washington county tn historical association website
Elijah Embree and the Embreeville Ironworks
In July 1820—a few months before Elihu's death—the Embree brothers bought a mine, forge, and 260 acres of land on the Nolichucky River in Washington County, near the mouth of Bumpass Cove. Bumpass Cove, which is about 10 miles from Greasy Cove, seems to have been named after one Isaac Bumpass who lived in Washington County before 1770. However, he does not seem actually to have owned the land. The name is sometimes spelled Bumpres, Bumphers, and Bumbers .
Mining in Bumpass Cove started in the 1770s in a mine owned by William Colyer. Lead from the mines is reported to have been used to make bullets for the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780. The ore was said to be so rich that it could be smelted over an open wood fire and molded into bullets . In 1791 Colyer sold the property, which then consisted of 550 acres of land, to Louis Newhouse and Andrew Leuthold for £400. This and adjacent land, totaling 3,100 acres was sold in 1800 to John Sevier, Jr.—the son of General John Sevier—for $3,000. In 1812 they sold it to William P. Chester who, in turn, sold it to the Embrees in 1820 for $4,500 . However, Chester excluded from this sale 200 acres, which apparently included a lead, mine.
Upon the property's acquisition by the Embree brothers, the area came to be known as Embreeville. Under Elijah Embree's management, the mining business flourished, and Elijah acquired additional land under government grants and built forges, furnaces, a rolling mill, and nail factories. The quality of cast and forged iron products became widely recognized. The accounting journals of the Embreeville Ironworks, which still exist, were maintained by his nephew Thomas Jefferson Wilson, husband of Elihu Embree’s daughter Eliza.
In 1833 Elijah Embree, Edward West and Montgomery Stuart acquired 400 acres of land just across the mountain on Clark’s Creek. Four years later, West sold his interest to the two other partners. Clark’s creek offered a source of waterpower that was not available at the West Ore Bank in Bumpass Cove. Ore was hauled across the mountain ridge on sleds drawn by mules. A furnace, which still stands, was built on the bank of the creek, and a millrace was constructed to provide a head of water to drive a water wheel which worked the bellows. Unfortunately, in 1844 the millrace gave way, flooding the furnace. After this accident, the Clark Creek furnace was abandoned .
In 1839 Elijah Embree formed a partnership with Montgomery Stuart, John Green, Samuel Lyle and the three Blair brothers: Robert L., John and William. They formed the Washington Iron Manufacturing Company. Elijah retained a 50-percent interest in the property, which then consisted of 30,000 acres of land and the manufacturing plant. Sometime after 1844 the Blair bothers bought out the interests of Stuart, Green and Lyle.
Iron deposits were not the only ones in the Embreeville area. In 1837, Tennessee Supreme Court Judge and industrialist Jacob Peck reported that lead, zinc and manganese were detected in the furnace and could sometimes be extracted as by products . Zinc and manganese were regarded as unfortunate contaminants of the iron, but later mining efforts concentrated on them as economically viable raw materials.
The ironworks in Bumpass Cove continued in operation for more than 50 years after Elijah Embree's death in 1846. However, its success was inconsistent because of war, reconstruction, turbulent economic conditions, and falling prices for commodity iron products.
When Elijah Embree died, the Blair brothers became the sole owners of the Washington Iron Manufacturing Company. The Blairs changed the name to the Pleasant Valley Iron Works. Evidently, they managed to survive an economic crisis that swept the nation in 1857, and they capitalized on the increased demand for iron as the Civil War loomed over Tennessee and neighboring states.
In 1862, the second year of the war, General Duff Green, a politician and industrialist, acquired the property on credit. Green renamed the plant once more—this time the Confederate Iron Works. Green entered into a contract with Confederate Chief of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas under which one half of the total production would go to the government and the other half could be sold commercially . Munitions from the Confederate Iron Works supported the campaigns of Generals Bragg and Longstreet. Exemption from military service was granted to workers at the factory. Later men were conscripted to work there. To increase capacity, Duff Green built a huge furnace on the south bank of the Nolichucky river, about one mile below the mouth of Bumpass Cove. The furnace was 35 feet square at the base and 40 feet high. Ore was hauled to the mouth of the cove on small trams, running on rails. There, the ore was transferred to barges to carry it to the furnace. The war ended before the new furnace was fully operational. By 1885 the furnace was in ruins .
Also during the Civil War, the defunct lead mine, which had been excluded from William Chester’s property sale to Elijah Embree and which Alfred E. Jackson then owned, was reopened. Jackson and several others formed the Bumpass Cove Lead Mining Company to supply lead to the Confederacy.
At the end of the war, Duff Green and associates incorporated the Tennessee Mining and Manufacturing Company with capital of $200,000. They drew up grandiose plans to develop their 40,000 acre tract, not only for iron working but also for agriculture and textile production. A town of 20,000 people was envisioned. However, the devastating impact of reconstruction on the southern economy prevented Green’s plans from materializing. He defaulted on his payments, and the property reverted to the Blair brothers . The Blairs sold the Embreeville property in 1870 to Bradley and Company that operated the factory for a time. This time, the Blair family avoided the impact of an economic crisis in 1873. However, probably because of this crisis, Bradley & Company—like Duff Green—defaulted on its payments, and the property once more reverted to the Blair family.
