DAYTON, Tenn.-Like a long, ghostly line of open tombs, the coke ovens still stand, buried in the gray, gnarled vines of winter kudzu.
The ovens are made of stone cut from the mountainside and brick and look like giant beehives when uncovered. Some are partly or completely collapsed; others still have bare brick floors and walls. Intact smoke vents poke out of some oven roofs.
All around, the ground is black with coal dust. Trees sprout everywhere, sometimes supporting the ovens and other structures, others slowly ripping apart their manmade homes.
The ovens, the coal, the dust, the crumbling remains of coal-mine entrances are all left from the Dayton Coal and Iron Co. The company spent decades in the late 1800s and early 1900s making the fuel called coke, an essential part of producing iron.
Historian Jaime Woodcock said the area sprawling along the east side of Richland Creek a couple of miles north of Dayton could be one of the largest coke manufacturing sites in Tennessee, with 377 ovens documented so far.
Woodcock, who works for Wildwood, Ga.-based Alexander Archaeological Consultants Inc., wants to uncover that past and get the Dayton Coal and Iron Co. site listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The designation can help with efforts to preserve and protect the site from vandals and development, but there is still lots to learn, Woodcock said.
"The point of the project is to fully assess what's here and to determine the significance of this site," she said.
DAYTON COAL AND IRON CO.
The site is a few hundred acres encompassing the Richland and Morgan creek gorges on the side of Walden's Ridge and primarily consists of the Richland, Nelson and Dixon-Slope mines, all owned by Dayton Coal and Iron, Woodcock said.
About half the site lies inside the Laurel-Snow State Natural Area, just north of town. Dayton Coal and Iron Co. opened the Richland Mine in 1882 and the Dixon-Slope mine in 1891.
The area including the Nelson Mine, established in 1885 on the west side of Richland Creek, is mostly on private land and the property owner has agreed to a survey, she said.
As many as 450 men worked in the mines then, Woodcock said.
"The really heavy extraction was in the 1880s and '90s," she said.
The Richland Creek and adjacent Morgan Creek gorges were crisscrossed with rails for cars that hauled coal from the mines to the coke ovens, Woodcock said.
Finished coke was shipped over a couple of miles of rail to town, where Dayton Coal and Iron's foundry on Delaware Avenue used it to make pig iron, she said. Pig iron was the base for a variety of iron products.
BY THE NUMBERS
Dayton Coal and Iron Co.
• 1882: First mine opened
• 211,465 tons: Coal production in 1890
• 114,107 tons: Production in 1891
• 134,066 tons: Production in 1892
• 323: Ovens operating between 1890 and 1892
• 450: Estimated company work force by 1893
Source: 1893 Second Annual Report of the Commissioner of Labor and Inspector of Mines
But mining accidents, low market prices and labor strikes over pay had a negative impact, she said.
After an explosion killed 29 miners at the Nelson Mine on Dec. 20, 1895, rescuers dug through the Dixon-Slope mine and tunneled under Richland Creek trying to retrieve the bodies.
The mine finally closed for good in the late 1920s under the ownership of the Cumberland Coal and Iron Co., she said.
By the 1930s, the Dayton Coal and Iron Co.'s foundry was closed down and demolished, she said.
Woodcock said she's still studying the details of those developments as well as other mines and operations existing at the time to supply the coke ovens.
"There were dozens of mines," she said. "There was the New Prospect Mine, the North Pole Mine, the Laurel Mine, the Buzzard Point Mine. They were all over."
Cumberland Trail State Park Ranger Andy Wright said trails in the Laurel-Snow Park use some of the same paths created by the coal operations and people have visited the coke oven sites for years. The park draws rock climbers and hikers to its bluffs and trails, while the rushing water of Richland Creek attracts kayakers and canoeists, he said.
"Some days you might only have four or five cars in here, but on a weekend you might see 400 or 500 cars," he said. "People who come out here wouldn't know that most of the landscape out here is manmade."
The Dixon-Slope Mine's main entrance is still impressive today, with a wide stone arch about 2 feet thick and 20 feet wide. The tunnel beyond the entrance is partially collapsed from just behind the entrance to the point where the tunnel burrows into the mountainside.
Woodcock is surveying the site with the help of Alexander Archaeological Consultants field technicians Mitch Sohn and Jon Levenger and volunteers from the Friends of the Cumberland Trail. She said she hopes the work will garner the National Register nod in 2012 or 2013.
The group worked through February to catalog and document significant features on the site. They used part of a $24,000 grant from the National Park Service's Historic Preservation Fund, along with $5,000 in matching funds from the Lyndhurst Foundation and $11,000 of in-kind labor provided by the Friends of the Cumberland Trail and professional cartographer Randy Hale, who is helping map the site.
The work under way now will produce a survey report with detailed descriptions of the site's features, the historic context and the significance of the mining operations, Woodcock said.
"The next step will be completing a National Register of Historic Places nomination," she said.
Woodcock and volunteers have launched similar efforts to preserve the 457-acre McNabb Mine company town of Shakerag in Marion County's Prentice Cooper State Forest. Shakerag was added to the National Register in May 2008.