Friday, January 25, 2013
Steve Wild meandered through the trees near his home on Edwards Point Road. It was the early 1980s. A thick blanket of snow had covered the ground and dusted the trees of Signal Mountain, and he had decided to venture out into the snow-covered landscape.
After walking a relatively short distance, he stumbled upon what he recognized as abandoned coal mine shafts.
Wild already knew Signal Mountain was riddled with these old mines, the same ones that caused a portion of roadway in the Timesville area to collapse in early January. In fact, his father had invested in an active coal mine back in the 1970s in Sequatchie County.
Though his own personal history with the mine shafts involves a “hilarious” incident in which the donkeys used to pull the carts out of the mine broke free of their constraints, prompting the police to notify Wild’s mother: “Mrs. Wild, your donkeys are loose on the highway,” the caving in of roadways is no laughing matter for Signal Mountain residents. But it is one they’re familiar with — and may be likely to see more of given the nature of the riddled roadbeds and landscape.
According to TDEC communications officer Shannon Ashford, the Division of Geology’s coal reserve map for the Sewanee seam shows around 30 deep mines with varying extents of underground workings in the Signal Mountain area.
“[The original builders of the mines] used timber to prop up the roof and keep it from collapsing,” Wild, now a geologist with Marion Environmental, explained. “You can imagine after tens of years, decades underground, the timber has rotted and disintegrated.”
TDEC’s Trevor Martin, of the Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation division, agrees about the danger of abandoned mine shafts, which can leach harmful pollutants into nearby streams. On Jan. 9, a state contractor filled in the abandoned mine shaft that had caved in on Battles Lane just off of Timesville Road, allowing residents to safely drive to and from their homes once again. Martin can’t say for sure why that particular mine collapsed when it did, but said it could have partially been due to water seeping in over time and weakening the structure of it.
“It just sort of fell out. It takes only a small hole for the water to work in there,” he said. “It’s a rare occurrence. It’s likely, with the extensive mining in the 1960s, that there are homes over these [mine shafts].”
According to Signal Mountain resident historian Jim Douthat, mining was a way of life for the “unprofessionals” on the mountain in the 1920s or 1930s before dying out in the ’60s and ’70s.
“Signal Mountain was created as an enclave for the professional and wealthy of Chattanooga, but there was a whole other side of it that wasn’t,” he said. “Coal mining was a way to make a living; it was something done all over the mountain.”
Miners in the Timesville area worked along the Sewanee Coal Seam, using dynamite to blast away the rock in order to harvest the coal, he said. Leo Brown of the former Brown Bros. Hardware located at the entrance of Timesville Road called it the “smoky road” because of the smoke and steam that always rose from the pots of moonshine brewing and general dynamite blasts in the area, said Douthat.