By 1900, Jellico had grown to a bustling city of over 2,000. This rapid growth was mainly because Jellico had developed along the Tennessee, Kentucky state line. The town was also located in a valley with a river, making it a natural place to congregate and put to use the high quality of coal which had been found in the region. Helped by the coal and lumber companies and coupled with the fact that two railroads operated lines through the area, Jellico was truly booming.
It was the very same railroads, which helped the town to prosper that eventually led to what was nearly the town’s demise.
It was supposed to be a festive day because the circus was in town in Jellico on Sept. 21, 1906, when residents of Jellico and nearby areas experienced a deadly disaster. Despite the fact that it was early morning on that fateful Friday, people had already arrived in town, getting ready for the festivities to come when a terrible explosion rocked the area around 7:48 a.m., according to Miller McDonald’s history of Campbell County. McDonald is now deceased. John Johnson, a survivor of the explosion marked the time on his pocket watch, which stopped after a flying bit of steel lodged itself inside, forever marking the time of the disaster.
The explosion came from the railroad yard, on the sidetrack, only a few feet across the Kentucky state line, according to a 1906 account of the incident in the Jellico Advance Sentinel.
Though the cause was unknown at first, it soon became determined a railroad car containing around 11 tons of dynamite had exploded, killing at least eight people right away and injuring hundreds more. Others were said to have died later after succumbing to wounds received that day. Death totals vary according to historian, with some reporting as much as 15 people dying that day.
Much speculation was put into the cause of the explosion and several theories have been put forth in McDonald’s history book. One was that when switching the train cars, a car containing Pig Iron had been switched into the car containing dynamite, resulting in the carnage. Another explanation put forth regarded some men target shooting near the car of dynamite and a shot going wild into the car of explosives, according to Sharp.
Regardless of the cause, the explosion left over 500 people homeless, according to McDonald. It practically leveled Jellico, Tn., and Jellico, Ky., leaving homes and businesses in piles of rubble. The Advance Sentinel reported that the explosion had busted out all the windows of the buildings in town. “Not a plate glass was left in the town,” read the 1906 Advance Sentinel. The blast was reportedly heard over 20 miles away. It completely obliterated the train depot and left a crater 20-feet deep and 30-feet in diameter, according to Sharp.
“The catastrophe caused the entire community to rally together. Other places sent help as well,” Sharp said.
He said he heard of accounts where volunteers came from Knoxville, and other surrounding areas to lend assistance to the devastated town folk.
Folks from as far away as California were touched by the disaster and sent money. “One person in California sent $100; that was quite a bit of money back then,” Sharp said.
“The day may come when the city of Jellico will have outlived financially the calamity, whose dire results now hang like a pall over all the community, but neither money nor time can atone for blood and tears, and shattered nerves have no price that can be paid in gold. The broken family circle can ne’re be mended in this world, and grief stricken hearts of the widow and the orphan will find no balm sufficient save the grace of God,” an excerpt taken from the 1906 Advance Sentinel said. A town left in utter ruins, Jellico had no choice but to pick itself up and rebuild; and rebuild it did.
The demand for high quality Jellico coal continued to grow, helping the town to rebuild and grow at an even faster pace than before. As the industrial revolution expanded and grew, so did the little mountain town of Jellico.
By 1914, Jellico was alive with businesses. Lumber mills, carbonating works, bakeries, banks, drugstores, grocery and general merchandise stores, saloons and even photographer was located in the town. There was three or four beer brewing companies, brick factories and furniture manufacturers as well. Lumber still played a large role in Jellico’s industry at this time. One of the lumber mills prominent during this time was the Kitchen Lumber Company. The company was so large that it even had its own railroad tracks, according to Sharp.
The saloons were many and the lawless element still prevalent with drinking and shooting quite common, according to the Mayor Phillip Francis of Jellico in 1914.
“At that time, Jellico was the toughest place in the United States. Scores of men were killed. Even school teachers were in danger of drunken and nasty parents,” Francis said.
Entertainment was different in those days before television and computers. Folks still got dressed up to walk the streets and visit with friends, often after spending a pleasant evening in one of Jellico’s two opera houses. The Glanmorgan was one prominent opera house. The name of the other house was not known by Sharp. He does, however, have a picture of the second opera house hanging in the museum. It simply says Opera House, with the date 1905 on its building front. One of Jellico’s most famous citizens, Grace Moore, sang at these opera houses.
Known as the Tennessee Nightingale, Moore was born in 1898 in Del Rio, but grew up in Jellico. She graduated from Jellico High School in 1918. She is well known for bringing opera to the silver screens with her 1934 picture “One Night of Love”. Moore was also the first woman to be named a Colonel in Tennessee by the governor in 1937. Internationally known and famous for her radio broadcastings, recordings, Broadway musicals, grand operas and concerts, Moore was still in the zenith of her career when she died as a result of a plane crash on Jan. 26, 1947. Moore is buried in Chattanooga.
