived on a 640-acre tract which included a part of what is now the City of Rockwood.  His house stood near the present location of the Rockwood Times building.  In 1817 Hugh Dunlap sold all his interest in the original grant to Thomas Brown and John McCampbell. (RORC.D.B.E.-l,p.154)

Thomas Norris Clark owned land adjacent to the Dunlap tract in 1817, and this was known as the “foot of the mountain” tract.  He also held the lease on the Tallentuskie reserve.  William Brown purchased this land from Thomas N. Clark and held it until 1834 when he sold to Joseph Kimbrough who built his home there.  His heirs still owned this land when General Wilder and Captain Chamberlain bought the tract in 1865.

Members of the Brown family were large land holders in Roane County.  General John Brown was the first sheriff of Roane County and lived in Kingston.  He later operated the Cumberland Turnpike from the foot of the Cumberland Mountain at William Brown's to where John Kimmer first settled just beyond Daddy's Creek.  (Public Acts.  1822, Chap.  CVII)

General Brown, after the death of his first wife, decided to move to Missouri and conveyed his property in trust to his son, Robert A. Brown. (RORC.D,B.F.-1-556).  John Brown then remarried, decided to remain in Tennessee, and moved to the “Dunlap Place” where he lived until his death on September 10, 1846.

John W. Brown, son of Gen. John Brown, inherited “the west one half of the Dunlap place” from his father, and it is believed he built, in the 1850's, the house known for the Rockwood Oak.” the home of the late Mrs. J.M. Clack.  Many are the stories about the visitors who stopped at his home to rest beneath the old oak trees and obtain rested horses in exchange for tired ones that had pulled a wagon or coach over the rocky mountain road.

At this time, the nearest settlement to what is now Rockwood was known as Post Oak Springs. This village boasted an academy, church, and several places of business.

The War Between the States brought many changes in the lives of persons who lived in this area.  Many left never to return and others came with the Union Army to catch their first glimse of the beautiful streams and the heavily foliated ridges of East Tennessee.  The conflict brought General John T. Wilder, one of the most noted brigade commanders in the Union Army, who recognized that here was an area with great possibilities for industrial development.  He saw that here was the Tennessee River upon which barges could be floated for shipping, the land held great amounts of iron ore, and nearby ridges contained valuable deposits of coal.  He believed that here was the ideal location to build the first furnace south of the Ohio to use mineral coal for the production of iron.

In September, 1865, General John Wilder and a friend, Captain Hiram S. Chamberlain of Knox County, purchased 728 acres of land from John W. Brown and the heirs of Joseph Kimbrough. (RORC D.B.0-1 pp. 354, 355, 359)  Three years later, on March 21, 1868, there arrived at Kimbrough's Landing (Rockwood Landing) a shipment of material to build the first furnace for what proved to be a business venture that would last 100 years.

Capt. W.E. McElwee has left us the story of how Rockwood got its name.  On March 11, 1868, the steamer towed a barge to the river landing bearing a “Blandy” saw mill. Capt. Mc El wee was acting as agent for Gen. Wilder and had the authority to sign a receipt for the saw mill so the deliverer could get his pay.  He started to head the receipt “Bells” for the name of the post office then kept at the Kimbrough place.  Just as he started to write he was handed a letter stating that Mr. W.O. Rockwood had been elected president of the newly formed Roane Iron Company and the place would be named for him.  It was thought the name property described the location, and the first paper written headed “Rockwood” was a receipt for an old fashioned Blandy saw mill.

When sufficient material had been assembled and the day arrived to begin construction work, Gen. Wilder was greatly disturbed by what he saw.  He knew the Civil War had not been over long enough for all animosities to have died down and could not imagine why so many men were beginning to gather.  There was Capt. Wat Robbs with his cross cut saw, Squire Rector had a froe, James Griffith held a broad axe and others carried falling axes.  He was delighted when told that this was a neighborly custom and these men were all coming to assist him.

Nathaniel Green built the first house that was erected in Rockwood.  He had a contract with the new Roane Iron Company to build six log houses near the location for the furnace.  The location of old Rockwood was what Davy Crockett would have called a “roaring thicket.”  An open way was cut and this path later became Spring Street.  Hyram McHaffee, a saw and hammer carpenter, had contracted to build one-room houses along that open way and old man John Godsey had the contract to build stick and dirt chimneys to them.  A log house with an upstairs was built on what was afterwards called “Welch Row.”'  This was a boarding house for the laborers and was kept by William White and family.  Welch's Row was where the creek runs below the Tennessee Central Railroad and, in later years, at the lower end lived one Solomon Eskridge (Col.) who made and sold Green Flag liniment.  The label had a big green flag on it and its virtues are not known:  but he did a thriving business.

The furnace was completed and the first cast made on December 8, 1868, a little over eight months from the time the first parts were landed at Kimbrough's Landing.  At that time only one steamer, the Cherokee, made one trip a week when the water was high enough.  It could only carry 50 tons.  General Wilder said, “The lumber was made, the brick burned, the building erected, the iron and coal mines were opened and a wagon road was built to the river, all in eight months and seventeen days.  I can assure you that we worked diligently rain or shine.”

Within eighteen months many people from Wales, England, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio and other distant places came to Rockwood to work in the mines and at the furnace.  It became necessary to build additional houses for employees and “Miner's Square” developed. (Rockwood High School and the adjoining recreational area is the location where the houses that made up Miner's Square were built).  This development consisted of 16 houses:  4 faced Rockwood Avenue, 8 faced Wheeler Street, and 4 faced Strang Street.

