Historic Brushy Mountain

You’re Looking At: Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary (photo: Sumer Newport).

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Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was once Tennessee’s most notorious maximum security prison. 

Opened in 1896, Brushy Mountain was nestled in a mountain valley in Petros, Tenn., and was best known as the prison that housed James Earl Ray, the assassin of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

But Brushy was more than a prison. It was built on 9,000 acres of state-owned property (today, much of that property is the Frozen Head State Park & Natural Area), and prisoners were used to mine coal on the property. 

The opening of Brushy Mountain followed the Coal Creek War, a bloody labor dispute centered around the adjacent coal-mining communities in Anderson County. With the demand for coal as high as ever but miners on strike, Tennessee leased prisoners to help in the mines for a while. But that led to the violence, and the state legislature voted to build Brushy — which was essentially a labor camp.

For more than 100 years, Brushy Mountain housed the worst of the worst offenders. By the Great Depression, the prison housed more than 970 men. It had been built for only a little more than 600. It was expanded thereafter, and took on its modern appearance.

The mining ended in the late 1960s, but Brushy Mountain continued to house convicts until 2009, when it closed for good. Along the way, there was a labor strike in 1972 that forced the prison to close for four years. In 1977, Ray and six other inmates escaped by climbing over a fence. Ray was captured 58 hours later in the mountains nearly nine miles away from the prison. In 1982 there was a race riot that resulted in the deaths of several black inmates at the hands of white inmates who overpowered guards and took their service weapons.

Today, Historic Brushy Mountain is a tourist destination like none other. Tours are available, there is an on-site restaurant (The Warden’s Table), you can conduct your own paranormal investigation, and it is host to frequent concerts and an on-site distillery. 

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