Fort Southwest Point, Ironworks, and other Relics of Roane County

Roane County is the home of an old pioneer fort, abandoned buildings, blank facades, and loads of sleeping potential. It is part of the Tennessee Antique Trail and is a good place to visit if you enjoy digging diamonds out of the rough.

My song for this entry is my friends’ band The Goddamn Gallows, covering “Waiting Around to Die” by Townes van Zandt.

Kingston, Rockwood, Harriman, part of Oliver Springs, part of Oak Ridge, and the Midtown CDP community all make up Roane County, right where the Clinch, Emory, and Tennessee Rivers all flow into the Watts Bar Lake.

Kingston was founded in 1799 and named after a Major at Fort Southwest Point. Over the next century, negotiations with the Cherokee allowed white settlers to acquire more land, but not much happened otherwise. Not for another fifty more years after that.

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Tennessee Valley Authority built the Kingston Fossil (Steam) Plant in the 1950s to service the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Back then it was the world’s largest coal-burning plant, and you can see some of the renovated smokestacks today.

Kingston Steam made global news back in 2008 when the plant accidentally spilled over one billion gallons of coal fly ash, partially destroying surrounding towns and filling the rivers with immeasurable waste.

National Geographic even covered the disaster to highlight the dark side of the coal and fossil industry.

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Be sure to stop by The Roane County Museum of History and Art in Kingston’s historic courthouse to learn more history of the plant and this town that was created to support it. Note: the official website domain is currently expired. 

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Fort Southwest Point was the main reason for my visit to Roane County. (Note: the official website domain is also currently expired.)

The Southwest Point Blockhouse was built in 1792 to keep a hold on this land that European settlers invaded against the Cherokee. It served as home base until the larger settlement, what we know as Fort Southwest Point, was complete in 1797.

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Fort Southwest Point was a frontier outpost which helped ease relations and trade between the US government/military and the Cherokee. It also provided supplies and shelter for migrants traveling through Knoxville to Nashville or other parts of East and Middle Tennessee.

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It was originally called Fort Butler, and was utilized from 1797 until 1811. There is no question that its location along the river made it a prime spot for an outpost and fortified settlement.

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This was further accentuated by the construction of Avery’s Trace, the main land route connecting Fort Southwest Point directly to outposts in other parts of Tennessee.

Fast forward a bit to the 1930s when Tennessee Valley Authority bought the land to create the Watts Bar Dam. Before the dam construction was underway, TVA led various excavation projects.

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These projects were primarily conducted by the University of Tennessee and the TN Division of Archaeology (not to be confused with TVA) across the span of a few decades.

During these excavations, archaeologists were able to determine that the Fort enclosed over an acre of land, and its partial reconstruction is what we see today.

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Archaeologists found 15 definite structures and remnants of others.

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Some are open to walk through, and the Fort sometimes holds live demonstrations and reenactments.

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You can view the artifacts and relics that were excavated at the Visitors Center, right outside the Fort’s walls. The TN Division of Archaeology and the City of Kingston maintain these grounds.

A small chapel and an amphitheater overlook the water, making this a popular place for weddings and other ceremonies.

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The walking trail around the site is serene. It follows the water’s edge and has several exercise and stretching stations.

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You can visit any time for free, just be mindful not to disturb any events.

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After touring the fort and finishing the trail, I went to Burger Station 120 for lunch. Technically the restaurant is listed in Harriman but the exact boundary between towns is a little unclear for me.

Below is the L&N Burger with bacon, Swiss cheese, bourbon mushrooms, and caramelized onions.

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Unimportant, but I am not really a fan of fries or chips, so I like that all sides are a la cart and I did not have to pay extra for something I would not eat. A new location will be opening in Maryville, TN soon.

The Old Capital Public House caught my interest as well but they had not opened yet, so this one is on the backburner.

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I left Kingston for the town center of Rockwood, less than ten minutes away. 

Rockwood was inhabited by Union troops in the late 1800s. General John Wilder recognized a high concentration of iron in the earth, so he jumped at the opportunity to purchase nearly 730 acres of land with a fellow General.

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General Hiram Chamberlain already had the Knoxville Iron Company under his belt so he was the perfect choice of business partner. Wilder and Chamberlain built an iron furnace and founded their new company, the Roane Iron Company.

Gradually, the company created a town center to meet the needs of its workers. At the time was mainly a church, school, houses, and a general store.

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Roane Iron Company ceased production in 1929, with the Great Depression and eventually World War II keeping the town economy at a standstill. If you really feel like going down a rabbit hole, check out this article.

Later, construction of the prominent Interstate 40 diverted the steady stream of passersby that kept the town breathing.

For decades it basically sat waiting around to die.

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From Eirug Davies’ book The Welsh of Tennessee, I learned that a high population of Welsh immigrants came to Roane and nearby Scott County in the 1800s by way of Pennsylvania, with hopes to join the iron and coal industries.

One Welshman named Samuel Roberts founded the Welsh Colony of Brynyffynon in Scott County, and part of his mission was to recruit more Welsh people to make the move to East Tennessee for a better life.

