21 Jul Appalachian Air: The Towns, People, and History of Unicoi County
If you’ve ever travelled between Tennessee and North Carolina along Interstate 26, you’ve been through the very heart of Unicoi County. Thanks in large part to the famous Nolichucky River, which winds its way through the great barrier of the Appalachian Mountains, this area has been a critical passage for adventurers and commerce since the early days of our nation.
Now Unicoi County is a growing network of small towns, communities, and hamlets whose people share a love for the mountains, heritage, and one another. Here’s a brief introduction to our towns and communities, and what makes this region so attractive to a growing number of people seeking a better way of life.
Because of our rugged mountain terrain, Unicoi County has kept their small town feel and easygoing lifestyle for generations. Much of the county is part of the Cherokee National Forest, and Unicoi’s tie to the natural beauty and resources has been a main draw for those who have come to call this area home.
Population: 6,097 (2010 U.S. Census)
The county seat of Unicoi County, Tennessee has had a unique history to say the least. Even the name of the city has an odd story. The town was intended to be named “Ervin,” in honor of D.J.N. Ervin who donated a 15 acre tract of land to establish the county seat. However, the U.S. Post Office accidentally recorded the name as “Erwin,” and the error has never been corrected.
Erwin is located at the convergence of two area water systems—the North Indian Creek and the Nolichucky River. The city has always attracted adventurers and agriculture as it sits at a major entrance into the Cherokee National Forest, and is home to some of the most fertile river bottom land in the region.
The city hosts many local businesses including franchise and privately-owned restaurants, a community farmers market, antique malls, outdoor adventure outfitters, and much more. The downtown area is perfect for window shopping and dining while enjoying the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains.
Population: 3,632 (2010 U.S. Census)
The town of Unicoi has been known by a few names over its history. Originally “Greasy Cove,” the name of this small village in the area was changed to “Swingleville” in 1851 when the Swingle brothers opened the first post office in the community. Dr. F.H. Hannum started managing the post office in 1876 and changed the name once again, this time to “Limonite.” When the railroads came to the region in the late 1880s, the name was changed to “Unicoi” and has remained under this name ever since.
Located in the North Creek Valley (locally known as “The Valley Beautiful”), where the North Indian Creek emerges from the Appalachian Mountains and flows on to Erwin and the Nolichucky River, this small town grew as a shipping point for the railways to supply area mining and logging operations in the early 1900s. The town is nestled into the Cherokee National Forest and offers access to many beautiful, regional natural resources for visitors.
Population: 2,530 (2007 data)
Flag Pond is an unincorporated community in Unicoi County that sits deep within the Cherokee National Forest and has easy access to Interstate 26. The community is named for the Dwarf Blue Flag Iris, a local wildflower that grows in the valley’s area wetlands along the Nolichucky River.
The area lands were largely uninhabited until the local roads were constructed, and the waterways were rechanneled to dry the swamp land fed by the Upper Higgins Creek, Sams Creek, and Rice Creek in the mid-1800s. But even before habitation, the area was a popular meeting place for residents in the community due to its natural beauty and many wildflowers.
The first post office in the county was located here, and when it opened the community was officially named Flag Pond. The opening of the post office in 1846 makes this community the oldest official town in Unicoi County.
The Hanging of Mary
The city of Erwin earned some national notoriety in 1916 as the site of one of the strangest executions in history. What made the event so well known was not the crime itself, or the courtroom drama, but Mary herself. You see, Mary was a 5-ton elephant who was part of the Sparks World Famous Shows—a traveling circus that moved along the railroads and had come to work in Kingsport, TN. The circus management had hired a local man, Walter Eldridge, to work as an assistant trainer for the elephants. The records state that Walter was killed by Mary after he had allegedly struck the elephant on the head with a hook.
The news of a “killer elephant” quickly spread by word of mouth and extravagant news stories from local media. Soon Mary’s reputation had caused a demand for her execution. Mary’s owner, Charlie Sparks, allegedly decided to execute Mary by hanging in order to appease the people. However, Kingsport wasn’t really equipped to physically hang a 5-ton elephant.
Erwin was just a little further than 35 miles from Kingsport, and hosted the region’s largest railway yard. Among the equipment available in the rail yard was a 100-ton crane car used to move rail cars from track to track. The region decided this would be the best place to carry out the sentence against Mary. The town of Erwin itself was allegedly against the hanging, but obliged for the sake of the region’s demand for justice. It is estimated that over 2,000 people turned out at the hanging.
In 2008, playwright George Brant won the Keene Prize for Literature for his one-act play entitled “Elephant’s Graveyard,” which was based on the events. Recently, Erwin has started a yearly festival to honor Mary and help raise funds for the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, TN. If you are visiting the downtown Erwin area, you will notice many brightly hand painted elephant statues all around the city in honor of Mary and the strange events of her ultimate demise.
The Clinchfield Railroad
The Clinchfield Railroad was part of the Carolina, Clinchfield, and Ohio Railway, and ran through the coalfields of Virginia and Kentucky, to the textile mills of South Carolina. The Clinchfield was the last Class I railroad built in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains, and brought visitors to the numerous natural resources and beauty of the Appalachian regions. At the time of its construction, the railroad was known for the innovative new railroad engineering techniques used to navigate the line through the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Opening in 1924, the railroad was a major route for commerce between Ohio and southern South Carolina. Erwin was a significant railroad yard for the Clinchfield Railroad, providing a major station for people, supplies, and resources like logging and mining in the region.
You can still visit the Clinchfield Railroad Museum in Erwin to learn more about the railway’s history and see many artifacts from the time the railroad operated.
From 1916 to 1957, the Southern Potteries plant operated in Erwin, manufacturing hand-painted dishware known as “Blue Ridge Pottery” which became popular in homes around the nation in the late 1930s and 1940s. Blue Ridge Pottery pieces are still a very popular antique items for collectors.
Unicoi County is a region thick with American history and local legends. Visiting this area will give guests so many different opportunities to experience what has made the region a favorite place for adventurers and historians for generations. Come join our story and make Unicoi County part of your history too.