Three Tragic Events in Mingo Hollow


Table of Contents

Mingo Hollow and the Cherokee War Traditions
Quarterhouse Battle
Fork Ridge Coal Mine War
State Line Sign


Introduction: While searching for information as to the whereabouts of a marble statue of Nancy Ward taken from a young white woman’s grave in the Arnwine Cemetery, I happened to learn of an area with astounding coincidences of tragic events across the past three centuries. The location is on the present Tennessee and Kentucky line in Mingo Hollow on the way to the past location of the Fork Ridge Coal Mine. The following accounts will cover three significant and tragic events in the span of three centuries. There is still much confusion regarding the specifics of each event, however, enough is discernable to appreciate the magnitude of each battle.

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Mingo Hollow and Cherokee War Traditions (prior to or just after 1700)

In January 1921, hunters were pursuing their prey up Mingo Hollow, located southwest of Middlesboro, KY. Mingo Hollow was the location of some of the richest coalmines in the area and was already infamous as the site of the Quarterhouse Battle on February 12, 1902.

On this date, however, the fox the hunters were chasing had holed up in a crevice of rock and they were digging him out. What they thought was a small crack actually turned out to be a shallow cave. Inside they found the skeletons of several men with flint battle-axes, arrowheads and tufts of long, course dark hair.

The newspapers covered this sensational find. Leaf Sixkiller, a Cherokee Indian living in Wauhillow, Oklahoma, saw the news and immediately made a connection to an oral history tradition of the Cherokee where a strange legend held that at least two battles had been fought between the Cherokee located south of present day Cumberland Gap and the northern tribes located to the north of the gap. Both battles were said to have occurred in just prior to 1700 or very soon thereafter.

The first legendary battle occurred when a band of Mingo Indians led by Oogolah, the Eagle, invaded the Cherokee territory south of the what was known then as Ouasioto Pass, now Cumberland Gap. A small raiding party of 50 braves attacked the Cherokee settlements and killed everyone they encountered including women, children, and men – both young and old alike. They took over 100 scalps before heading back north through the pass.

The enraged Cherokee upon hearing of the atrocities gathered all possible warriors and started north to avenge their dead. The Mingo’s were not moving quickly as they had taken plunder from the Cherokee homes and being unfamiliar with the lay of the land became concerned that the Cherokee would easily overtake them on the well worn Warrior’s Path and thus they would be easy prey.

Therefore they fled west into the marshes of Yellow Creek once they were through the pass. When they got to Stony Fork they took the left branch with the Cherokee in hot pursuit. They had lost few men at this point, but as they fled up the narrowing hollow Oogolah realized he had boxed his forces into a very poor position and the Cherokee were fast overtaking them.

Oogolah turned his men to face the hundreds of enraged Cherokee and raised the death chant. The legend told that no Mingo’s survived the slaughter, however, Sixkiller theorized that a few, mortally wounded men may have managed to find a cave and there to die with their scalp locks intact.

The story of this battle without reference to the men dying in a cave had been told for generations around Cherokee fires. It was a part of their oral history tradition.

A second legend cited as happening around the same time in the same area told of a great confederation of northern Indians invading the southern Cherokee settlements with a force of 1,500 warriors and led by the most noted chiefs of the tribes. The Cherokee had been warring for years with the tribes of the north and had learned to post scouts at the gap.

When the tribes arrived at the gap, it was near dark so they camped along Yellow Creek north of the gap intending to make the passage through the gap at dawn of the next day. The Cherokee scouts, realizing that the northern tribes war party did not intent to attempt the gap that night, they hurried to the nearest Cherokee town. Runners were then sent out to warn the other Cherokee towns to the south and to organize war parties to meet the coming challenge.

Every man in the small Cherokee village marched to the Gap determined to take the advantage offered by the narrow gap in the mountains to ambush the northern tribes war party when they attempted to come through the next day. They hoped to at least stall the advance of the enemy long enough to allow the other towns time to prepare to defend themselves.

That night there came a huge storm with heavy rain in the area of the gap and to the north. As Yellow Creek drained a large basin of land, it quickly rose and burst from its banks covering the northern tribes war party’s camp. Many of the sleeping invaders were drowned in the flash flood. The remaining warriors ran for their lives to any available higher ground or crevice for shelter. The night was dark and the rain fell in torrents. They had fled their camp without taking time to gather their weapons.

