Ghost Towns on the Cumberland Plateau

Posted by | July 14, 2014

Beth DurhamPlease welcome guest author Beth Durham. Durham is an author of folklore and Christian fiction. Her work is inspired by the traditional stories and oral history of the mountains of Tennessee. You can find Durham online at where she blogs weekly about the legends and lessons from Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, or on Facebook at:


We’ve all enjoyed the B-westerns where the trail-weary cowboy rides into a town only to discover it has been abandoned and is now only a ghost of a town.  At the mention of ghost towns, that’s the image that comes to mind – the gold rush settlements of the Old West.  But Appalachia has her own version of ghost towns and they are plentiful.  Whether you’re talking about the “company towns” built by big mining operations, nomadic logging camps, or family towns that grew around several generations – all of them share some commonalities.

TN Barn

However, unlike the western towns that stand for decades relatively unscathed by the arid climate, our houses quickly rot, any left-behind equipment rusts and lush green foliage quickly reclaims the land.  Therefore, you have to look a little deeper and listen a little closer to local stories to see the ghost towns of Appalachia.

As you drive along country roads, or better still if you walk carefully through remote woodlands, you may be lucky enough to see an abandoned barn.  More likely, you’ll find a grassy roadway, a lone chimney or just a rectangular pattern of carefully stacked rocks that once served as a home’s foundation.  These are the hints that you’ve found one of our ghost towns.  And if you can find a longtime, local resident then you may just hear the stories of that town which can bring it to life for you.  They become somewhat legendary as the children who lived there grow older and reminisce of their childhood, of good times amid hard, and laughter chasing away sadness.

On Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau we have the memories and the legends from a booming coal town, Wilder.  For twenty years miners dug coal from that mountain and families lived in company houses and made a myriad of memories.  Today, Wilder is a field of scrub pines and saw briars.  No longer does the theatre show black and white films.  No longer can you take a room in the hotel or see a ball game at Wilder High School.  All those buildings were either sold and dismantled, or some fell-in after a period of neglect. Wilder had such a great impact on the surrounding community that  concerted effort has been made to have the stories of Wilder recorded, and the local PBS television station even filmed  a documentary and included many long-time residents telling their part of the story.

courtesy of

Wilder, TN. No date. Courtesy of

But all of the towns weren’t big company towns and haven’t received the same effort to memorialize them.  Many of these neighborhoods grew up around a good stand of timber and the families who would fell and fetch those logs formed the town.  Others sprouted when a family settled on a fertile piece of land and before they knew it, they were surrounded by several generations.  I grew up on the outskirts of just such a place, Key Town.

Now, you can’t Google Key Town, Tennessee.  And sadly the people who could take you there are quickly vanishing.  But the stories from those families have been told and retold until they seem to have a life all their own.

Picture with me the deeply worn roadway that was Key Town Road.  It is thick with grass now, and a tree has fallen here and there across it.  On one side, it runs through a farm and fences cross the road.  But the flat rock where Millard Stepp’s home once stood is, of course, still there.  Weren’t they ahead of their time making such a small carbon footprint by utilizing a rock outcropping for a patio?  The well that supplied that house with fresh water was visible until the farmer’s plow mistakenly snagged the casing.   Mrs. Stepp’s sister, Lena, lived on the neighboring farm.  I can imagine how often the two women crossed the little roadway to share quilt pieces or borrow a key ingredient from their sparse larders when company was expected or a special meal was being prepared.

Just to the west you’d find John and Sarah Key.  They were old even then, but their house outlasted all the others in this part of the settlement.  In the springtime, you can still see flowers surviving in the woods giving testimony to yesteryear’s beauty and happiness in this place.

Then there’s the Jack Atkinson home which saw so much sadness, and yet the family was strong and the descendants are still living in the area.  Mrs. Atkinson died from tuberculosis, that slow plague of the early twentieth century.  Then her daughter contracted the same disease.  As though they had not born enough, they sent a son to fight for our nation in World War II and he contracted the disease and died before the enemy could assault him.

Three men seated in chairs outdoors in 1923. Left to right: Unknown, Rev. Henry (Het) Phillips, and Rev. Thompson. Phillips and Thompson were Baptist preachers from Wilder, Tennessee. Collection Nelson Family Photographs, 1905-1925/Tennessee State Library and Archives

Three men seated in chairs outdoors in 1923. Left to right: Unknown, Rev. Henry (Het) Phillips, and Rev. Thompson. Phillips and Thompson were Baptist preachers from Wilder, Tennessee. Collection Nelson Family Photographs, 1905-1925/Tennessee State Library and Archives

The Lester Key home stood on the south fork of the road.  They were part of the same Key family but they came late to Key Town, having spent the early years of their marriage a couple of miles away on Mrs. Key’s family property.  But this little house was where Lester and Mary raised seven kids.  The house was log in the beginning but somewhere along the way he was able to cover it with “brickside” (or asphalt) siding.  It had only one bedroom and an open attic/loft where all of the children slept.  Mr. Key often told that he had in his pocket one dollar more when he finished the house than when he started.  The family had only one son and he had a bed partitioned off with a curtain on one end of the loft.  That home was close enough to today’s road that Lester was able to live in it till near the end of his ninety year life.  Even after he passed, his children could not part with the home and kept it standing another twenty years until they felt the decaying timbers were no longer safe.