Moore often attributed her success to her childhood in Tennessee. She said she felt after she sung an especially sweet note that the note had come straight from the clear air from Tennessee’s eastern hills and she could then see herself as a happy school girl, skipping along a country road.
Another famous person who called Jellico home was gospel songwriter and composer Homer Rodeheaver. Like Moore, Rodeheaver was not from Jellico either. He was actually born in 1880 in Union Furnace, Ohio and later moved to Newcomb with his family. His father, T. Hall Rodeheaver operated the Newcomb Manufacturing Company, which was a woodworking company that made fine furniture, among other things. It was in Newcomb that young Rodeheaver went to school and worked in the sawmill, until he joined the Army with his brothers, according to McDonald’s book. He, along with his two brothers were in an Army band in Cuba during the Spanish American War. Rodeheaver is well known for being the musical director with William A. Sunday on his evangelical campaigns from 1909 to 1931. Rodeheaver was also the music director for evangelist Billy Grahm for one year as well. He was president of Rodeheaver Publishing Co., a gospel publishing company in Chicago and Philadelphia. His company owned the publishing rights to many gospel songs, such as the “Old Rugged Cross”, according to Sharp.
“It’s said that he was the one who told Grace Moore’s family to send her to New York and that she would be famous,” Sharp said.
“There are so many famous and well known people from Jellico, I don’t want these memories to be lost,” Sharp said.
By the 1920’s, Jellico was a well-established industrial, business, commercial, transportation and recreational hub of activity. The town served these purposes not only for itself, but for the smaller communities surrounding the area such as Newcomb, Elk Valley, Wooldridge, Clairfield, Kensee, Red Ash, Morely, Pruden and others.
Mining continued to be prevalent to the area, contributing not only to the economical but the recreational aspects of the town as well. There was strong sports competition between the mining companies; each of which had a baseball team. Games were well attended and played an important part of recreational life during the 1920s.
Other entertainment venues were often of the traveling sort. Annual visits by the Chataugua were looked forward to by area citizens, according to McDonald’s book.
The Chataugua was a variety of entertainment programs and shows that could be described as a sort of carnival, medicine show, traveling circus, theatre, lecture series or music festival all rolled into one. Band concerts were conducted downtown for entertainment as well and stock companies set up tents, performing plays as well. Silent movies were shown at the Palace Theatre as often as six times a week. Admission was only 5 cents per person and the shows were well attended.
“In short, life was pleasant, work was hard, families were close, and a strong sense of community and belonging existed throughout the area,” McDonald wrote.
It was during the early 1920s that the LaFollette to Jellico turnpike, now known as U.S. 25W, was completed. This opened up a new route through the narrow mountain and had a direct economical impact on Jellico. The new highway contributed substantially to increased commerce and industry between the southern and northern parts of Campbell County.
Jellico was also well known for having the first commercial airport in Tn in 1920, according to Sharp. The airport had three grass runways and an aero club for local pilots. This modernization came just two years after the first airmail flight was made, according to Sharp.
“This just shows what an industrial center and transportation hub that Jellico had become,” Sharp said.
Jellico remained a boomtown and industry hub for quite a while. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Jellico began experiencing a recession, according to Jellico Tourism Director Jake Bennett. Born and raised in Jellico, Bennett refers to himself as a ‘lifer.”
“I’ve been here my entire life and got to see most of the major changes,” Bennett said. He still recalls the old days when Jellico had a working train depot and freight station situated near where Veteran’s Park is today.
“All that used to be a railroad bed,” Bennett said.
Bennett said Jellico was still booming in the 1940s, but in the 1950s, mines began closing down and people began moving out of town.
“The youngsters that graduated couldn’t work in the mines because they were closing down, so they had to go up north to find work,” Bennett said. It was during this time that the population began to fall. Jellico had once been a teeming town of over 5,000, now boasts only around 2,500.
Bennett said he can still remember the ‘good old days’, when he would go to the theatre on Saturday nights for 11 cents.
“You could get into the movie, get a coke and popcorn all for under a quarter,” Bennett said.
He would stay in the theatre all day, watching the same film over and over until the theatre closed at 11 pm.
“I wasn’t the only one that stayed in there like that. The theatre truly opened up another world for us; Hollywood was such a far away place, yet the theatre brought it right there to us,” Bennett said with a smile.
Another Jellico citizen, Elsie Crawford, also remembers the 1950s fondly. Crawford sits on the board of mayor and aldermen and is the police commissioner for Jellico.
“Things were sure different back then, some good and some bad; there was a lot of segregation still,” Crawford said, sounding lost in memory. She recalled growing up in the black section of town and attending the movie theatre with her African American neighbors. The theatre was segregated, with blacks upstairs and whites downstairs, according to Crawford.