When dawn came, the Cherokee found the camp of their invaders essentially washed away and saw the surviving warriors in a state of confusion. The Cherokee took full advantage of the situation and proceeded to kill all the survivors. The legend says they took over 1,000 scalps that day. Few if any of the northern Indians were thought to have escaped the slaughter. Sixkiller suggested that maybe a few of the braves could have escaped up Mingo Hollow and perished in the cave from their wounds.

He stated that many Indians living in Oklahoma still had tufts of hair said to have been taken in that battle on Yellow Creek just north of present day Cumberland Gap and very near Mingo Hollow. Again, a part of the Cherokee oral history tradition.

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Quarterhouse Battle (1902)

At least seven persons lost their lives at the battle between a large posse of over 50 men led by Bell County Deputy Sheriffs William Thompson and C. D. Ball and members of the Quarterhouse staff working for Lee Turner and patrons present on the afternoon and evening of February 12, 1902. Lee Turner was not present at the Quarterhouse when the battle ensued. However, one newspaper report places him and his nephew as having arrived just as the battle began.

The Quarterhouse was built by two brothers, Will and Lee Turner, around 1895 exactly across the Tennessee/Kentucky line in Mingo Hollow just southwest of Middlesboro, Kentucky. It was a substantial two-story building constructed of heavy railroad timbers and surrounded by a log stockade.

It functioned as a one-stop den of iniquity to entice the coal miners. There was a large saloon serving liquor of all types, including homebrew. A restaurant provided meals. Gambling was provided in several rooms and the upstairs was reserved for prostitution. There was staged entertainment of all kinds including animal fights with some as strange as a fight between a bulldog and a wildcat. Lee kept his own wildcat on the premises for such fights.

A white line was painted to run the length of the main room of the structure dividing it equally across both state’s boundary lines. This was done to assure there was no mistaking the location of each state’s boundary.

When the Quarterhouse was raided by law enforcement officers from one state, all the patrons would move over to the other side across the white line and would thus be untouchable to the officers from the other state. It seems that the two states never coordinated their raids.

The reputation as a wild spot was well deserved. One newspaper reported that at least 50 men had lost their lives at the Quarterhouse and at least 100 more had been injured. The newspaper went on to state that the Quarterhouse was known throughout America because of the number of men killed there.

Will Turner was killed in 1898 when he attempted to break up a quarrel turned into a fight between Will Combs, restaurant manager and a patron named Pridemore. Turner was shot and killed by Combs during the scuffle to break up the fight. It was later thought that the quarrel was really only a ruse intended to set Will Turner up so he could be murdered.

Combs ran as far as South America, but was tracked down by Turner’s friends and returned to Tennessee as the killing took place on the Tennessee side of the white line in the saloon. There he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. Pridemore died a violent death several years later and Lee Turner was charged with complicity while his nephew was sentenced to life in prison for the death. However, he only served a very small amount of that sentence.

There was an ongoing confrontation between Gil Colson, who claimed to own the land on which the Quarterhouse was built and demanded rent that the Turners refused to pay, and the Turners. Also the success of the Quarterhouse took business away from the saloons in Middlesboro, owned by the Balls who were cousins of Gil Colson.

Colson first took the matter of ownership of the Quarterhouse to court in Tennessee, but the decision went to the Turners. Next he went to the court in Pineville, Kentucky where, according to the Colson side, the case was decided in Colson’s favor. However, the Turners contended that Gil Colson actually entered the judgment favorable to himself into the record book.

After the judgment in Pineville, Colson insisted that Lee Turner pay rent. Lee refused. The next time Lee sent his mule-drawn wagon into Middlesboro to pick up a load of whiskey the authorities seized the wagon, the mules and the whiskey. To cover the rent Colson said was owed him, the wagon and mules were sold at a public auction at which Colson was the only bidder.

Lee Turner and Boone McCurry went to reclaim Lee’s property. They were able to get the mules and wagon back, but McCurry was shot with buckshot in the process.

Colson proceeded to take out a warrant in Pineville, Kentucky for Turner’s arrest. Judge M. J. Moss instructed William Thompson and C. D. Ball, two deputy sheriffs, to serve the warrant. However, the supposed theft had actually occurred in Virginia, where Judge Moss had no jurisdiction. So additional charges were included in the warrant that stated the arrest was to be for hiding men on the road between the Quarterhouse and Middlesboro to steal liquor that had been bought there and then returning the liquor for resale.

