What is this place? Today it’s a cross between a museum and a park, but it was once a place of heavy industry. Many years ago, from 1899 until 1927, coal was dug out of the mountain nearby, then piled it into mining cars and lowered into this valley. The coal was then baked in outdoor ovens until it turned into a by-product of coal called coke. The coke was then loaded onto trains and taken to factories in places like Chattanooga and Birmingham.
A museum is the centerpiece of the complex. It is built to look exactly like the “company store” that once stood on this exact site, and it contains a lot of interesting stuff about mining, the operation that used to be here, and the history of Sequatchie County.
This is what you’ll see when you walk in. The big picture on the wall is actually a photograph from the old company store. It was here, in a building just like this, that everyone who worked at the mines and coke ovens would come to buy everything they needed. This was their grocery store, their drug store and their hardware store all rolled into one.
In those days miners weren’t paid in U.S. currency. They were paid in company money. Here, at the museum, you can see old currency from coal mining operations all over the country.
You’ll find mining stuff of all kinds at the museum — old mining tools, restored mining cars, framed documents, artists’ renderings of mining scenes, empty boxes of things that coal miners would have used in their job (such as explosives). Ask questions while you’re looking around.
You’ll find many old pictures of the work that took place here, and of other things that happened in Sequatchie County. Take a look at this wall and see what we mean.
Before you leave the museum there is one thing you MUST see. As we mentioned before, the reason that this place was here was so that people could turn COAL, which is a raw material dug out of the ground, into COKE, which is lighter, cleaner, and better fuel. While you are at the museum, make sure you see some coal and some coke.
Now you need to go outside, around the back of the museum. A short walk will take you to some of the coke ovens. There are a total of 268 of them, some in better shape than others. It was here that coal was unloaded, then piled into the ovens and baked until creating coke.
The Dunlap Coke Ovens Park is a pretty place to walk around, so we suggest that you do so. If you head up the hill you’ll see that the ovens look a little different up this way. And if you keep going, the trail goes all the way up the path that the mining railroad once took — all the way to the top of the mountain. (However, the trail is quite treacherous; we don’t recommend it!)
There are two other things we are going to tell about this place that we find quite fascinating. The first is a tidbit about railroads and roads and how they linked this place to the outside world.
Today, getting here isn’t hard. You see the map to the right. You have your choice of highways, and the one most people are likely to take is the huge expressway called Highway 111 that comes right up from Chattanooga.
Why? Because the mountain between Dunlap and Chattanooga was so large that it made more sense for the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway to build it that way. This gives you some idea of how mountains used to be much bigger boundaries then than they are now.
The second thing we’d like to explain is how the Dunlap Coke Ovens Park came to be.
About 35 years ago, a photographer named Carson Camp found some old photographs from the 1920s that showed people working at the Dunlap Coke Ovens. He became fascinated with the place.
Other people were using the land as a garbage dump. But Carson saw value here. He approached Bowater, the company that owned the land. The company agreed to donate it to the Sequatchie Valley Historical Association.
Then, in 1989, a historian in nearby Rhea County named David Henry Gray died and left money in his will for a museum to be built here.
So in addition to everything else, the Dunlap Coke Ovens Park is a story about how one person can see value in something and bring it to life for everyone else!