On Thursday, November 7, the city council in Lake City will vote on whether to officially recommend changing the municipality's name to Rocky Top. The state would then have to give final approval during the next legislative session.
Developers have promised to build the new $20 million Rocky Top theme park attraction in Lake City, but only if the community changes its name to Rocky Top.
Lake City was not the developers' first choice for a new Rocky Top. They approached Townsend in Blount County earlier this summer with the idea, but the Townsend city council members decided they were not interested in becoming Rocky Top or building a large amusement park.
With the developers searching for another location willing to rename itself Rocky Top, they took notice of Lake City after viewing 10News coverage in August of the community's plans for a new coal miner museum. The non-profit Coal Creek Watershed Foundation says that is an ironic twist, because at the time it believed the new museum celebrating the area's mining heritage could be the impetus for returning to the community's original name of Coal Creek.
"It was Coal Creek until the 1930s," said Barry Thacker, president and founder of the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation. "So we were all excited about the community returning to its roots, embracing its heritage, until the 'Rocky Top Express' hit town. Now it looks like it the name will be even more removed from the history of Coal Creek."
Coal Creek Community Pride
The Coal Creek Watershed Foundation has spent the last 13 years working with elementary school children in Briceville and areas surrounding Lake City to give them a future by first giving them pride in their past.
"It's what our entire program is based on, pride in themselves pride in their community. Our main goal now is to help the kids go to college and we've already done that with several children. It starts with letting them know how their community changed American history when it was known as Coal Creek," said Thacker. "You can't take 10 steps in Coal Creek without running into a historic site because all of these events happened in that one area."
Those events include the Coal Creek War, a deadly uprising by miners against the state government practice of leasing prisoner slave labor to work for companies in coal mines.
"The state was taking convicts and renting them to for-profit companies. This was something that affected everyone in Tennessee because all across the state there was motivation for the government to have people in prison for a labor force. Black men in Memphis were being arrested on nothing-charges so they would be thrown in prison and sent out to mine coal. The Coal Creek miners lost the battle but won the war because their fight eventually led to states everywhere getting rid of this practice," said Thacker.
Then there were the tragic workplace disasters in and around Coal Creek that brought the issue of unsafe mining operations into the national spotlight.
"There were a couple of big disasters at Coal Creek. The Fraterville disaster in 1902 was an explosion in a mine where more than 200 men and boys died. A lot of them were killed instantly, but some of them lived more than seven hours underground and wrote farewell messages to their loved ones. One of the miners wrote to his wife, 'Oh, God, for one more breath. Ellen, remember me as long as you live. Goodbye darling.' That was the kind of thing that made national news and for the first time people in the United States could put a name to a coal miner."
The Coal Creek Watershed Foundation has organized efforts to preserve graves of the miners lost in the disasters, host reunions, and continue to educate people about their heritage while improving the local environment. In August the news that Lake City would purchase an old bank in the city to convert into a new coal miner museum was celebrated by Thacker.
"I even told them [Lake City] if they called it the Coal Creek Mining Museum, we would buy and place one of the cannons the miners used during the Coal Creek War in front of the building. It was so great to see everyone embracing the area's rich past and we felt like the leadership would take pride in changing the name back to Coal Creek," said Thacker.
Rocky Top Takeover
Rather than fully embracing history, Thacker said Lake City now seems destined to repeat a historic failure by renaming the city Rocky Top.
"The same thing happened in 1939 when elected officials started to see a chance for tourism and revenue when TVA built Norris Dam and changed Coal Creek to Lake City. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Right now you can see exactly what it must have been like in 1939. When elected officials start down that road, it's hard for citizens to stand up and say, 'Timeout. We're not Lake City, we are Coal Creek.' Just like right now it is intimidating for people to stand up and say we are not Rocky Top when officials are excited about the chance for jobs and revenue," said Thacker. "I've had descendants of those miners contact me because they feel like their heritage is being sold once again. I'm just speaking up for them."
Thacker said he welcomes development, jobs, and the theme park. However, he does not believe it has to come at the expense of the area's heritage.
"They [the developer] came in and said we're going to have an ultimatum that you will change your name to Rocky Top before we invest any money. That's not the way to start a business deal. I think it is starting off on the wrong foot. I hope it is successful, but I believe that is the wrong way to do business," said Thacker. "I have not heard a convincing explanation for why the community's name has to be Rocky Top in order for developers to build there. After all, Dollywood is in Pigeon Forge and Disney World is in Orlando, Florida, and would not have been any more successful if their cities changed their names."
When asked about the potential for a Rocky Top name change to attract more tourists to the city and the mining museum, Thacker conceded it could possibly help promote his organization's educational mission to a larger audience. However, he does not believe a name change is required.
"I'm all for development. I would love to see the amusement park be built there. I am just not in agreement with abandoning the culture of that community. On 60 percent of the headstones for the miners that were killed in the Fraterville and Cross Mountain disasters, there is an inscription that says 'gone but not forgotten.' Unfortunately, for a long time they were forgotten. I think they need to be heard. They were an important part of Tennessee history and I think changing the name to Rocky Top is the wrong approach. It was Coal Creek, then Lake City, and will now probably be Rocky Top. In Lake City there is no Rocky Top and there is no lake, but the one thing that still flows through the community is Coal Creek."