Most of our readers won’t know any of these names but I’ll bet many of you can relate to the stories.  What a blessing to know these people that we were never able to meet.  What an inspiration they are when we compare the stresses of our modern-day lives to the struggles they faced.  The Atkinsons that I mentioned nursed their sick at home right there in Key Town.  There was little choice in the matter since no hospital was readily available and money to pay hospital bills would have been nearly impossible to come by.

Loretta Lynn said in her autobiographical song Coal Miner’s Daughter, “…a lot of things have changed since way back then and it’s so good to be back home again.  Not much left but the floor, nothing lives here anymore except the memories of a coal miner’s daughter.”  Well, things have certainly changed in Key Town; just within the last year the trees were harvested, wiping out even more of the signs of the town.  But the saws and the skidders cannot touch the memories or the stories.

Sometimes it’s hard to find the history of why a town grew where it did, and even harder to learn why it was abandoned.  Sure, when you can identify a mining community you can deduce that the coal seam played out and the company moved on.  But many of these towns sprang up around very small mines that are practically lost to history.

Just as those western towns often dried up when the railroad passed too far from them, the building and location of new roads often sealed the fate of towns.  In our example, the Key Town road was never developed and as new homes were built, they needed better access to the public road.

We are so accustomed to mobility today that looking at some of the locations makes one ask why anyone settled in the middle of nowhere.  The Baldwin Gulf raises such a question.  This is literally a gulf between two ridges cut by the river.  The Baldwin family settled there prior to The Civil War, locating at the site of a good spring.  Legend has it that the patriarch of the family refused to choose a side in the state’s war and was killed by local guerillas.  Still the family stayed and fifty years later saw the rich timberland of Baldwin Gulf harvested.  However, once again, the public road was built on top of the ridge line and the family began to move out of the gulf.  Hood Town, Zenith, and Hoover Town are very similar stories.

Isoline saw a different fate.  Built around a small mine, Isoline had its own railroad spur and a town grew up around it.  When the mine played out, the railroad pulled out and the town soon followed.  However, the roadway had been built right through Isoline so there is still ready access to it.  However, as you drive through today, only when you see the sign for the Isoline Baptist Church will you know you’ve arrived.

I suppose in fifty or one hundred years from now, many of the places we frequent or even call home will be only memories.  So we add our own stories to those we pass along to another generation until, as Loretta Lynn sang, “nothing lives here anymore except the memories…”

5 Responses

  • Bruce says:

    Cool story! I grew up in farm country where numerous old homestead farms were being carved up and reclaimed by larger farmers. The old homes and barns would usually fall in eventually, but I always wondered what stories could be told by the sagging timbers and crumbling chimneys. Hard lives lived and loved, men had to be men in ways today’s soft society can’t even measure, and the women who loved them enough to tough it out had bottomless strength. Oh, for the day society returns to the genuineness of heart that was required to build such places!

  • Tabitha says:

    I find myself looking at every field I pass for some sign of a time gone by. Your story really appealed to me for that reason. We moved out the west coast from Texas a few years ago and there is so much history all over the place here. I have visited that part of TN and it is beautiful and so deep rooted in what makes this country great! Thanks for sharing!

  • windell says:

    Jessee Baldwin is the man you speak of. He was killed by Champ Ferguson’s Rebels. His widow, an Atkinson, married my ggggrandfather, John Edwin Young. He was a good bit older than her and they had one son, Robert Young. John Edwin was a widower; his wife had died before the Civil War.

  • Charles Tollett says:

    Thank you for the memories. Several factors work against the idea of new ghost towns rising up. I’ll mention two: 1) population expansion means that spaces suitable for housing are not as likely to become deserted; 2) our failure to expand or even maintain our railroads means that there are very few places to leave behind when the work of the town is over. I forgot to mention the use of internet, and so on, in ways that allow people to live in more remote places. Don’t count that one; I only claimed two!

  • Linda Welch says:

    Loved the story on Wilder Tn. My husband and I were just there looking for Wilder Cemetery. We were there looking for his Great Uncle Het’s grave. I saved the story for him to read. We were blown way when we looked at the picture and found Uncle Het Phillips. That is the first picture we have seen of him. Thanks you so much. That is a great treasure for us.

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