“Beulah Smith ran the theatre back then and I always went to the upstairs part with the neighbor kids, I really didn’t know I wasn’t black until I was 12,” Crawford said smiling at the memory.
Crawford recalled the good old days when Jellico was still somewhat of a manufacturing hub, and her father was a foreman at the Kitchen Lumber Company.
Some of her fondest memories come from her childhood days spent going to school in Jellico.
“When I started second grade, Ms. George Adkins was my teacher and she was just the best woman,” Crawford said. She recalled that Ms. George, as the children called her, would always make sure that at events and such that Crawford had what everybody else had.
“I was poor and didn’t always have what the other children had, but Ms. George always made sure I had a treat or a sack lunch just like the other kids,” Crawford said. Adkins recently passed away at or around the age 94, according to Crawford.
Crawford recalled another Jellico teacher that influenced her life.
Ms. Nell Wheeler taught Crawford sixth grade and gave her a quarter for every A that she made.
“I made straight A’s by the way,” Crawford said smiling.
“Other children thought Ms. Wheeler was mean, but she was one of the best teachers that I ever had,” Crawford said.
Crawford attended high school in Jellico and played ball there until she dropped out as a sophomore. She later went back and finished school. Crawford happily recalled competitive ballgames between rivaling teams.
“We had the best games back then, it was all in good fun,” Crawford said.
She met John Crawford in Jellico and married him when she was 14-years-old.
“I been married to him for 48-years; he’s a good fellow,” Crawford said. She and her husband have raised two children in Jellico.
“It’s home, there’s no place I would rather be,” she said.
Crawford is a registered nurse and holds the title Vice President of Operations at Wilkens Medical. She has worked for Dr. Charles Wilkens for 35-years, and attributes much of her success his influences. She said Dr. Wilkens not only helped her go back to school, to college, he encouraged it.
“Going to work for him was one of the best things I ever did; he has helped me through life,” Crawford said.
“I make all these points about the people because it’s been the people in this community; they’re the ones who make it a great place to live,” Crawford said.
Crawford, like Bennett, recalled a much busier and more congested Jellico than what people see today.
“I remember on Saturday night the streets being so full and busy; Jellico was where everybody came for entertainment on Saturday night,” Crawford said. She recalled the town boasting six clothing stores, four grocery stores, a roller-skating rink and at one time two movie theatres.
“It was just a totally different place than it is today,” Crawford said, a note of sadness creeping into her voice.
She said the town began to really change in the early 1960s.
“It was between the years of 1960 and 1964 that I remember seeing the closure of businesses and buildings. The people began to leave too, because they had no jobs,” Crawford said sadly. By the 1970s, were much as they were today.
“It’s heartbreaking; there’s no way you can describe it,” Crawford said about witnessing Jellico’s decline.
“After the fifties, the life was kind of taken out of the place,” Bennett said.
The Jellico population has maintained at around 2,500 for the last 30 years or so, according to Bennett.
“They die and others are born to replace them,” Bennett said soberly.
With the population numbers in a holding pattern, the town doesn’t so much seem dead as stagnant.
“It just makes you feel horrible, because it’s home,” Crawford said, emotion evident in her voice.
“It’s why I sit down there at that council table, because this is my home and I don’t ever want to be anyplace else,” Crawford said firmly.
Jellico enjoyed many years of prosperity and growth because of the coal and lumber industries, which thrived within its boundaries, but like everything else in life, things change. The coal industry was mostly forced out of business due to stricter regulations enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Surface Mining. The fines enforced because of mining regulation violations put many mining companies out of business, leaving mines only half stripped of their valuable resources.
The once grand industry that employed thousands of workers has dwindled, leaving a hole as deep as the mines themselves. It is amazing that Jellico didn’t turn into a veritable ghost town after the mining companies left, but like the mountains that the town was built in, it’s there to stay.
Though coal for the most part has left the area, a new economy has sprung up to take its place: Tourism. With Jellico being in the middle of some of the best ATV trails in the country, eco-tourism has seen an increase in the area. Each year, Jellico hosts Extreme Rock Racing and crawling events which have become famous around the nation. Turn on ESPN and there’s the White Oak Race course and Jellico, still in the spotlight and on the map.
“Jellico was really the first large industrial manufacturing and business district in Campbell County at one time,” Sharp said. And while the manufactures have mostly left and Jellico is down to one factory, the industrial history that Jellico left behind will never be forgotten.
“We’ve got everything here that you could want in a small town,” Bennett said. The only thing lacking seems to be the jobs, according to Bennett.
Communities and families are still close and though many have to travel outside the city limits to find it, work is still hard. Pickup trucks may have replaced the horse drawn carriages and paved roads now outline what were once dirt tracks, but the tight knit community still thrives. Jellico still remains a gem of the east Tennessee Mountains.