Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, which was later renamed Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex, is a former maximum-security prison in Tennessee that has since been converted into a tourist attraction.


Convict Labor

In 1831, the Tennessee State Penitentiary, Tennessee’s first state prison, was established in Nashville. 4 Prison labor was instrumental in constructing several public projects in the 1850s, including the state capitol building. During the American Civil War, the prison contributed to the Confederate war effort. However, by the war’s end, the prison had accumulated $30,000 in debt due to inadequate maintenance planning.

In response, the Tennessee legislature introduced a convict lease system in 1865 to make the penitentiary financially self-reliant. 4 This system involved leasing inmates for labor to private entities, leading to criticism over the use of free convict labor undermining paid workers.

Starting in 1871, inmates were leased for labor on railroad construction and in coal mines. 4 The initial arrangement with railroad work led to numerous escapes due to difficulties in maintaining security. Consequently, the focus shifted solely to mining, where escapes were less frequent. From 1870 to 1890, this convict lease system generated over one million dollars in profit for the state.

In 1889, a new lease agreement was made with the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company. However, this led to significant unrest among coal miners, culminating in protests in 1891 and 1892. 2 3 4 In July 1891, miners in Briceville forcibly released convict laborers from stockades, followed by the release of an additional 200 convicts near Oliver Springs in November. 4 These protests also saw the destruction of several facilities belonging to the Big Mountain Coal Company and the Knoxville Iron Company in Briceville.

The unrest resulted in the withdrawal of convict labor from the mines of the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company in Briceville, but not from those of the Big Mountain Coal Company. 4

In August 1892, a more widespread revolt occurred. Miners in Tracy City and Inman forcibly transported a total of 642 prisoners back to the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. 4 A similar incident in Oliver Springs on August 15 involved an exchange of gunfire between miners and guards when the latter refused to release convict laborers. The miners eventually overpowered the guards, sending the prisoners to a jail in Knoxville and burning the stockade.

This series of miner-led rebellions ultimately cost the state $400,000. 4

New Prison Proposal

In January 1893, Tennessee’s outgoing Governor Buchanan and his successor, Governor Turney, proposed to the General Assembly the elimination of the convict lease system and the construction of a new prison. 4 Subsequently, in April, the legislature passed a bill authorizing the creation of a new penitentiary and the acquisition of coal and farmland for inmate labor. To fund this project, the state issued bonds totaling approximately $600,000.

Over the summer, a committee was formed to select a suitable location for the new prison. 4 This committee included M.H. McDowell from Franklin County, Judge R.J. Morgan from Shelby County, D.R. Young from Anderson County, state geologist James M. Stafford, and Louis E. Bryant, a geologist and mining engineer. They examined 15 potential sites in the state’s coal-mining region, with particular focus on the coal lands around Petros in Morgan County, owned by the East Tennessee Land Company.

The East Tennessee Land Company possessed 12,000 acres, of which the state aimed to purchase 9,000. 4 In August 1893, an agreement was reached for the state to buy the land for $80,000. This deal included a condition that the company construct 20 miles of railroad track from the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railroad in Harriman to the prison site within six months. 1 4 The Harriman Coal & Iron Railroad (HC&I) was already working on this rail line.

In 1900, the state expanded its holdings by acquiring an additional 4,226 acres near the future prison site. 4 This expansion necessitated adjusting the boundary between Morgan and Anderson Counties to ensure the land was contiguous.

By July 1894, the prison camp at Big Mountain was closed, and the inmates were relocated near Harriman to work on constructing the HC&I Railroad. 4 By November, the railroad track was completed from Harriman to a coal tipple at Brushy Mountain, leading to the renaming of the line as the Harriman & Northeastern Railroad. The 75 convicts who had worked on the railroad were then reassigned to replace other inmates in developing the first coal mine at Brushy Mountain. By January 1896, this mine was producing 1,000 tons of coal per day.

First Prison Structure

Designed by S.M. Patton of Chattanooga, an L-shaped prison was quickly built using free labor and wood sourced from the surrounding Brushy Mountain. 2 4 The front section of this facility was four stories high, attached to a three-story wing. 4 Internally, the prison was divided into five sleeping wards, each capable of housing 120 men, amounting to a total capacity of 600 inmates. These wards were heated by two cannon stoves each and illuminated with oil lamps. Additionally, a separate building housed a hospital, featuring two wards with a capacity of 25 men each.

The convict lease system officially ended on January 1, 1896. 3 4 As a result, 440 convicts from Inman, Oliver Springs, and Tracy City were transferred back to state penitentiaries. Of these, 210 men were sent to the newly built Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, marking its first group of inmates. By the end of that year, the inmate population at Brushy Mountain had increased to 466. 4

In 1900, significant upgrades were made to the Brushy Mountain facility. 4 Electric lighting, laundry equipment, and a cooking oven were installed. Additionally, 40 coke ovens were constructed to support the coal mining operations. The following year, in 1901, renovations were undertaken in the west wing’s third-floor guard dormitory to create additional inmate space. The guards were moved to a newly built accommodation consisting of a 14-room dormitory for unmarried guards and seven three-room houses for those with families. A new two-story structure was also added, serving multiple purposes as a church, lodge, and school.

Further developments at Brushy Mountain included the construction of a new commissary in 1906 and a new school in 1914. 4

Second Prison Structure

In 1931, a state legislative committee reported that the conditions at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary were alarmingly poor, likening them to those in the notorious Siberian prisons of the old Russian regime. 4 The prison, primarily built of wood, was also identified as a significant fire hazard. Consequently, construction of a new prison began in 1933, with inmates quarrying limestone on-site for the new prison walls. This updated Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary opened in 1935.

