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Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, later known as Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex, is a former maximum-security prison in Morgan County, Tennessee. It was established in 1896 and operated for 113 years until 2009. Brushy Mountain reopened as a tourist attraction in 2018, which includes guided tours of the prison, a restaurant, gift shop, event venue, and a distillery.


Convict Labor

Tennessee’s first state prison, Tennessee State Penitentiary, opened in Nashville in 1831. 4 Labor from the prison constructed the state capitol building in the 1850s and various other public works. During the American Civil War, inmates helped supply the Confederate army, but by the end of the conflict, $30,000 in debt had been accrued because of a lack of maintenance planning.

In an attempt to make the penitentiary self-sustaining, the legislature mandated a convict lease system in 1865. 4 Inmates worked within the prison under contract to a private entity, but this led to complaints about free convict labor being used to shortchange laborers essentially.

Inmates starting in 1871 were leased to work on railroads and in coal mines, but many escaped from the railroad work crews because of the troubles in guarding them. 4 Convicts were subsequently leased only for labor within the mines, where successful escapes were rare. Between 1870 and 1890, the convict lease system brought in a profit of over one million dollars to the state. The state made a new lease contract with the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company in 1889, which resulted in massive protests by coal miners in 1891 and 1892. 2 3 4 The demonstrations led to the release of unpaid convict laborers from stockades by miners in July 1891 at Briceville, and the release of 200 more convict laborers from a stockade at Cumberland Mine near Oliver Springs on November 2. 4 Several buildings of the Big Mountain Coal Company were also burned, followed by similar actions at the Knoxville Iron Company at Briceville.

The violence led to the removal of convict labor from the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company mines at Briceville but not from the mines of the Big Mountain Coal Company. 4

In August 1892, miners loaded 360 prisoners onto trains in Tracy City and 282 convicts in Inman and had them taken to the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. 4 Similar violence occurred in Oliver Springs on August 15, when guards refused to release the convict laborers, and the two opposing groups exchanged gunfire. The miners retreated, gathered reinforcements, and returned to the stockade. The guards surrendered, and the prisoners were sent to a jail in Knoxville. The miners burned the stockade.

The rebellion effort by the miners cost the state $400,000. 4

New Prison Proposal

In January 1893, outgoing Governor Buchanan and incoming Governor Turney recommended to the General Assembly that the convict lease system be abolished and a new prison constructed. 4 The legislature passed a bill in April, which called a new penitentiary and the purchase of coal and farmlands for inmates to work. Approximately $600,000 in bonds were issued to finance the project.

A committee comprised of M.H. McDowell of Franklin County, Judge R.J. Morgan of Shelby County, and D.R. Young of Anderson County, along with state geologist James M. Stafford and geologist and mining engineer Louis E. Bryant, visited 15 prospective sites in the coal-mining region of the state over the summer. 4 Of particular interest were the coal lands around Petros in Morgan County, which belonged to the East Tennessee Land Company.

East Tennessee Land owned 12,000 acres of land, of which the state desired 9,000 acres. 4 A contract signed in August 1893 called for the state to pay $80,000 for the land, which included the provision that the company build 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) had already been constructing the line along the route selected.

In 1900, the state purchased an additional 4,226 acres of land to add to the future prison site, which required the boundary of Morgan County to be shifted into Anderson County so that all of the lands would be contiguous. 4

The prison camp at Big Mountain closed in July 1894, and the inmates moved to a camp near Harriman to construct the HC&I. 4 By November, the track was finished from Harriman to a coal tipple at Brushy Mountain, at which point the railroad was renamed the Harriman & Northeastern Railroad. The 75 convicts that were working along the railroad then replaced other inmates who had developed the first coal mine at Brushy Mountain. By January 1896, the mine was producing 1,000 tons of coal per day.

First Prison Structure

An L-shaped prison, designed by S.M. Patton of Chattanooga, was hastily erected with free labor of wood harvested from Brushy Mountain that surrounded the site. 2 4 The front of the new facility was four stories high with a three-story wing. 4 The interior was divided into five wards for sleeping, each ward accommodating 120 men, giving Brushy Mountain a total capacity of 600 inmates. Each ward had two cannon stoves, and oil lamps lit the rooms. A hospital was located in a separate building, which featured two wards for 25 men each.

The convict lease system expired on January 1, 1896. 3 4 The 440 convicts at Inman, Oliver Springs, and Tracy City were returned to state penitentiaries, with 210 men going to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary as the first inmates. By the end of the year, the new prison had 466 inmates. 4

Electric lighting, laundry equipment, and a cooking oven were added to Brushy Mountain in 1900, followed by the construction of 40 coke ovens for the coal mine. 4 In 1901, the guard dormitory on the third floor of the west wing was renovated to provide space for additional inmates. The guards were relocated to a purpose-built 14-room dormitory for unmarried guards and seven three-room houses for those with families. A new two-story structure was then added that served as a combination church, lodge, and school.

