Nickajack Railroad

Coal tipple on Nickajack Railroad line

A coal tipple on the Nickajack Railroad.

The extreme northwest corner of Georgia was the location of the Nickajack Railroad, a 7-mile standard-gauge coal carrier that ran south from the Nashville Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway at Shellmound, Tennessee, across the state line to a network of mines at Cole City. A little over five miles of the line was within Georgia, primarily along the banks of Nickajack Creek.

Begun before the Civil War by members of the Gordon family, the mining effort was expanded by the Dade Coal Company, incorporated in 1873 with former governor Joseph E. Brown as president. The focal point of the company's operations was at Cole City, named for E. W. Cole, president of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad.

For a number of years the Cole City mines, which lay on the mountain slopes high above the railroad, were the most productive in the state. Several were connected by spur tracks to a narrow-gauge railroad that extended from the top of the plateau to a complex of coke ovens in the valley below. Other mines had inclines down to the standard-gauge railroad.

A 1904 report by Assistant State Geologist S. W. McCallie indicated the extent of the operation:

The equipment, in addition to the 12 or 15 miles of broad- and narrow-gauge railroad, consists of five locomotives; a number of stationary engines and pumps; very complete machine, wood and blacksmith shops; commissaries, office-buildings, numerous miners' cottages, convict barracks, etc. In addition to the above, the company owns 325 coke ovens, 185 of which were in use during the summer of 1900.

Porter locomotive type used by the Dade Coal Company at Cole City

Porter locomotive as used by the Dade Coal Company at Cole City

Porter locomotives used by the Dade Coal Company. (From: Light Locomotives, H. K. Porter & Co., Pittsburgh, Pa., 1892. Online at HathiTrust Digital Library here.)

Coke ovens at Cole City

From: S. W. McCallie, A Preliminary Report on the Coal Deposits of Georgia, Geological Survey of Georgia, 1904.

Nickajack Railroad incline

From: S. W. McCallie, A Preliminary Report on the Coal Deposits of Georgia, Geological Survey of Georgia, 1904.

Cole City was also the site of Penitentiary No. 1, containing convicts who were leased to the Dade Coal Company. The company began using forced labor in its mines in 1874.

In her 1906 book Prisons and Prayer, evangelist Elizabeth R. Wheaton described her visit to Cole City:

When I was at Coal City, Ga., a number of years ago, it was one of the most weird and desolate-looking places in which I had ever found a stockade located. There were three stockades on the summit of the mountain, and one at its base. At the last place the men were mining coal. When I first went there they used a small car that would hold eight passengers. Then this was abandoned and we were obliged to ride on the engine, as they carried only coal cars for shipping the coal that was mined by the prisoners. I was often in great danger of my clothes taking fire as the fire blazed out of the engine when the men were shoveling in the coal. The railroad zig-zagged up the mountain, and once, a sister and myself were obliged to ride on the coal-box, as the engine was packed with men and one woman before we had arrived from the other train. I had to kneel down and hold onto the side of the coal box with both hands, and as the engine twisted and turned, I was in danger of falling, and it was hundreds of feet down to the foot of the precipices in places where our train crept along. All the way up the mountain I prayed God to protect us. The train was run by prisoners, yet I always felt safe with them.

Wheaton describes the prisoners' life in the stockades and mines:

Many inquire of me what a stockade or prison camp is. I will here explain. A man, or party of men, lease or hire from the state the labor of a certain number of prisoners for a certain length of time. They are "doing time," as the prisoners say, for the state. Both men and women are thus leased out. Their labor is used in clearing up land, working in cotton and sugar cane fields, in mines, in turpentine camps, in building railroads, on brick-yards, in phosphate works or in any place where a company can work together. Their food consists mostly of swine's flesh and corn bread made with meal, water and salt.

The stockades are large rough wooden buildings, erected by the lessee, in which the prisoners are confined at night. The men are generally chained by one ankle to a heavy chain which reaches through the center of the building from one end to the other, being securely fastened to strong posts. They usually sleep on the floor in the same clothing worn through the day – which is generally very scant and poor; but sometimes they may have a bunk and a rough dirty blanket. The stockade is guarded by men with loaded guns, and besides this every camp is abundantly supplied with great, strong bloodhounds. And woe to the unfortunate criminal that must be tracked and caught by them!

Each prison camp has its mode of punishment for those who break the rules or fail to do as much as is allotted to them. The keepers of past years were often very cruel in their treatment, and seemed to enjoy the punishment which they inflicted upon those under their control. These poor souls had no way of redress. If they should speak of the cruelty, they would be treated far worse; the penalty for such a complaint being a severe whipping. Oh, God, how long shall the cry of the prisoner be heard? Lord Jesus, come quickly!

Each camp has its officers, guards, etc., among whom is the whipping boss. And God pity the man or woman who falls into his cruel hands. There is a board of prison inspectors, the president of which travels from place to place looking after the interests of all. The conditions of the stockades are much improved since I first went among them years ago. I have gone to the governors of different states and pleaded for the betterment of conditions in the prisons. Especially have I asked that the women might have better treatment and not be whipped so brutally for slight offenses or violation of the rules which the lessee is allowed to make.

The barbaric cruelty of Georgia's convict lease system, essentially an extension of slavery, would continue until 1908, ending only when it became unprofitable. It was replaced with the chain gang system.


1868 map (97K)

1895 map (50K)

1904 map (150K)

Online Resources:

Charter and by-laws of the Castle Rock Coal Company of Georgia. Online at Internet Archive here.

Sources for quotations above:

S. W. McCallie. A Preliminary Report on the Coal Deposits of Georgia. Bulletin No. 12, Atlanta: Geological Survey of Georgia, 1904. Online at Google Books.

• Elizabeth R. Wheaton. Prisons and Prayer, or A Labor of Love. Tabor, Iowa: Chas. M. Kelley, 1906. Online at Internet Archive here.



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