In the late 1800s, the Embreeville iron deposits were still substantial. An 1876 report stated that
In Bompass Cove, Washington County, are immense deposits of Limonite iron ore… As to the amount of iron ore in this cove no proper estimate can be made, but there is little doubt that it is practically inexhaustible .
From 1885 onward, attempts were made to attract foreign investors in the property. In 1889 a group of British investors purchased 47,000 acres of land in Washington and Unicoi Counties in the Embreeville and Bumpass Cove area . This transaction took place at a time when wealthy capitalists in Great Britain were looking abroad—to "developing countries"—for investment opportunities and when American businesses were eager to finance their enterprises with foreign capital . The British investors formed the Embreville Freehold Land, Iron and Railway Company, Ltd. They also acquired the 45,000 acres of land, including the Embreeville Iron Works, from the estate of John Blair. Note the spelling of Embreville in the new company’s name. Based on their plans and estimates of the mines’ yield, they raised nearly $2 million in a stock offering. In 1891 the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railway Company constructed a railroad branch from Johnson City. Three years later the branch was taken over by the Southern Railway Company .
Early in 1892, the Embreville Freehold completed the centerpiece of their industrial complex, a blast furnace with a capacity of 150 tons per day and an 80 foot smoke stack. One hundred homes were also built for employees who worked 11-hour shifts for an average of $1.10 per day. By the end of the year, total output from the mines had been reached 375 tons per day. However, the venture was plagued with technical difficulties, among them the relatively poor quality of the iron ore. Most of the mined ore contained only about 40 percent iron and was contaminated by zinc.
Like Duff Green, 30 years earlier, the British investors had grandiose plans for the area. They planned to create, in the horseshoe bend of the Nolichucky River close to Bumpass Cove, a town for 30,000 people covering 1,000 acres of land. It was to include streets of densely packed row houses for the workers, boarding houses, and hotels. Company stores, or commissaries, were also planned where employees could buy food, clothing and other items. The Embreeville Town Company was formed in June 1891, pledged to develop. Promotional materials boasted:
(I)t would be difficult to find in the State a Town site better situated than that which has been chosen for the town of Embreeville… The plan of the town has been carefully prepared by an experienced English draughtsman and architect, by whom the various avenues and streets, in their relations to the furnaces, rolling mills, public buildings, and railway stations, have been conveniently arranged.
This time, Embreeville was spelled in the more traditional way. A plan was also drawn up to build a hydroelectric plant to generate electricity for the town . None of these ambitious plans was realized, perhaps fortunately since much of the land intended for the town lay on the flood plane of the Nolichucky River. However, some English-style houses were built for the company’s managers, and a few still survive. Notably, the impressive Cape-Cod building, currently housing the Chucky Trading Post restaurant, was built as the residence for the senior representative of the Embreville Freehold but later was enlarged as a boarding house for senior employees.
The Embreville Freehold Land, Iron and Railway Company, Ltd., came to an end in economic depression. The panic of 1893 saw the failure of an estimated 15,000 American businesses, including several railroads. Interestingly, the British investors had come to the U.S. partly to escape the depression that had started in Britain in 1890. The company was voluntarily liquidated November 7, 1893. The town of Embreeville was officially liquidated in September 1896 .
The Embreeville Iron Company, Ltd acquired the assets of the failed Embreville Freehold and the town in 1894. By 1896, the plant had resumed operations, and during the period 1896-1899, iron production averaged 70,000 tons per year. However, the new company was ultimately no more successful than its predecessors, and in 1900 it sold out to the American-owned Virginia Iron, Steel, Coal and Coke Company. C. P. Perrin acquired the factory in 1903 and renamed it the Embree Iron Company. Hydraulic mining technology was introduced in an attempt to increase output. However, competition from much larger mining and iron smelting ventures in Minnesota and elsewhere was becoming overwhelming. The commodity price for pig iron declined from $59.22 per ton in 1864 to $11.66 in 1897. Prices rebounded somewhat, reaching $19.98 in 1900 and $23.89 in 1907, but they declined again and remained low well into the 20th century . Iron production in Bumpass Cove ceased in 1909.
The Embree Iron Company began mining zinc in 1913. Stimulated by the war effort, over 100,000 tons of 40-percent zinc and 15,000 tons of 60-percent zinc were shipped between 1916 to 1920 . Manganese mining began in 1932, and by the time of World War II, Bumpass Cove had become the largest producer in the U.S. After WWII, manganese continued to be mined and sold to the Federal Government to supply strategic reserves. Mining finally ended in 1960, after the deposits of lead, iron, zinc and manganese were exhausted.
Elijah Embree was one of the leading industrialists of the early 1800s. He was followed by several prominent men who continued his iron-working ventures, particularly in and around Bumpass Cove. Some had visions of turning Embreeville into a large city. These efforts failed, but perhaps they laid groundwork for the industrialization of Northeast Tennessee and growth of the Tri-Cities metropolitan area to a level which even these entrepreneurs could only have dreamed of.