Brushy History

Brushy's History

The gates to hell opened in 1896.

A Brief History of Brushy


Brushy Mountain officially opened in 1896 in the aftermath of  the bloody Coal Creek War and began operations as a convict-lease prison.

The Coal Creek War was itself part of a greater labor struggle across Tennessee that was launched against the state government's controversial convict-leasing system, which allowed the state prison system to lease convict labor to mining companies and other business enterprises.

After the Civil War, Tennessee, like other Southern states, struggled to find sources of revenue. Post-war railroad construction had opened up the state's coalfields to major mining operations, creating a large demand for cheap labor.

In 1866, the state began leasing its convicts to companies willing to pay for the inmates' housing in exchange for their labor, The effect on this practice was the suppression of employee wages in the open market across the state.

By the early 1890s, the citizen-miners revolted. The Coal Creek War erupted and the miners attacked and burned the state prison, stockades, and mines. Many miners and state militiamen were killed or wounded in a series of small-arms skirmishes with the prisoners between 1891 and 1892.

Seeing that the state's financial gains from convict-leasing had been erased by having to keep the militia in the field, the Governor and the legislature decided to let the convict-leasing contracts expire, and enacted legislation to build the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and purchase land in Morgan County where convicts would mine coal directly for the state, rather than competing against the market with free labor. The prisoners built a railroad spur, operated the coke oven and in 1896 they built the original Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.

Prison life was dangerous. There were a number of murders by inmates lookin’ to settle a score, not to mention deadly accidents. But those weren’t the only tragedies. Disease also struck the prison. Tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and pneumonia took many lives. In the early 1900's, 3/4 of the black men incarcerated at Brushy suffered from syphilis. They received poor medical treatment and were made to mine the coal and build the prison no matter what condition their health was in. If they weren’t willing to do the work, guards would beat them. Some, were beaten to death.

old interior
brushy mtn coal mines

By 1931 the number of prisoners housed at Brushy was 976, which was 300 more than the prison was meant to hold. This problem became known worldwide when likened to conditions in Siberian prisons under the Soviet regime. Plans were drawn up to build a new prison constructed of reinforced concrete in the shape of a Greek cross with battlements on top and 4 stories high. It was believed the penitentiary’s purpose was to convert convicts to Christians. Several buildings are constructed from hand-carved stone mined by inmates from a rock quarry above the prison.

The stone wall surrounding the prison was built in 1934. Standing at 18 feet high, it is constructed entirely from hand-carved stone. The north side of the prison wall is a natural bluff. The total cost for all the labor and materials was $45,960. 

James Earl Ray

In 1969, Brushy Mountain was reclassified primarily as a maximum-security prison. At that time, the facility provided the correctional system with approximately 350 maximum security beds "behind the walls" and 100 minimum security beds "outside the walls."

Between 1971 and 1994, the prison provided fire-fighting services to nearby communities 24/7.

Many an evil man served time at Brushy. James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King’s assassin, was one of ‘em. On June 10th, 1977, he and six other prisoners escaped over the back wall. One was shot and killed and everyone, including Ray were captured and returned to their cells within 3 days.

Escape attempts were infrequent and always unsuccessful. Encircled by the rugged and thickly wooded, rattle snake-infested mountains, it was darn near impossible to free yourself from the clutches of Brushy Mountain. The prison closed after 113 years of operation on June 11, 2009. Its functions were transferred to the Morgan County Correctional Complex. Most of the staff and remaining inmates were moved as well. But the legend of Brushy Mountain will live on for many, many years to come.