Wild Mine Ride

Exploring Dayton's beautiful (and sometimes dangerous) Laurel-Snow Pocket Wilderness

On the risk scale, a jaunt to the abandoned reservoir and mines near Dayton, Tenn., falls somewhere between whitewater kayaking and chain-smoking—and gas be damned, how do you put a price on that?

The Laurel-Snow Pocket Wilderness (named, for its two scenic waterfalls, by the Bowater Southern Paper Company, its chief steward from the 1970s till last summer) is a 710-acre hollow to the west of U.S. 27 in Dayton, between Bryan Bible College (named after William Jennings Bryan) and the La-Z-Boy factory (named in a contest).

Between 1895—when the Dayton Coal and Iron Company opened its first mines here—and 1913—when it shut down, bankrupt—an average of 300 tons of coal a day ran out of the hollow, and more than 80 men and boys were killed in violent coal-dust explosions.

In 2007, Bowater sold Pocket Wilderness's 32-acre trail corridor to the state. Now the park system is surveying, researching, and mapping it, spackling the gaps in a century's worth of anecdotes and spotty records.

Before he graduated this year, Bryan College student William Wade got an Appalachian College Association grant to research the corridor's history. Co-sponsored by the Rhea County Historical Society, Wade combed through not just records but also miles of terrain along the escarpment walls and boulder fields of the Pocket Wilderness, corroborating the locations of mining operations above and below ground—and not a moment too soon.

"There were a few people here still who were able to walk around and say, ‘Oh, this is where this was and this is where that was,'" says Wade. "But most of those people are gone now."

Opposite the Old Time Holiness Baptist Church runs the steep, rutted road to the trailhead that Bowater built. It doesn't say "No Swimming" here, yet one or two people a year are severely injured, some killed, doing just that. It also doesn't say "No Dropping Down Mine Entrances," but there are approximately a hundred of those, and a hundred more coke ovens, an underwater tunnel, stone mule-pens 40 yards around, and a 15-foot-wide empty cistern. Recent efforts notwithstanding, it is safe to say that not all these have been mapped, much less made secure.

You can't tell from walking it, but the trail that follows Richland Creek a mile back to the reservoir is itself a raised bed for two sets of narrow-gauge rails. Mine workers rode these to and from the mine shafts, gazing, presumably, at the breathtaking string of cascades, ponds, chutes, and runnels of Richland Creek below.

In every season, Bible-college kids and proto-Goths, families in church clothes, mulleted grandpas, Marines, and Hispanic day-laborers walk dogs along the trail, slip in and out among the boulders, and raise their faces to the sun from the huge, biscuit-colored rock balconies on the creek.

Even befuzzed and concealed by moss and kudzu, the works of man are dealt out along this short stretch as though curated. A 10-foot-high brick archway full of bats is where the coal company set up a massive fan to circulate air into what they called the Dixon Slope.

"It's still open," Wade says. "If you were to go back, about 20 yards in, you'll hit the actual original slope. DC&IC thought it would be so profitable that they made it 16 feet wide—twice the width of other slopes. It just goes straight into water."

Then what?

"Well, you can't go any farther. But if you could, you would travel down through about 2,000 feet. At the bottom, if you could keep going, which you can't, you would find a tunnel going underneath the creek that connected with the coal bed for the Nelson Mine. I'm fairly certain that that one would be collapsed by now."

Farther on, two beautifully even walls form a corner bay onto the trail. Wade says it's not just another retaining wall—you can see from the other side of the creek that they line the rail bed—but the spot where a tipple would have been parked. "At almost the very top of the ridge, they had another mine. They set up a pulley system. They'd fill up a car at the top and send it down and it would pull up the other one."

Half a dozen one-story stanchions are strung across the creek, for a bridge connecting to yet another mine, called the North Pole, one of the least physically evident of any of the mines, according to Wade. Farther on towards the reservoir, another creek branches in from the left, the site of a large complex, according to Wade, "complete with short-line railroad, a tipple, and several other buildings." Of that, Wade says, "there is next to nothing left."

In the dissolution of the company, a lot of structures were taken down, their materials sold. Any left were taken, Wade says, "by people building barbecue pits."

"Girls suck" is spray painted on a massive overhang. Wade says Bryan students do an annual trail clean-up on Martin Luther King Day. Some have been known to spend an entire spring break camping on Buzzard Point, atop one set of falls. On another rock the size of a small movie screen is written "Psalm 14."

The reservoir itself is no roaring hell—a mere four-foot-tall spillway spanning the creek—but it marks the start of the rigorous trails that run up the ridge to the falls. The town of Dayton built its reservoir in the years between DC&IC's pullout and the Scopes Trial, to regulate water flow and pressure, especially during the summers which, as H.L. Mencken observed, could have "the atmosphere of a blast furnace."

The reservoir also tips you off that you've passed the ultimate swimming hole, and need to retrace your steps. Look for 1. "No Mexans" sprayed onto a length of rusted, half-buried pipeline; 2. foot-high stumps where the parents of dead or injured children have cut down trees that once held rope swings; and 3. a set of praying hands painted onto a rock facing one such tree, over the words "For Lucy."

Conjecture has it that Bowater sold its Pocket Wildernesses to the state weary of precisely this legal exposure. Laurel-Snow is now part of the Cumberland Trail—deserving of praise for balancing rugged beauty and high use. But being part of the trail is bound to change the traffic to the site.

Will it still be, in effect, an extension of the town? Or does the future hold informative plaques, unobtrusive fencing, and buff retirees in Tevas tsk-tsking—for all the world like like some vineyard in Banner Elk, N.C.

The thing about "danger" signs is they're often too late, not only because someone's already been hurt, but also because once the sign goes up, people obey, and there's no more danger.

A Few Dayton Pointers

The Laurel-Snow Pocket Wilderness is located north of Dayton and is best accessed from Highway 27/29. From the north turn right, and from the south turn left, onto Walnut Grove Road. There's no street sign for Walnut Grove Road, so look for an Eckerd Drug on one corner and a church graveyard on the opposite corner. Proceed 3/4 of a mile to Back Valley Road (past the La-Z-Boy factory on your right) and turn left. On Back Valley Road, proceed 0.7 miles, past Finkel Lane on your right, to the Old Time Holiness Baptist Church, and turn right onto the gravel road opposite the church. This road should have a prominent sign for Laurel-Snow Pocket Wilderness. Proceed about 1 mile to the parking area at the end of Richland Creek Road. Lock your vehicle.

The Scopes Trial Museum and Rhea County Courthouse features photos from the famous trial, courtroom tours, plenty of information on the creation-evolution issue, and—in the basement—a map of the Dayton Coal and Iron Company's operation. From U.S. 27, turn west on Highway 30. The courthouse is at Market Street.

This weekend, May 16-18, is the big one for the Tennessee Strawberry Festival, held annually in various locations in and around Dayton. Fittingly for those also exploring the old mines, this year's festival theme is "Berried Treasure." Details and a schedule of events at tnstrawberryfestival.com. Watch for pick-your-own patches and berries for sale in roadside stands on your way to and from Dayton.

MoMo's BBQ recently moved back to Dayton from Signal Hill and is blowing some delicious-smelling smoke onto Highway 27/29 just north of Highway 30. Call 423-775-6868 for hours.