Roberts’ wife’s family had already relocated to Coal Creek, renamed Lake City and now called Rocky Top, just minutes north of Knoxville near Norris. This made me remember what I learned during one of my visits to Norris many years ago about the Coal Creek and Fraterville mines.

Check out this page to learn more about the plight of  Welsh and other miners, fascinating local lore about the mining industry, its use of forced convict labour that displaced these miners, and a few of their triumphs.

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Despite an enthralling history, there really is nothing exciting to do today in Rockwood or in Roane County as a whole. The primary tourist draw is the abundance of natural beauty in and around these small towns, connecting them to larger and more urban cities.

I have to admit that this was a challenging blog to write in terms of modern attractions, but I enjoyed wandering around and admiring some of the architecture.

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I tried my best to imagine downtown Rockwood as the bustling town center that it was back then. At least the utilities company and a bank have settled into some of the nicer, more preserved buildings and spruced them up a bit.

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In recent decades, developers have noticed Rockwood’s abundance of waterfront property around Watts Bar Lake, and the ever-expanding facilities of Oak Ridge National Lab have brought in more employee residents, which in turn created a demand for economic provisions.

It has been a slow process, but it seems to be increasing.

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6 Blessings Café was a joy to visit, starting with the wild Halloween display I walked into at the entrance.

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I was expecting some easy listening music and a bunch of southern mamaws, but instead I found myself singing along to Scissor Sisters and M83 playing on the stereo.

I also caught the end of a very spirited defense between a group of staff/patrons over what I gathered is why one gentleman has had the same phone number for such a long time.

“It’s been xxx-2468 for ten years and it’s staying xxx-2468! Every time I give my phone number to someone I tell them to remember this: ‘2-4-6-8 who do you appreciate?’ because if you don’t appreciate me, don’t call me!”

Somehow I managed to suppress an internal round of applause.

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A dainty café sits in the back past dozens of booths for rent, including some really cool local art collections for sale.

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Next door, Live & Let Live is a soda fountain, ice cream parlor, pharmacy, souvenir/gift shop, and general store all in one.

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As for the rest of downtown, not much else was going on. A teenager on a Chopper-style bicycle circled me from a distance as I walked up and down the block, as if I posed a threat to his town. He never actually approached me, certainly not close enough to see the amused look on my face.

On to Harriman, now.

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Harriman was founded in the late 1800s by a group of Prohibitionist Methodists, led by a minister named Fred Gates.

The group started selling land grants to people from all over the country that were eager to get aboard this new religious utopian dream that idolized Victorian virtues and outlawed booze.

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Above is the Temperance Building, Harriman’s City Hall that currently houses the Harriman Heritage Museum. It began as the American Temperance University to instill Victorian morality in new settlers, and it is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

One historical sign in front says Harriman is the town that Temperance built; an “object lesson for thrift, sobriety, intelligence, and exalted moral character, where workers would be uncorrupted by Demon Rum.”

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Founders also hoped to make Harriman the next biggest ore production capital in the USA. It looked hopeful at the start of the 1890s but within a few short years, the Panic of 1893 drove the economy into failure.

This was worsened by devastating floods and eventually the Great Depression, making it impossible for the town to recover fully before yet another disaster struck. People lost their homes, farms, crops, and their lives. Businesses moved out of the area and economic growth halted.

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The two most famous buildings in Harriman are the Princess Theatre, one of the few remaining original Art Deco Theatres still in operation, and the Harriman Carnegie Public Library, one of the last standing philanthropic efforts of Andrew Carnegie himself.

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Cornstalk Heights is a historic residential district of over 100 original Victorian homes. It runs along Morgan Avenue between Roane Street and Georgia Street. Each December, several of the homes are open for touring during the town’s Christmas festivals.

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The developing Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge brought overflow residents to the area, breathing a few small breaths of life into the community.

A papermill and two hosiery factories brought new types of industry to Harriman and created jobs for its people, and in turn they opened up new shops and venues.

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Temperance ultimately ended in the 1990s when alcohol sales became legal in Harriman, but the new liberty of libations has caused a lot of tension between residents who still cling to both Temperance and Victorian values as well as their own respective religions.

Many aspects of Roane County recall the failed religious utopia of Rugby, not too far away in Scott County, and countless others I have not yet visited.

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A bakery sits in an old run-down building above; yet another Art Deco building with a blank facade below.

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I am working on a segment about Oliver Springs that I will add some time in the near future, and I have already published these two blogs about Oak Ridge and its history with the Manhattan Project.

I would be remiss not to mention that Roane County is the home of Roane State Community College. The films October Sky, Boys of Summerville, and Get Low with Bill Murray portraying a Roane County hermit who held a funeral for himself before he actually died, were all or in part filmed in Roane County.

As a bonus, enjoy this song by Dixie Lee, who was born in Harriman back in in 1905. She was a singer and actress in her own right, but gained worldwide fame when she married Bing Crosby.

Interested in learning more about the Forts of East TN or Cherokee History? Check out Fort Loudon and Cherokee History in Vonore; Sequoyah, Fort Loudoun, Tanasi, and Chota. Don’t forget to subscribe!

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