This is the first in a series of articles that will appear in this newspaper concerning downtown revitalization in Tracy City. The goal of the project is to re-establish Tracy City as the commercial center of the plateau. It once was the largest city between Chattanooga and Murfreesboro. The project is being steered by a committee appointed by the Mayor and Board of Aldermen of Tracy City. This article will describe the historical important of the town that is the driving inspiration for the revitalization project.
Following the Civil War, with its economy in ruins, many of the South’s leaders developed the notion that rebuilding of the economy of the South should include modern industrialization and diversification of agriculture. This meant moving from a single crop agricultural economic base of the prewar period with occasional cottage industries to the development of factories that could produce products in mass. One of the principal advocates of a New South economy was Arthur St. Clair Colyar, a prominent Tennessee attorney, politician, newspaper editor, and industrialist. He encouraged industrial development through the promotion of northern capital and immigration, particularly to the Cumberland Plateau.
Colyar represented Tennessee creditors in a lawsuit in a Tennessee state court against Sewanee Mining Company for debt incurred in the building of a railroad, named the Mountain Goat, from Cowan to the Sewanee Coal Seam of the Cumberland Plateau at a town established in 1858 called Tracy City, named for the company’s president, Samuel Tracy. In a separate Federal lawsuit, New York bondholders foreclosed on defaulted bonds issued by Sewanee Mining Company. Colyar engineered a settlement wherein the New York bondholders agreed to accept $220,000 in new mortgage bonds issued by a reorganized Sewanee Mining Company named Tennessee Coal and Railroad Company (TCR)> Common shares of $400,000 were issued and purchased by Colyar to pay the Tennessee creditors. He thus became the sole equity owner of the reorganized company.
In 1873 TCR officials, James W. Warner and Alfred Montgomery Shook, traveled north to iron works in St. Louis to learn the process for iron manufacture from use of coke. Having learned the process, Samuel E. Jones, a foundry man in charge of the machine shops, suggested he could improvise a blast furnace to test the coke and ore. He built the Fiery Gizzard Furnace the produced 15 tons of pig iron from coke burned on the ground from Sewanee Seam bituminous slack (waste).
The furnace blew up after 3 days production but the experiment was a success, having proved that Sewanee Seam bituminous coal waste could be successfully used in blast furnaces to smelt iron ore into pig iron used in the manufacture of iron and steel products. The company constructed 120 coke ovens at its Wooten Mine site in Tracy City. Two hundred convicts from the state penitentiary were sub-leased to work in the mine and tend the coke ovens.
In 1881 Sewanee Furnace Company was organized and merged with TCR, which then consisted of four coalmines in Tracy City and a blast furnace at Cowan producing pig iron with coke from Tracy City.
In 1882 TCR was reorganized as Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI). It acquired Southern States Iron and Land Company in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. This included a partially developed iron ore mine at Inman, two blast furnaces at South Pittsburg and coalmine and coke ovens at Whitwell. These locations were in relative close proximity to TCI’s central location in Tracy City. Southern States Iron and Land Company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. After the merger TCI was so listed.
In 1886 TCI acquired Pratt Coal and Coke Company that was renamed Pratt Coal and Iron Company and included Alice Furnace Company and Lynn Iron Company among its holdings. The Associated Press announced that the acquisition “has brought together under one management probably the largest and most valuable coal and coke property in the world.” The consolidated companies owned 200,000 acres of coal and iron land in Tennessee and 70,000 in Alabama. The consolidated stock of the companies amounted to $10,000,000.
Alfred M. Shook, General Manager of TCI, brought an engineer from England, Benjamin Talbert, to devise a means whereby basic iron could be made profitably from southern ores, and good basic steel could be produced in commercial quantities. Talbert developed the open-hearth process. First basic iron was made at South Pittsburg, Tennessee. Shook organized a company in Chattanooga that erected several open-hearth furnaces for the production of steel.
In 1892 TCI purchased DeBardeleben Coal and Iron Company and Cahaba Coal Mining Company (owner of Excelsor Coal Company). With the acquisition of these companies, TCI nearly doubled its capital stock, landholdings, and daily coal extractions. It gained the third position in the nation’s production of pig iron following only Illinois Steel and the industrial empire of Andrew Carnegie. TCI now controlled 60% of the coal and iron reserves in Alabama and Tennessee.
The New South had been born in Tracy City with the genesis of the southern industrial empire that was TCI.
Stimulated by an adverse court ruling in 1894 that the taxable status of its intangible assets was in Grundy County, Tennessee, regardless of where the operations that generated such assets were located, and therefore subject to Grundy County, Tennessee taxation, TCI began moving toward the relocation of its headquarters to Alabama.
TCI continued acquisitions in 1898 with Robinson Mining Company and Alabama Steel and Shipbuilding Company and in 1899 with Sheffield Coal and Iron Company and the assets of Bessemer Rolling Mill Company.
In 1904 the offices of TCI in Tracy City were closed and moved to Ensley Town near Birmingham, Alabama. The company became a subsidiary of United States Steel Corporation in 1907 after approval of the transaction by President Theodore Roosevelt as not being in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The Tracy City Downtown Revitalization Committee intends to capture Tracy City’s role as the birthplace of the New South to promote re-establishment of the town as the commercial center of the plateau. The committee invites interested persons to participate in the project. Contact with the committee may be made through Nadene Fultz Moore, secretary for the committee, at Grundy County Historical Society Heritage Center at 465 Railroad Avenue in Tracy City or by calling 931-592-6008. Pictured is the Wooten Mine.