On February 12, 1902, a posse was formed. The actual number of the men in the posse has been stated as high as one hundred, but more than likely was closer to fifty. As the operators of the mine train that ran up Mingo Hollow refused to transport the posse for fear of bringing trouble on themselves, the posse of armed men walked up the tracks three and one-half miles to the Quarterhouse, arriving in the late afternoon.

The posse had cut the phone lines as they left Middlesboro. While the tavern was not busy, some thirty men had gathered there as they fully expected trouble to follow the mules and wagon episode. When the posse arrived at the Quarterhouse, the men in the tavern quickly closed and bolted the stockade doors.

Charley Cecil and William Young knocked on the door on the Kentucky side of the building and called out for Lee Turner to come outside so the warrant could be served. A shot was fired from an upstairs window striking Cecil on top of the shoulder and penetrating downward into his body. Although Cecil soon died, the posse immediately after the first shot was fired began firing at the building as they tried to rescue him. Young declared that someone in the house was hit by one of the posse’s bullets as he had seen someone fall inside the building.

The battle raged until dark with neither side gaining an advantage since the timbers of the stockade provided good protection for the Turner forces and the trees and rocks nearby did the same for the posse. Then just after dark, the Quarterhouse caught on fire. It is not clear how the fire started. Speculation has it that somehow the posse’s bullets caused the fire or that the men inside the house accidentally turned over a stove and the house quickly flamed up. A third possibility is that the posse deliberately set the house on fire.

Whatever the cause of the fire, it quickly spread throughout the house, found the full liquor barrels that immediately exploded, as did the ammunition stored in a room nearby the whiskey. The occupants of the building had to run from the burning building that was by now totally engulfed in flames.

The posse allowed the women to run past, but shot several of the men as they were running from the fire. Accusations were made after the affair that some of the men were caught and placed in handcuffs before being shot in the head. The posse worked the surrounding area in the dark periodically firing, as the men who had run from the burning tavern were located. The dead on the Turner side were left where they fell.

In addition to Cecil who was killed immediately at the start of the battle, John Doyle, another law officer, was shot through the stomach and died a day or two later.

The next morning a large crowd from Middlesboro came out to see what had transpired the night before. At least four bodies were found near the burned down tavern. Only a small section of the stockade wall was left standing.

Of the four dead bodies, the bartender was shot in the back of the head, another had his chin blown off, and the bouncer had the top of his head shot off. The fourth victim was a young boy who just happened to be in the building at the time of the attack. He had been shot at very close range. A fifth victim was found later some distance from the building and some bones were found in the ashes of the burned building. The bodies had been robbed during the night.

Of the thirty or so men said to have been in the tavern, only two are known to have escaped alive and one of them was wounded. Some contend that the men’s families came during the night and got the bodies to bury them in secret.

Charlie Drye, the only person known to have escaped without injury and the person who provided the estimate of the number of men in the tavern, had been told by Lee Turner to keep his Winchester handy to help defend the tavern. Drye managed a secondary saloon and boarding house within the compound of the Quarterhouse and later recalled that there had been anticipation of trouble ever since Lee Turner had gone and reclaimed his mules and wagon.

Drye said that when he saw the large posse with shotguns coming toward the Quarterhouse, he decided to escape across the mountain. He said he was about a quarter mile away when the shooting started.

Lee Turner returned home during the battle and was reported to have observed the fight from the mountainside and maybe even joined in the shooting. After the battle, he arranged for the burial of his slain men in the Turner family cemetery in Middlesboro and then turned himself in to the marshal in Lafollette, Tennessee.

In Claiborne County Tennessee, Lee Turner had many supporters and the newspaper reported the battle at the Quarterhouse as "foul murders" and "one of the most diabolical deeds." The view from the Kentucky side was quite different. A $400 reward was issued for Turner, Hopper and Drye. Drye was found in Knoxville and brought back to Kentucky, but no indictment was ever returned. The reward for Lee Turner was raised to $1,000.

Lee’s cousin, John "Popeye" Turner, encountered Lee on the road and opened fire hoping to get the $1,000. He emptied his pistol shooting at Lee. When Lee fell from the saddle, having been hit by at least one of Popeye’s bullets, his feet became tangled in the stirrups. While being dragged by the frightened horse, he was able to draw a pistol and emptied it at Popeye. Because Popeye was wearing a bullet-proof vest, the bullets did no harm. However, Lee managed to pull a second gun, a German Mauser, and fired it killing Popeye immediately. Lee was arrested but was soon released after a plea of self-defense.

