Years ago, Milton “Polly” Cole prospected in Clinch Valley (along Hwy. 131) near Thorn Hill for zinc.
Cole’s life centered around prospecting for minerals. He spent his days searching through the fields and ridges for zinc. He was homeless, and his parents, Newt and Mary Wyrick Cole, were deceased. His father had been murdered by a local citizen.
Cole remained a bachelor his whole life. Some in the community made slighting remarks about him, thinking it was ignorant to keep prospecting for zinc. It wasn’t until much later people would learn he was more intelligent than the average citizen.
About 35 to 40 years ago, a zinc mine official from New York City traveled to Thorn Hill (probably having been contacted by Cole). The official, Harry Comstock, toured the fourth district of Grainger County. His living quarters were near Thorn Hill due to the nearest hotels of the time being Mineral Hill and Tate Springs Hotel, about eight miles across Clinch Mountain from Thorn Hill. The road was rough and narrow. It was traveled by horseback riders who left their horses at Bean Station, then traveled on the Peavine train into Morristown.
Comstock reportedly had the dignified atmospliers that a zinc mine should have. He traveled the ridges with Cole, prospecting for zinc, mostly in the Copper Ridge section of Clinch Valley.
With the help of workers from New York and others from the community they began to attempt to sink a mine shaft in a deep hollow about one-half mile below, or north of, what at the time was known as the Idol community. The hollow was a break in Copper Ridge, which ended up in Broken Valley and the Indian Creek Road. The major problem was there was no electricity in the mountainous section of the country. The construction workers tried for some time to sink a mine shaft, but it seemed that no progress could be made without electricity. Eventually, they gave up.
Comstock was popular with the local citizens. On one occasion, he was visiting the late E.J. Kincaid and there was something out in the family lawn that attracted him. He remarked about the old mother hen and her happy family of baby chicks (doodles). This was never, or seldom, seen in the lawns of New York City’s citizens. After several attempts, Comstock gave up the idea of zinc mining in the Clinch Valley and went back to New York.
Twenty-five or 30 years passed and several of the local citizens, and Comstock, passed away. The construction of the Norris Dam brought electricity to the Clinch Valley and Copper Ridge. Into these areas came all of the push-button conveniences. For some reason, the New Jersey Zinc Company came back to Clinch Valley. The zinc company had previously operated (and operates today) in neighboring Jefferson County.
At this time the B.H. Pittman Zinc Company came to Thorn Hill. They leased land and set up mining drills. Shortly after, the New Jersey Zinc Company took over. They began with the sinking of a mine shaft at Treadway and some of the local farmers sold their land for what they considered a good price. The prospecting for zinc went down through Clinch Valley and Copper Ridge, heading west. Again, the farmers sold or leased their farms and mining drills operated day and night.
By sheer coincidence, a farm near the spot where Comstock started the first mine seemed to be the best spot for opening another zinc mine. The land was purchased, construction companies moved in and a new zinc mine shaft was soon underway.
Along with mines came new roads and more jobs. A three-lane highway, known as Daniel Boone Trail, was planned to connect with Hwy. 25E, otherwise known as the Buffalo trail.
The late Pryor Jennings owned many acres of land in Clinch Valley. To this day his property has never been owned by others than Jennings heirs. Some of the heirs were the late E.G. Kincaid and the late Frank Kincaid. The property is now in possession of the sons of Frank Kincaid.
Cole, the first prospector for zinc in the Thorn Hill community, has long been deceased. He was buried near Long Hill Church in the hills of Claiborne County. Thorn Hill has come a long way since the days when he searched the area for zinc. The area now has a large black marble mine in addition to the zinc mine. Cole would likely not recognize the area if he were alive today.
Truly, progress came to Clinch Valley.
Note: Thorn Hill is home to one of only two black marble mines in the world. Started in the mid-1800s, it has and still continues to produce most of the black marble used in the hemisphere today.