Located in the mountains of upper East Tennessee, Unicoi County covers approximately 186 square miles, of which approximately 50 percent is owned by the U.S. government. Unicoi is a Cherokee word meaning “white,” “hazy,” “fog-like,” or “fog draped.” The county’s principal waterway, the Nolichucky River, originates at the point where the North Toe River joins the Cane River in North Carolina. Nolichucky Gorge is now a popular center for white water rafting.
Settlers arrived in the late 1770s and quickly established farms and churches. The area that is now Unicoi County was part of Washington and Carter counties until March 23, 1875, when the Tennessee General Assembly created the new county. The county court took office in January 1876. Erwin, which was centrally located, became the county seat. The town had existed under various names including Unaka (1832), Longmire (1840), and Vanderbilt (1976). In December 1879, the name was changed to Ervin, in honor of David J. N. Ervin, who had donated fifteen acres for the county seat. A mistake by postal officials, which was never corrected, recorded the name as Erwin.
Construction and maintenance of county roads and bridges proved to be a major problem for the new county. Between 1916 and 1919, second and third class roads were replaced by macadamized roads. Today, a modern four-lane highway links Unicoi County to Interstate 81 and to the North Carolina state line. This highway will become a part of Interstate 26 when the North Carolina link is finished in 2000.
The 1879 schools report listed one frame and eleven log school buildings in Unicoi County. Today the county has excellent schools, and school enrollment has grown from 802 in 1880 to 2,580 in 1997.
The county boasts a fully accredited Hill-Burton hospital, which opened in 1953 and was the first hospital in upper East Tennessee to install a centralized oxygen system. A library, established in 1921 and in continuous operation since, became a part of the Watauga Regional Library System in 1959. In December 1997, the library moved into facilities in the newly renovated historic railway depot.
Unicoi County experienced rapid growth once railroad construction began in 1886. Several railroads have operated trains in the county–the Charleston, Cincinnati and Chicago, beginning in 1886; Ohio River and Charleston, 1893; South and Western Railway, 1902; Carolina, Clinchfield, and Ohio, 1908; Seaboard, which later became CSX, 1908. The Clinchfield ran 277 miles from Elkhorn City, Kentucky, to Spartanburg, South Carolina, covering five states. Rails cross four mountain ranges and five major watersheds with eighty bridges and fifty tunnels.
Arguably, Erwin’s best-known event was the hanging of an elephant in 1916. On September 12, 1916, when the circus played in Kingsport, Mary the elephant killed her trainer. Authorities decided to dispose of the elephant, but all available guns proved inadequate to the task. Authorities then requested that railroad officials hang the elephant from the large derrick used to clear train wrecks. Mary was brought to the Erwin railroad yard and hanged with a chain.
In 1897 a U.S. Fish Hatchery was established in Unicoi County and celebrated one hundred years of continuous operation in 1997. The original superintendent’s house has been converted to a county Heritage Museum containing memorabilia enjoyed by local residents and tourists.
The railroad remained the major employer until 1916 when Southern Potteries opened in Erwin. The pottery specialized in hand-painted dinnerware called Blue Ridge China. During plant construction, local people learned hand-painting, but many workers came from Ohio and West Virginia. Peak employment reached more than one thousand during the 1940s. After World War II, imports slowly brought a curtailment in production, and the plant closed in 1957. Hand-painted dinnerware from Southern Potteries remains valuable to today’s collectors.
Just as the Southern Pottery closed, Davison Chemical Company (now Nuclear Fuel Services) located in Erwin. The plant processes uranium and thorium products and is now the major supplier of fuel for nuclear powered Navy ships. Other industries have also based their operations in Unicoi County, including Georgia Pacific, Hoover Precision Products, NN Ball & Roller, Morrill Motors, Specialty Tire Company, and several plastics manufacturers. The county’s 2000 population was 17,667.
Roxie A. Masters, The Valley of the Long Hunters (1969); Hilda Britt Padgett, The Erwin Nine (1993)