Chattanooga History Column: Battelle, Alabama and the Battelle Institute

Chattanooga History Column: Battelle, Alabama and the Battelle Institute

August 20th, 2017 by Frank Robbins in Opinion Columns

Photo by Massey, T R

At the turn of the last century, the thriving mining community of Battelle, Ala., straddled a north-south line along the foot of Lookout Mountain five miles north of Valley Head. Forest, today, has reclaimed the area, and no building remains to cast the aura of the old ghost town.

The settlement once included hundreds of houses, a school, a commissary, a hotel and a post office, in addition to the furnace and coke ovens. Water from a spring was pumped into a large wooden tank and piped into surrounding homes. The "History of DeKalb County" notes that only scattered brick, piles of rotted lumber and an occasional piece of metal mark the ruins of Battelle.

Mining prospectors in the late 1800s in Northeast Alabama found pockets of an acceptable grade of iron ore, coal and limestone, the ingredients for making pig iron. In 1902, Col. John Gordon Battelle and other Ohio mining speculators formed The Lookout Mountain Land Co.

Although he already had large investments in the iron and steel industry in Ohio and the Midwest, Battelle took a great personal interest in the operation and moved to the site to supervise the mining activity. Within a few short years however, its mineral deposits became too scarce for his operation to compete with those being developed in the Birmingham area.

In 1905, the furnace was placed on a standby basis. During World War I, the British government purchased the furnace and shipped it to Calcutta, India.

Once the mining operations ceased at Battelle, the better homes were sold, and people moved away. The Belcher Lumber Co. of Centerville operated in the area for a few years in the 1940s. In 1969, the Alabama Great Southern Railroad train derailed and propane tanks exploded. News accounts gave the site of the wreck as Battelle, Ala. Today few in the county have heard of the early 1900s boom of Battelle.

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One incident at the Battelle operation stands out. Drew Hester, a worker, was standing at the top of an 85-foot furnace when he fell from the stack into the molten iron. A legend has grown that on dark nights Drew Hester's screams can still be heard, piercing the darkness of the forest-covered ridges as the phantom spirit re-enacts the fiery death scene.

John Gordon Battelle, born in Clarksburg, Va., in 1845, was the son of Gordon Battelle, long prominent in the ministry of the Methodist Episcopal Church and a Union chaplain during the Civil War. (Gordon's father was a colonel of a Massachusetts regiment who loyally aided the colonies in the American Revolution.). Young John spent his boyhood days at various towns in West Virginia, his father's pastoral conference, and at age 21 in 1866 became interested in the manufacture of iron.

Although John Gordon Battelle's financial venture in DeKalb County proved unsuccessful, he continued to do well with other investments, especially steel. When the Colonel (who received his honorary designation from the Ohio governor) died in 1918, he left $4 million to his only son, Gordon.

Gordon Battelle, who had become interested in recovering commercial values from ore tailings and mine water, died in 1923 at age 40 after appendectomy surgery and left his fortune to the Battelle Memorial Institute. Its founding purpose was "science in service to humanity." His mother, Annie, died a few years later and also gave a sizable sum to Battelle, which opened for business in October 1929.

At first, Battelle was best known for metallurgical capabilities, which led to its fame for its uranium extrusion role during World War II on the Manhattan Project, the program to build the atomic bomb. The institute also provided the U.S. military with improved armor for tanks and other military vehicles.

In the 1940s, Battelle supported inventor/lawyer Chester Carlson's concept of dry copying. Carlson had been turned down for funding by more than a dozen agencies, including the U.S. Navy. Battelle's involvement led to the first commercial xerographic equipment and the formation of Xerox Corp.

In 2000, Battelle, a private not-for-profit company, partnered with the University of Tennessee to operate the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Battelle plays a management role at six DOE national labs today, and the charitable trust conducts research in national security, medicine, energy, and the environment — quite a progression from its mining operations in northeast Alabama more than a century ago.

Frank "Mickey" Robbins is an investment adviser with Patten and Patten. For more, visit

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