Roane County

Roane County was established in 1801.

Historic Context

View of Harriman from Mount Roosevelt


Roane County was established in 1801. During the late eighteenth century, the area represented the American frontier in the region. An outpost was built in 1792 and was known as Southwest Point, a key militia fortification. Kingston, named for Major Robert King, an officer at the fort, was established here in 1799. The original plat of Kingston included space reserved for a cemetery, known as Bethel Cemetery. Across the river from the fort was the Cherokee village of Chief Tollunteeskee, in what is now the city of Rockwood.

The river was an important means of transportation through the nineteenth century, and Kingston was an important port city. Steamboats ran regularly between Knoxville and Chattanooga, then on to Decatur, Alabama. Following the Civil War, railroad transportation began to replace river transport for all goods except coal. The post-war of economic development in Roane County was Oliver Springs and Rockwood, rather than Kingston. Northern investors quickly revived the poor state of economy, capitalizing on natural resources of iron ore and coal. Former Union General John Wilder and W.O. Rockwood founded the Roane Iron Company in 1867. Coal was used to convert iron ore into pig iron. The year after the furnace began operation, the company town of Rockwood was established and its population was largely dependent on the iron industry. The Roane Iron Company paid equal wages to its white and black employees, either in cash or in scrip, a form of credit which could be used for goods at the company store. The population of Rockwood grew from 696 in 1870 to 1,011 in 1880; by 1890, the population increased to 2,305.

One of the most significant events to bolster the local economy was the 1879 completion of the Cincinnati-Southern Railroad, which passed through Roane County on its route to Chattanooga. Entering the county through the Emory River Gap, the railroad enhanced regional transportation for agricultural products coming by steamboat up the Emory River from Knoxville, Kingston, and Chattanooga. The intersection of the rail line and the Emory River became a major distribution center for corn, hay, and other products. The railroad also broadened the market for Rockwood’s pig iron.

Roane County continued to attract northern developers, and the railroad at Emory River Gap created an ideal site for a town. In 1889, the East Tennesee Land Company, created by New York minister Frederick Gates, first purchased 10,000 acres here for the purpose of establishing a “utopia of temperance and industry.” The land was formerly the plantation of Colonel Robert King Byrd. Ultimately, the company acquired hundreds of thousands of acres, selling 573 lots in the town to be named Harriman. Some three thousand prohibitionists from eighteen states flocked to this town on the Emory River. River-front lots sold for $500 for industrial development and workers’ dwellings. Lots on Roane Street, at the center of town, were considerably more expensive, as were the lots on Clinton and Cumberland Streets, where more affluent residents would develop the neighborhood that would come to be known as Cornstalk Heights.

The leaders of Harriman sought to create industry and employment opportunities without the typical vice that characterized nineteenth-century company towns. Towards that end, the East Tennesee Land Company founded subsidiaries that brought great prosperity to residents: the East Tennessee Mining Company extracted coal and iron, the Harriman Coal & Iron Railroad Company was to develop a rail system for transporting the minerals, and the Harriman Manufacturing Company provided start-up capital for new industry. The Company’s headquarters was an impressive brick building in the Romanesque Revival style. The building later was used by the American Temperance University, established in 1894, and later became Harriman City Hall.

In addition to providing raw materials necessary for industrial development, the natural minerals found in the area also spawned the growth of mineral springs resorts. The nationally known 200-room Oliver Springs Resort was in operation between 1894 and 1905, promoting the healing powers of the springs. Nearby Windrock Mountain was replete with coal and was mined beginning in 1903, the same year the city of Oliver Springs (formerly known as Winter’s Gap) was chartered. There were several coal mines in operation there, including the Piedmont Coal Mine and the Windrock Coal and Coke Company, a subsidiary of Bessemer Coal, Iron, and Land Company.

Even with the loss of the East Tennessee Land Company, Harriman continued to florish into the twentieth century. However, the affects of the 1929 stock market crash were exacerbated by severe flooding of the Emory River. Three years later, blight collapsed the local peach industry, killing off all the peach trees. The Depression also brought about the demise of the Roane Iron Company in 1930. Later a paper mill and a hosiery created jobs and stabilized the local economy. During the 1940s and 1950s, Harriman’s economy was bolstered by through traffic on U.S. Highway 127, which was a north-south corridor for mobile Americans between the Great Lakes region and Florida. 

In 1940, the population of Roane County was under 28,000. The county’s urban population was 34.5%, based on the cities of Harriman (5,620), Rockwood (3,981), and Kingston (880). In 1942, the Corp of Engineers began taking possession of 56,000 acres of farm land for the establishment of the Manhattan Project, the highly secretive research and development program that would produce the atomic bombs used in World War II. Later named Oak Ridge, the strictly closed government town was located in Anderson and Roane Counties. The war effort brought new industrial activity to Roane County, as Tennessee Products Corporation re-opened the Roane Iron Furnace for the production of ferromanganese, used in the production of steel.