In 1902, an article in a Louisville, Kentucky newspaper reported that Lee Turner planned to take a drama on the road called "The Battle of the Quarter House, or the King of the Cumberland Mountains." The article also reported that Turner planned to play himself in the leading role. A reenactment of the Quarterhouse Battle was planned for Jellico, Tennessee in September 1902, but was stopped by the City Council as they thought such a play would be "grossly immoral."

Court officials in both Tennessee and Kentucky continued to bicker over jurisdiction. The Tennessee officials contended that the Kentucky posse invaded their territory. Kentucky officials claimed to have a map showing that the entire incident happened in their state. Tennessee officials finally declined to litigate the issue and ultimately Kentucky officials arrested Lee Turner in June 1903.

Lee pointed out that he was in Jacksboro, Tennessee at the time of the battle. Public opinion shifted in Turner’s favor and by April 1904 the case was just filed away. In September 1904, Turner opened a saloon in Middlesboro called "The Stag."

Late in his life, someone approached Lee Turner from Hollywood wanting to make a movie of the Quarterhouse Battle. However, Turner was facing increasing mental problems and was in no condition to assist in such a project. He died in the late 1930’s in a mental institution.

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Fork Ridge Coal Mine War (1941)

The third tragic event to happen at the Tennessee-Kentucky line where Claiborne County and Bell County adjoin, about five miles southwest of Middlesboro, was called "The Mingo Massacre" by some and "The Battle of Fork Ridge" by others. This incident resulted in four men being killed and nine others wounded.

Those killed were: C. W. Rhodes, president and general manager of the Fork Ridge Coal & Coke Company and director of the American Association; E. W. Silvers, vice president and treasurer of the Fork Ridge Coal & Coke Company; Bob Robinson of Tazewell, former sergeant in the Tennessee highway patrol; and Sam Evans of Middlesboro, a member of the union pickets.

Those injured were: R. W. Lawson; Alford Smith; Walter Polly; Earl Alley; John Holland; Clayton Webb; Millard Forester; A. J. Napier and a ninth person who came in the next day after having hidden in the mountains over night.

The situation that resulted in this tragedy had been getting worse for years. The coal mines in Yellow Creek Valley began to be developed some fifty years prior to this event. The railroad reached the area in1889. Almost immediately the union organizing agitation in the coal fields in other regions reached the newly accessible mines. In 1890, various miner’s unions joined to form the United Mine Workers of America and designated District #19 as the district that included eastern Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky, including the Yellow Creek Valley.

The strength of the union varied over the years with mounting pressure to support nationwide strikes and company pressure to resist any strike. In the fall of1900 District 19 came out in a sympathy strike of its union nationwide. The strike was short-lived.

In 1901 the Yellow Creek Coal and Lumber Company was formed with E. S. Helburn, Joe Bosworth, J. G. Fitzpatrick and A. H. Rennebaum as owners of the company. These men, known locally as "The Yellow Creek Crowd" were active and influential civic leaders for many years. Their families were close friends with their wives working together on community activities and their children often intermarried. The strength of these men and others who owned the mines kept many of the mines operating as non-union mines for years.

In 1910, mine operators in District 19 refused to sign the UMWA contract when it came up for renewal. By 1919, there was again a strike to force the recognition of the UMWA in the mines. In 1921, the UMWA called a general strike that lasted into 1922. This idled twelve to fifteen thousand miners in the area. Nonunion miners who tried to work were threatened and even fired upon. Eventually all the mines were closed.

Finally the strike was settled and miners returned to work. In 1924, District 19 broke with the UMWA and accepted a reduction in wages. Then the depression hit and times were tough for all. Times remained unsettled through the 1930’s with boom and bust years for the coal industry.

On April 1, 1941, the UMWA called yet another strike. Most mines in twelve states closed after 400,000 miners walked out. However, in Mingo Hollow the nonunion mines continued to operate. On April 14, 1941, a large group of union men, many from Harlan County, where violence had already been experienced, met a Colmar Road just north of Middlesboro to organize. The number of cars there has been estimated as high as fifty. James W. Ridings, the international representative of the UMWA, addressed the crowd. There are mixed reports as to what took place at this meeting, but the result was a convoy drove through Middlesboro and on to Mingo Hollow where they planned to meet the evening shift and convince them to sign in support of the union.

