Unicoi County and Erwin, Tennessee where the “Murderous Mary” elephant hanging took place.
Unicoi County, Tennessee, known locally as “The Valley Beautiful,” is located in the mountains of upper east Tennessee. The name “Unicoi” is believed to be of Cherokee origin, meaning “hazy” or “fog-like” – probably a reference to the mist that drapes these lush hills. The Nolichucky River, Unicoi County’s main waterway, blasts through one of the deepest gorges in the eastern United States and is a popular spot for whitewater rafting.
The county seat is Erwin (population 5,145), which was supposed to be named “Ervin” in honor of D.J.N. Ervin, who donated 15 acres of land to the county. Sometime around 1879, the name was mistakenly recorded by post office officials as “Erwin,” and the name has stuck ever since.
Erwin has a long history as a railroad town, and was the location for the repair shops of the old Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio rail system (now owned by CSX). The old CC&O, or “Clinchfield,” was known as “America’s Most Unusual Railroad” since it had to overcome so many mountainous obstacles during its construction. It helped transform Erwin from a small mountain town of about 500 people to a “boom town” with over 2,000 residents.
The Clinchfield Railroad was the county’s largest employer until 1916, when Southern Potteries located in Erwin. Southern Potteries specialized in hand painted dinnerware called Blue Ridge China. Workers were brought into Erwin from northern areas, and houses were hastily built and purchased by the pottery for its workers. Many of these old “pottery houses” are still standing today.
When imported pottery began coming into the United States after World War II, Southern Potteries began to lose money and eventually shut down. Blue Ridge Pottery is now a collectors item sold in local antique stores. The major employer in Erwin today is Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc., a privately owned supplier of fuel for nuclear powered navy ships.
Unicoi County is also well known for its apple crop. The Coffee Ridge section of the county contains ideal conditions for apple growing. Every October, the annual Apple Festival is held in Erwin, attracting over 60,000 people a year to its craft fair and recipe contests. The festival also serves as a homecoming for former residents.
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