Dunlap, the Town that Coke Built

Not the beverage but the coal product produced in coke ovens.

Dunlap is a small town in the geographic center of the Sequatchie Valley at the foot of the Cumberland Plateau, about thirty miles northwest of Chattanooga. This town, of approximately 4000 residents, can trace its history back to coal mines and coke ovens of the 1800s.

The Coke Ovens Park sign identifies the park, which extends on both sides of the street.

The Coke Ovens Park sign identifies the park, which extends on both sides of the street.

The Cumberland Plateau, which cuts diagonally across Tennessee from the northeast to west of Chattanooga, is rich with coal fields—fields that are thirty to fifty miles wide running through most of the plateau. Limited mining began in the early 1800s, but large scale mining did not begin until after 1850, around Tracy City and Sewanee.

In 1899, the Douglas Coal and Coke Company purchased more than 14,000 acres of land on and at the base of Fredonia Mountain to mine the coal and produce coke. The soft, or bituminous, coal contains volatile substances—moisture, coal gas and coal-tar—that causes soft coal to burn faster and produce less heat. Heating the coal in hot ovens (to 1500 to 2000 degrees) drives out the volatile materials, producing coke. Coke is somewhat porous, but burns hotter and longer than coal, making it important for melting iron ore to extract the iron. It takes two tons of coal to make one ton of coke.

Replica of a mining shack with equipment items on display.

Replica of a mining shack with equipment items on display.

Mining the coal was a relatively simple. The coal is near the surface, and was easily excavated from traditional mines or by strip mining. The coal was moved down the mountain along an inclined railway. The real work was in converting coal to coke.

Over a decade, mine operators built coke 268 ovens. They used the railway to move the coal to the ovens.

Each oven, roughly shaped like and upside-down-bowl, was 12 feet in diameter. Sandstone was used on the exterior and firebrick lined the interiors. Each oven had an opening at the top and a “window” on the side. Multiple ovens were arranged in lines or “batteries.” The inclined railway connected to railroad tracks that ran along the top of each battery. Railroad cars carried the coal over the tops of the ovens and dumped the coal through the opening on top. A worker smoothed the pile of coal to an even depth, working through the window with a long-handled “scraper.”

A battery of coke ovens stretch into the distance.

A battery of coke ovens stretch into the distance.

Once the pile was leveled to an even depth, the window was sealed with clay, leaving only a very small hole at the top of the window for limited access for air needed to “coke” the coal.

A small amount of fuel—wood or charcoal—was burned in the closed oven to heat the coal to a temperature of 1500oF to 2000oF. These were large ovens and it took several days for the coal to become coke.

The hole in what should be a solid wall in the back of the oven looks into the oven on the back side of this battery.

The hole in what should be a solid wall in the back of the oven looks into the oven on the back side of this battery.

Once the heating was complete, workers would open the window and transfer the coke to rail cars for shipment. They worked quickly to remove the coke and introduce more coal while the ovens were still hot, thus requiring less fuel to heat the next batch of coal.

The mines and ovens supported a population of a thousand or more workers and their families. The coal company operated a commissary on the grounds selling essential food and goods for the workers, often extending credit to miners (think Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “I Owe My Soul to the Company Store” (Sixteen Tons)).

Several different companies operated the mines and the coke ovens until the mid-1920s. Early in the 1920s, during the prelude to the Great Depression of 1929, national iron production was drastically reduced and the demand for, and price of, coal dropped sharply. The mining companies went bankrupt and coal and coke production ceased in Dunlap.

This double (back-to-back) Coke Oven battery extends in a long line.

This double (back-to-back) Coke Oven battery extends in a long line.

The coke ovens fell into gradual ruin due to neglect and rock thieves who scavenged the stones from the ovens. It was not until 1980 that a group of citizens in the Dunlap area formed a historical society and began clearing, restoring and preserving the ovens.

Today, this is the site of Dunlap’s 62-acre Coke Ovens Park. The coke oven museum is located on the same spot, and has the same design and dimensions of the original commissary, including the observation cupola atop the building. There are examples of mining hardware, mining rail cars, pumps, and many more ovens spread over the area.

The park has become the site of annual festivals, including the annual Bluegrass Festival.

Dunlap Coke Ovens Museum building (Photo: Brian Stansberry, 2008)

Dunlap Coke Ovens Museum building (Photo: Brian Stansberry, 2008)

The park grounds are about a mile drive off of Rankin Ave, Dunlap’s main street on Mountain View Drive. The grounds are open for hiking and exploring. The museum is open Saturdays and Sundays, April through November. Admission is a donation request. For more information call (423)-949-3483 or visit their website. The route to the park is clearly marked with Coke Ovens Park directional signs.

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2 Responses to Dunlap, the Town that Coke Built

  1. A really interesting article. Thank you.

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