A new commissionary was erected in 1906, followed by a new school in 1914. 4

Second Prison Structure

A state legislative committee in 1931 reported that conditions at Brushy Mountain approached conditions “which prevailed in the Siberian prisons under the old Russian regime,” 4 and which was declared a fire hazard because of its all-wood construction. The erection of a new prison began in 1933, which required the quarrying of limestone on-site by inmates for the new prison walls.

The new Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary opened in 1935. 4

The facility was designed to hold up to 600 inmates but at times, it held nearly 1,200 persons. 7 After guards went on strike over unsafe working conditions in 1972, Governor Winfield Dunn briefly closed Brushy Mountain. 2 3 The Tennessean was denied entry to Brushy Mountain in October 1975. 11 The newsmen were sent to check on reports of inadequate and dirty facilities, inmates being housed in structures without electricity, hot water, and heat, the lack of religious counseling, and little to no medical care. The reporters and photographers were initially denied entry until the facilities were brought up to order.

Brushy Mountain served as a maximum-security prison for much of its existence until the 1980s, when it became a classification facility for up to 584 inmates. 2 All prisoners in east Tennessee had to go through Brushy Mountain to be classified to the level of security in which they were housed. The facility still retained a maximum security designation as it contained a 96-bed maximum security annex.

The state began working on a comprehensive prison plan in the late 1990s, which included the construction of new facilities, the closure or the expansion of old ones, and contracting with local governments. 9 Part of the plan included the closure of Brushy Mountain and the expansion of the Morgan County Correctional Complex. Brushy Mountain lacked the room to expand because it was constrained on three sides by Frozen Head Mountain, was the oldest in the state, and expensive to operate because of its age. 2 9

After 113 years of operation, Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary closed on June 11, 2009. 5 The remaining inmates were transferred to the Morgan County Correctional Complex, which was expended with 1,400 beds at the cost of $182 million. 2


Approximately two-thirds of the prisoners at Brushy Mountain were employed in the adjacent coal mines. 4 The two original mines from 1896 were soon augmented with five more that tapped three of the 11 seams of coal that the state owned. Mine Nos. 1, 2, and 3 worked the Jellico (Brushy Mountain) Seam, Mine Nos. 4 and 6 worked the Pee Wee Seam, and Mine No. 5 worked the Dean Seam.

Each prisoner was expected to load several tons of coal each day as part of their re-payment of their debt to the state and could earn some supplemental money ranging from 5¢ to 40¢ per ton by working overtime. 4 Other convicts performed maintenance, worked the coke ovens, or labored in the hospital, kitchen, and laundry, while others toiled in the 60-acre farm.

In 1916, 225 prisoners were used to construct the Jellico Highway in Campbell County, and in 1919, 125 prisoners were used at a lumber camp to harvest timber at Fork Mountain. 4

The coal mines, tendered by convicts, were in operation until 1966. 4 The prison honor farm, which employed 130 to 150 prisoners in nearby Wartburg, closed in 1971. 10


In 2012, Chattanooga businessman Pete Waddington came across the closed Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary while on a charity motorcycle ride through the region. 7 He immediately called his business partner, Brian May, and through their research, noted that the fastest-growing segments of the tourism industry were prison and distillery tours.

Brushy Mountain reopened as a tourist attraction in 2018. 7 It includes a restaurant, gift shop, event venue, and a tasting room in a former storage building. A distillery was built in a former boiler house. The first year’s attendance was 40,000 visitors and is expected to top 100,000 visitors per year by the close of 2019.

The guided tour of Brushy Mountain begins with an 18-minute documentary screening in the former chapel, which features former guards telling stories of what it was like behind the 18-foot-tall walls. 7 Former guards and inmates lead the tours, taking visitors through the cell blocks, showers, cafeteria, exercise yard, laundry facility, and “The Hole,” where the most troublesome inmates were sent in to endure near darkness conditions for as long as 30 days.

Notable Incidents

  • James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., escaped with six other inmates by climbing over a fence on June 10, 1977. 6 7 Ray was captured 54½ hours later in rugged terrain 8½-miles from the prison thanks to six men and two bloodhounds. 8
  • James Slagle, who had been sent to Brushy Mountain for kidnapping and murder, packed himself in a box labeled “153 pounds of roast beef” that departed the prison on a flatbed truck. 7 He was captured shortly after.


Further Reading

  1. Visit Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary


  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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