Elliott: Welsh coal miners transformed Soddy after the Civil War

Elliott: Welsh coal miners transformed Soddy after the Civil War

May 13th, 2018 by Sam D. Elliott in Opinion Columns

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

After the Civil War, the Chattanooga area experienced an influx of northern investors and immigrants seeking opportunity in the area's rich natural resources and the transportation network of railroads and river that made Chattanooga so important during the war. As part of this trend, the mostly Scots-Irish inhabitants of the northern end of Hamilton County saw an influx of Welsh-born immigrants from coal-mining areas of the north, chiefly Pennsylvania and Ohio. Their arrival began a decades-long transformation of the small farming community of Soddy, and to a lesser extent Sale Creek, into a bustling area supporting significant mining operations.

A number of Welshmen came from Brookfield, Ohio, (in the Youngstown area) to prospect for sites for a coal operation. They eventually settled on Soddy, which had several seams of high quality coal near the foot of Walden's Ridge. The land, which was owned by Col. William Clift, had already seen limited mining before the war.

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The first Welshmen appeared in Soddy early in 1867. On March 18, 1868, the Tennessee General Assembly passed Chapter 96, Acts of 1868 incorporating the Soddy Coal Co. The incorporators were John G. Williams, Abraham Lloyd, Evan Rees, Richard Williams, John Jenkins, Edward Jones, Benjamin Jones, Christopher Maggi, John Hallett, Thomas B. Evans, David Regnan, William W. Rees, William Regnan, William Thomas, David Williams, Lewis Morgan, John Maggi and Samuel Evans. The 1870 census shows a number of those and other miners residing at Soddy, with their country of birth indicated to be Wales.

Six thousand acres was leased from Col. Clift, and the new operation soon anticipated the arrival of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad. Although announced in 1869, the line did not arrive at Soddy until 1877. A news article in 1871 reported that from 40 to 60 hands were working in the Soddy mines. As a railroad connection was lacking, barges were poled up and down Soddy Creek, to a loading dock on the Tennessee River, at which point the coal was floated either downstream to Chattanooga or upstream to an iron works in Rockwood. Steamboat operators who bought the Soddy coal contracted to return the barges to the point of original loading on Soddy Creek.

The influx of Welshmen and the mining operation changed the face of Soddy. As one 1930's newspapermen wrote, "[t]here was hardly the pretense of a village where the main town now stands when the Welsh pioneers arrived to inaugurate their work. There were only a few houses scattered here and there. Houses and tents went up rapidly, however, to shelter the influx of population." The article noted that "Uncle" George Varner, a "substantial old farmer, lived near, however, and lodged several of them as boarders while houses were being thrown up." A setback occurred in 1871, when a great storm demolished tents and tore the roofs off houses. The hardy new settlers, however, "went right ahead with their work."

The Welshmen established a Congregational church, which endured in Soddy until the late 1960s. Its first pastor was Rev. Thomas Thomas, whose name reflected a peculiar practice among some of the Welshmen of using one's family name as his Christian name. Native residents did not appear to resent the influx of foreign-born strangers as their presence provided a market for the natives' farm products. Besides, "[t]here never was much apprehension as to what a [Welshman] might do to you if your back was turned."

While many of the Welsh stayed in the area, the initial commercial venture of Soddy's miners eventually failed. The Soddy Coal Co. went into receivership in 1874. A report indicated that the failure came "chiefly from lack of unity of action," although a depression of coal prices in conjunction with the Panic of 1873 doubtless had an effect. Even before then some of the original investors had sold out, but one of them, Johnny Hallett, stayed on too long. In 1874, two weeks after selling his interest, he was in the mine showing a man how to extract the ore and was killed in a slide.

Eventually, Col. Clift's son, Moses, a prominent Chattanooga lawyer, led the enterprise out of receivership. Coal mining continued in Soddy until 1929.

Local attorney and historian Sam Elliott, a native of Soddy, is the great-great-grandson of both George Varner and Johnny Hallett. For more information, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.

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