Bon Air Coal, Land and Lumber Company

The history of the coal companies on Bon Air Mountain in White County, Tennessee began on September 7, 1882. On that date, the State of Tennessee granted a charter to the Bon Air Coal, Land and Lumber Company to begin mining coal on Bon Air Mountain on 15,000 acres of land owned by the company. The company was begun by White County native and entrepreneur, former Confederate General George Gibbs Dibrell. Coal mining would continue on the Cumberland Plateau of White County for the next fifty years. Thousands of tons of coal would be mined and four coal towns would be built that became home for hundreds of families.

The major problem to be overcome to enable profitable coal mining on the Cumberland Plateau was a means to transport the coal to markets for sale. General Dibrell was uniquely situated to provide a solution to the transportation issue due to his experience beginning in 1869 as president of the Southwestern Railroad, which connected Sparta (the county seat of White County) with the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad at Tullahoma, Tennessee.  In 1875 under Dibrell’s leadership, the Southwestern Railroad acquired a charter for the Bon Air Railroad. In the early part of 1888, the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad acquired these charter rights, and in March of that same year, completed the six-and-one-half-mile spur connecting Bon Air to Sparta that provided a direct route to the Nashville and Chattanooga coal markets.

The second obstacle to be overcome was the lack of experienced miners to supervise and train the inexperienced local labor force. That problem was overcome by recruiting trained miners from Scotland. By 1888, the first mine known as “Old Number One” employed about twenty-five miners including a Scottish superintendent and engineer and several Scottish miners who had immigrated to America to find work.

The Bon Air Coal, Land and Lumber Company mined and shipped its first coal in 1888.

Bon Air Coal and Iron Company

Between 1889 and 1897, the Bon Air Coal, Land and Lumber Company prospered. It opened another drift mine along the bluff line northeast of “Old Number One” and output grew from 36,000 tons to 186,000 tons. The coal had superior sulfur-free characteristics and was sold as far south as Florida and as far west as the Mississippi River. Several management changes occurred during the subsequent years and in 1897, the Bon Air Coal, Land and Lumber Company purchased the Buffalo Iron Company in Hickman County, Tennessee, and changed its name to the Bon Air Coal and Iron Company.

Coal mining on Bon Air Mountain was booming by the turn of the century.  The company's land ownership increased from the original 15,000 acres to 38,000 acres. New mines were opened including the Eastland drift mine, the 210 foot deep Carola shaft mine, and the 174 foot deep Ravenscroft shaft mine. The company employed over six hundred men by 1902.

In order to sustain the increased mining operations, the population grew from 253 to 1,548 according to the 1900 census.  As the company enlarged its operations, the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad expanded its lines to serve the new mines. In 1904, tracks were extended over five miles from Bon Air to Ravenscroft via the railroad section town of DeRossett, and another seven-mile spur connected Eastland to the Bon Air-Ravenscroft line.

Management decisions made during this period of growth and prosperity, however, had a negative impact on the mine’s profitability.  The costly decision to construct two large coke oven operations at Eastland resulted in a major blow to the company’s profitability because the coal that was initially thought to be of good quality for making coke was later discovered to be unsuitable for the coke process. 

The company had to abandon the coke oven operation after two or three years because of large financial losses. The financial loses eventually resulted in the company going into receivership in 1911 where it remained under the direction of Nashville's Chancery Court for six years.

Bon Air Coal and Iron Corporation. 

Because of World War I, demands for coal in 1917 had increased and attracted new investors in the White County coal company.  In July, William J. Cummins bought the Bon Air Coal and Iron Company including over 50,000 acres of land at a receiver's sale in Nashville. The company's name changed to the Bon Air Coal and Iron Corporation

Cummins convinced Northern and Eastern capitalists to invest over $6 million in the company.  Most notable among those investors were the following:

William J. Cummins – A Nashville businessman and wholesaler who was one of the driving forces to get a large warehouse built adjacent to the Nashville Union Station train yard. The warehouse was used by the Nashville Coffee & Manufacturing Co., a precursor of Maxwell House Coffee that was named after a Nashville hotel and was sold on a national level.  The Cummins Station company was sold in 1928 for a staggering $43 million.

John M. E. Bowman – Known for his extensive hotel holdings including the Biltmore hotel chain which he began; the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York; the Coral Gables Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida; the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, California; the New York Biltmore Hotel in New York City; and the Sevilla-Biltmore Hotel in Havana, Cuba.

Jacob Ruppert – An American brewer, businessman, National Guard colonel and United States Congressman who served for four terms representing New York from 1899 to 1907. He also owned the New York Yankees of Major League Baseball from 1915 until his death in 1939. While he was the owner of the Yankees, he purchased the contract of Babe Ruth and built Yankee Stadium, reversing the franchise's fortunes and establishing it as the premier club in the major leagues. Ruppert was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in July 2013

William Wrigley, Jr. - An American chewing gum industrialist and founder in 1891 of the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company for which it is named.  Wrigley became a stakeholder in the Chicago Cubs baseball team in 1916 and by 1918 was the largest shareholder and principal owner of the Chicago Cubs.  He became the majority owner in 1921 and the Cubs' ballpark in Chicago, is named for him.