Designed for a capacity of 600 inmates, the facility frequently housed nearly double that number, reaching around 1,200 at times. 7 In 1972, due to unsafe working conditions, guards went on strike, leading Governor Winfield Dunn to temporarily close the prison. 2 3 In October 1975, journalists from The Tennessean were initially barred from entering Brushy Mountain. 11 They were investigating reports of substandard and unclean conditions, including inmates living in quarters lacking electricity, hot water, and heating, the absence of religious counseling, and inadequate medical care. Access was only granted after efforts were made to improve the facility’s conditions.

For most of its history, Brushy Mountain functioned as a maximum-security prison. 2 However, in the 1980s, it transitioned to a classification facility, processing up to 584 inmates from East Tennessee to determine their appropriate security levels. Despite this change, it maintained a section as a maximum security annex with 96 beds.

In the late 1990s, the state initiated a comprehensive prison overhaul plan. 9 This plan encompassed constructing new facilities, closing or expanding existing ones, and forming contracts with local governments. Part of this plan involved the closure of Brushy Mountain, primarily due to its location constraints by Frozen Head Mountain, its status as the oldest prison in the state, and high operational costs attributed to its age. 2 9

After 113 years of operation, Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was officially closed on June 11, 2009. 5 Inmates were transferred to the expanded Morgan County Correctional Complex, which added 1,400 beds at a cost of $182 million. 2


At Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, roughly two-thirds of the inmates were assigned to work in the coal mines located nearby. 4 Initially, the prison operated two coal mines starting in 1896, but this number eventually expanded to seven, exploiting three of the eleven coal seams owned by the state. Specifically, Mines Nos. 1, 2, and 3 targeted the Jellico (Brushy Mountain) Seam, Mines Nos. 4 and 6 extracted coal from the Pee Wee Seam, and Mine No. 5 focused on the Dean Seam.

As part of their sentence, each inmate was required to mine several tons of coal daily, contributing to the repayment of their debt to the state. 4 Additionally, prisoners had the opportunity to earn extra income, ranging from 5¢ to 40¢ per ton, by working beyond their assigned quotas. Besides mining, other inmates were responsible for various tasks such as maintaining the mines, operating the coke ovens, and working in the prison’s hospital, kitchen, and laundry facilities. Some were also assigned to labor on the 60-acre prison farm.

In 1916, the prison employed 225 inmates to construct the Jellico Highway in Campbell County. 4 Similarly, in 1919, 125 prisoners were engaged in a lumber camp to harvest timber at Fork Mountain.

The convict-operated coal mines continued functioning until 1966. 4 Furthermore, the prison’s honor farm near Wartburg, which employed between 130 and 150 prisoners, ceased operations in 1971. 10


In 2012, while participating in a charity motorcycle ride, Chattanooga businessman Pete Waddington discovered the closed Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. 7 Intrigued by the site, he immediately contacted his business partner, Brian May. Their research revealed that prison and distillery tours were among the fastest-growing segments in the tourism industry.

Subsequently, in 2018, Brushy Mountain was transformed into a tourist destination. 7 The site now features a restaurant, gift shop, event space, and a tasting room located in what was once a storage building. Additionally, a distillery has been established in the building that previously housed the prison’s boiler room. In its first year of operation, the attraction drew 40,000 visitors, and projections indicated that visitor numbers could exceed 100,000 annually by the end of 2019.

The guided tour of Brushy Mountain starts with an 18-minute documentary screening in the former chapel. 7 This documentary includes narratives from former guards describing their experiences within the prison’s 18-foot-tall walls. The tours, led by ex-guards and former inmates, take visitors through various areas of the prison, including the cell blocks, showers, cafeteria, exercise yard, laundry facilities, and “The Hole.” “The Hole” was a solitary confinement area where the most problematic inmates were placed in near darkness for up to 30 days.

Notable Incidents

  • James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., along with six other inmates, successfully escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary on June 10, 1977, by scaling a fence. 6 7 Ray was recaptured 54½ hours later, eight and a half miles away from the prison in difficult terrain, with the aid of six men and two bloodhounds. 8
  • In a separate incident, James Slagle, imprisoned at Brushy Mountain for kidnapping and murder, attempted an escape by concealing himself in a box falsely labeled as containing “153 pounds of roast beef.” 7 This box was loaded onto a flatbed truck leaving the prison. However, Slagle’s escape attempt was quickly thwarted as he was apprehended shortly thereafter.


Further Reading

  1. Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary: Museum and tours.


  1. “Harriman and Northeastern Railroad Company.” Interstate Commerce Commission Reports, vol. 37, pp. 880–895.
  2. South, Todd. “Bars closing on Brushy Mountain after 113 years.” Chattanooga Times Free Press, 5 Apr. 2009.
  3. Lee, Frank and Robert Rogers. “Tennessee Prison System.” Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 1998.
  4. Dickinson, W. Calvin. “Brushy Mountain Prison.” Everyday in Tennessee.
  5. Brushy Mountain Closing Ceremony.” Tennessee News and Information, 3 Jun. 2009.
  6. History of the Knoxville Office.” Knoxville Field Office, FBI.
  7. Hance, Mary. “Brushy Mountain tour surprisingly fascinating for ‘hell on Earth’.” Tennessean [Nashville], 19 Jun. 2019, pp. F1-F2.
  8. Odom, Maida. “Recapture of Ray leaves 1 still free.” Dayton Daily News, 13 Jun. 1977, pp. 1-5.
  9. “Brushy Mountain may close.” Johnson City Press, 30 May 2002, p. 11.
  10. “Willie Joe Loses Again.” Leaf-Chronicle [Clarksville], 17 Aug. 1971, p. 16.
  11. Thompson, Jerry. “Prisoners ‘Satisfied,’ Puzzled.” Tennessean [Nashville], 9 Oct. 1975, pp. 1-10.


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