The location where the confrontation and battle took place just happened to be the exact same location as the Cherokee slaughter of the Mingo Indians, the Quarterhouse battle and now the coal miner’s confrontation. As often seen to be expected by the mountain people, things happen in threes. This being the third event in the exact same spot.

When C. W. "Dusty" Rhodes, manager of the American Association and president of the Fork Ridge Coal Company, learned the convoy of men was headed toward the mines, he determined to meet the situation head on. He drove out to the mines where he met three deputies and asked them to tell the group to keep the road open. The deputies attempted to convey the request but were ignored and disarmed.

Rhodes then went to the schoolhouse near his mines. E. W. Silvers, vice-president and treasurer of Fork Ridge Coal Company joined him there. Silvers had been warned of the pending trouble through a phone call from his brother-in-law in Middlesboro. John Rhodes, Dusty’s brother and J. H. Woodson, manager of Kentucky Utilities also joined the group. After some discussion, they decided to drive down to the area where the pickets were blocking the road and deal with the situation. Bob Robinson, a former Tennessee Highway Patrolman, rode in the car with Dusty Rhodes serving as his bodyguard.

The first miners getting off work started down the road and when they saw the road blocked they returned to the mine. Three miners decided to try and run through the roadblock and were stopped. Two of them signed the "check off" supporting the union and the third refused. He was dragged out of his car but before anything could be done to him their attention was diverted by three other cars coming from the direction of the mine.

Silvers got out of his car and started toward the group of pickets. He stopped and spoke to them asking that there not be any trouble. Four or five union men grabbed him and threw him to the ground. At the same time this was happening, Robinson and Rhodes stepped out of their car. Robinson screamed something at the pickets and headed toward the front of the car with a rifle in his hands. Rhodes got out of the car on the other side. One shot rang out then two more. After a brief pause, a barrage of gunfire loosed a hailstorm of bullets for a minute or more. The union men who greatly outnumbered the company men killed three immediately. The company men took cover underneath the cars and returned fire killing one and wounding nine.

The union men, realizing the extent of the killing and injuries, put their wounded in cars and sped back toward Middlesboro. Woodson crawled from beneath the car and attempted to call an ambulance, but soon realized all four men were already dead.

The death of the two highly esteemed members of Middlesboro caused some to call the event a massacre. For others it was a righteous battle that had yielded a martyr. Over three hundred people attended the funerals of Rhodes and Silvers. Three thousand attended the funeral of Sam Evans.

Indictments were issued for James Ridings, A. C. Pace, the nine wounded men and three hundred unnamed miners. William Turnblazer, the president of District 19 was also charged with first-degree murder even though he was not even in town at the time of the killings. The rationale used was that he had encouraged an atmosphere of violence that led directly to the tragedy. After this violence, the other non-union mine owners insisted their men join the union, as they wanted no more killing.

The trial for the murder of Rhodes did not get underway until the day after Pearl Harbor when attention was diverted elsewhere. It took four days to select a jury with over nine hundred potential jurors called. Many did not show, many others had ties to the union or admitted to an opinion. Finally a jury of farmers was selected.

Testimony was completed in four days and the jury deliberated five and a half hours before returning not guilty verdicts for all defendants. Trials for the murders of Silvers and Robinson were delayed and finally, in August 1942, dismissed with a directed acquittal.

The coal boom continued through 1947 when District 19 had 20,000 unionized miners. However, by 1953, nearly a third of Kentucky’s miners were unemployed as a result of changes in the mining industry, overseas coal importation and closure of many small mines. This trend continued until District 19 had only 4,589 members in 1964.

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Three tragic events in the same "hollow" have caused the particular location where the Tennessee-Kentucky line and Claiborne and Bell Counties join to be known in the area as a place of special significance. What once was a thriving community just a few years ago is once again devoid of any ongoing activity and is just a quiet spot along a winding and narrow road. Nothing to call attention to the notoriety or to the numerous lives lost there, just another stretch of road with a leaning sign indicating the state line. Well, there are those bullet holes in the state line sign!


Tennessee and Kentucky State Line Sign

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The Magic City (Footnotes to the History of Middlesborough, Kentucky, and the Yellow Creek Valley) - Ann Dudley Matheny, 2003, Bell County Historical Society

The Cumberland Coal Field and its Creators (Pictorial history of Middlesboro and the American Association land companies coal mines in Mingo Hollow) – compiled by Clyde Mayes, April 2000.

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