Once repairs were made to dilapidated mining equipment and facilities which had fallen into disrepair due to the lack of capital by Bon Air Coal and Iron Company, coal production increased to its peak at 446,476 tons.  White County ranked sixth among Tennessee's coal producing counties. 

Clifty Creek Coal and Coke Company

 Part of the reason for the increased production by the Bon Air Coal and Iron Corporation resulted from the formation of another coal company in 1903. Jesse Walling of nearby McMinnville, Tennessee, and Richard Hill of Sparta had purchased 5,000 acres of coal and timber lands near the Eastland mines.  They organized the Clifty Creek Coal and Coke Company. Hill's son-in-law, Dr. William Byrd Young, who had been the company physician at Bon Air since 1888, became general manager of this new company.

Dr. William B.Young

Dr. William B.Young

Clifty Consolidated Coal Company

Clifty Creek Coal and Coke Company reorganized in 1909 when an Eastern financier, Roscoe R. Moody of Springfield, Massachusetts, and his associates purchased the original company along with another large tract of adjoining coal land. After reorganization, Clifty Creek Coal and Coke Company's name was changed to Clifty Consolidated Coal Company, but Young continued as manager and vice-president. Under his direction the company prospered during the following decade, mining an average of 500 tons of coal per day.

In 1919, Bon Air Coal and Iron Corporationpurchased the Clifty company for $25,000.  Young joined these combined companies in 1920 as vice-president and general manager of the Bon Air Mountain holdings. He stated in his unpublished memoirs that, when he assumed responsibility for the four mining operations, President Cummins told him, “You are now the Czar of Bon Air Mountain.”

Dr. Young’s tenure as vice-president and general manager of Bon Air Coal and Iron Corporation was soon to face unforeseen challenges.  John L. Lewis, president of United Mine Workers of America (U.M.W.A.), started a major push to organize the nation's coal miners. The coal industry also experienced a nation-wide slump. Added to the challenge was the advent of mechanized mining that made hand-operated mines unprofitable. A final blow occurred during the late 1920s and early 1930s when the entire country suffered in the depths of the great depression.

Labor unrest increased by 1919 as efforts by union organizers increased in the south that had not traditionally known a union presence.  Union negotiators failed in 1924 to reach an agreement and miners struck nationwide. Over 1,000 men walked off the job when the Bon Air mines shut down. After a ten week strike, the Bon Air company reopened the mines after an agreement was reached that included significant concessions from labor.

Because of increasing labor demands and a depressed coal market at the time, the Bon Air Coal and Iron Corporation began liquidating assets and closing its less efficient and less profitable mines. The “Carola” mine closed permanently in the latter part of 1922 according to Dr. Young for reasons due to the poor coal market and decreasing productivity of the mine. Following the 1924 strike, the Clifty mine closed and never reopened. The company ceased operations at the Eastland mines in 1926. Only one large mine at Ravenscroft was left in operation along with several small mines at Eastland and Bon Air that were leased to individuals who sold the coal back to the company.

Tennessee Products Corporation

 During the time of falling production and profitability, in 1926, the Bon Air Coal and Iron Corporation merged with Chattanooga Coke and Gas Company and J. J. Gray Jr. Iron Works, to become known as the Tennessee Products Corporation. Management of the new company was organized under the leadership of:

William Wrigley, Jr., Chairman of the Board

R. J. Immerfall, President and General Manager

William J. Cummins, Chairman of the Executive Board

John M. E. Bowman, Treasurer

Frederic Leake, Secretary

Dr. William B. Young,  General Superintendent of the coal division and manager of the Bon Air Mountain mines

Because of the Great Depression, coal mining conditions continued to grow worse. Coal prices fell, competition increased, and mining operations were sporadic resulting in decreased production and employment levels.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal indirectly had a negative effect on the coal industry when improved economic conditions resulting from the New Deal prompted renewed union activity which was further aided in 1933 by the National Industrial Recovery Act which guaranteed workers the right to organize unions and bargain collectively. The miners at Ravenscroft were organized the same year. 

It was apparent by the mid-1930s that Tennessee Product Corporation was in serious, if not fatal, financial trouble. This was especially true for the Bon Air property that had been operating in the “red” for some time.  Tennessee Products attempted several methods of revitalizing or disposing of its operations including selling off property, borrowing money, and filing for bankruptcy. In the spring of 1936, the company again filed for reorganization under bankruptcy at the United States District Court in Nashville. This second petition was finalized on December 31, 1936 and resulted in a $1,500,000 debt to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

The final blow came to the Bon Air Mountain mines during the reorganizational process when the 1934 union-company contract expired and the miners walked out on strike.  The company and union never reached an agreement and the Ravenscroft mine did not reopen. Within a year all mining equipment was removed, and the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad pulled the railroad tracks between Ravenscroft and Sparta.  The reign of the coal industry on the Cumberland Plateau at Bon Air Mountain had ended.