The Roane Iron Company was ever mindful of the people who worked for them.  Soon after the furnace was started they erected a community church and school.  In 1875 Rockwood had the only two public schools in the county.

Up to 1880 the Town of Rockwood only extended down to Lenoir Street.  When the Cincinnati Southern railroad was  nearing completion, the part of town known as New Rockwood was laid out.  The street nearest the railroad was named Front Street, and the construction of new buildings began.  The first house to be built was a hotel and then the “Old Kentucky Saloon” was erected.  John Montgomery immediately built a livery stable across the street from the hotel, and then Bob Short built a saloon on the corner of Front and Rathburn Streets.

The late Mrs. H.K. Evans came to Rockwood in 1881 to visit her aunt, Mrs. Ed Shanks, who lived in the Miss Kate Rodgers home.  She said the way from the railroad to her aunt's home was an ore-dusted pig and cow path following what is now Rockwood Avenue.  She recalled, “I remember that this was the day of volumnious petticoats with ruffles of white embroidery, and it was something to get the stain of red ore out of the ruffles after we had trailed them over the ground in some of our strolls.”

The City of Rockwood was incorporated in 1890.  “New” Rockwood and “Old” Rockwood was about to meet on Rockwood Avenue as the buildings were constructed.  Bland Branch ran down Rockwood Avenue on the north side from Chamberlain Avenue and the course of it was changed in 1890 so that the main street of the town could be built along without the citizens having to jump the branch on that side of the street.  In 1890 the new town boasted a population of 3,500 citizens.  At this time some of the leading business men were J. F. Tarwater and T..J.  Brown, ore contractors: D.M. Coffman, editor of the Rockwood Times: D.T. Peterman, A.J. Owings, J.D. Avery, John Swafford, S. Blaine Leeper, Acuff and Carter, George Cooper and John East, Eblen and Morrison, O. Steinwehr, J.H. Donaldson, merchants; Hon. F.D. Owings, Capt. W.E. McElwee, Harry Evans, J.W.C. Wilson, Charles Haley, E.T. Ingram, Henry and Ernest Tauscher, T.B. Clark and M. Fouche.

Others who started out by working for the Roane Iron Company, or had been helped by them to get started in business, were Capt. Tarwater, Capt. J.N. Baker, Sewell Howard, Ed Bayless, Blaine Leeper, E.T. Ingram, Sam Hinds, son of James Hinds, Capt. V.A.  Heath, Hon. Will Millican, J.H. Tate, James Sartin, Tom Ragle, Tom and Jim Swaggerty, Dr. Tom Bowers, Florin Register, Sam Blake, Ernest Shadden, Sam and Tom Day, Clint Baird, Albert Etter, W.L. Verran, Fred Wright, M.H. Phillips, W.D. Acuff and Geocge Tedder.

Within four years after the new town was incorporated new buildings mostly filled the block between Wilder Street and Chamberlain Street on Rockwood Avenue.  In July of 1894 a most devastating fire swept away everything on the south side of the street except the building on the corner of Chamberlain Street and Rockwood Avenue.  A few months later another fire burned to the ground all but one building on the north side of the street.

It was the custom from the earliest days of building the new town for all citizens to take advantage of every opportunity to enjoy a celebration.  Regardless of whether it was a stroll on Sunday afternoon to see the train come in, a boat ride on the river, Fourth of July celebration. or a Memorial Day Service, everyone participated in the event.

When our country became involved in the Spanish American War, Col. D.L. Coffman organized a company of 128 men from Rockwood and the surrounding area.  Col. Coffman came to Roane County in 1876 and established, in 1880, a newspaper called “'The Times.”

The Tennessee Central Railroad was completed in 1900, and made available the timber and mineral resources of the Cumberland Plateau as well as adding another convenient method of shipping manufactured products from Rockwood.

Rockwood was built by many individuals of whom there are no written records of their achievements.  In 1904 Judge A.P. Thompson was told by Capt. Hiram S. Chamberlain, president of Roane Iron Company, “I assert without fear any contradiction that we have in Rockwood the most intelligent and prosperous lot of employees of any company in the United States, north or south.  Why, the different professions are being filled by sons of our older employees, and they are nearly all getting rich.  Take Henry Richards for example.  He was one of our miners formerly.  One of his sons is a physician, and his other sons are leading business men, and Henry Richards is now rich.  And the grand old man, Capt. Peterman, used to work for us for wages.  Now I am looking for him and his sons to propose buying the Roane Iron Company out.  He owns the best block in town, the biggest store in the county, one of the best residences and the Lord only knows what else, and Tom Peterman can best any Jew between Pensacola and New York running a store.  George Mc Lane, an old miner, is now one of our bank directors, and look at the property he owns.  And there is Dr. Phillips of Briceville, son of our furnaceman, and Dr. Nelson, son of our former mine superintendent, and I do not have time to tell it all nor you the time to listen to me tell.  Why many of our laborers have pianos in their homes and luxuries of all sorts, I am proud of our Rockwood people, and I tell you I am going to keep one furnace at least going if I have to stack the iron on the yard and wait for prices to get better.”

“With the dawn of the twentieth century, Rockwood entered upon a period of growth in wealth, population and importance exceeding even the first three eventful decades of the city's history.  In a special referendum election held in 1903 a new city charter was adopted barring saloons.  Civic and cultural organizations were formed. The old mining camp town, crude and rough and wholly centered around one industry, was changing into a well developed community of diversified industries, with varied interests and activities.”'  (Brochure prepared by Harry Seward)

From the dense wilderness to which General Wilder came, Rockwood has grown to be an outstanding transportation, industrial and recreation center.

Historical Background Rockwood TN: Text
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