Fascinating history accompanies marvelous scenery around state park
State agencies and local Warren County business and political leaders are analyzing the prospect of restoring a long-shuttered historical landmark that was once a hub of commerce and industrial activity.
Built on the banks of the Caney Fork River in 1892, the Great Falls Cotton Mill operated for just a decade before its wheelhouse turbine system was destroyed by a cataclysmic flood in 1902. Nevertheless, in that relatively short span it became a prominent feature of the local landscape and economy, even sprouting its own adjoining company town known as Falls City.
“The mill was operate by a flume, turbine, ropes and pulleys powered by the water diverted from the falls,” reads to a placard near the mill. “The operation included the manufacture of cotton, wool products, and was known for its heavy cotton sheeting.”
An information page about the mill at TNGenWeb.org, an online genealogical research organization, recounts that the facility’s purpose was to “manufacture, spin, weave, bleach, dye, print, finish and sell all goods of every kind made of wool and cotton.”
Details and specifics about costs and timelines for the project are sketchy at this time, but the overarching goal is to boost visitation and enhance tourism in the area, officials say. The project is still in a “conceptual phase,” according to a Nov. 14 press release from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
The mill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
“We are excited to pursue restoration of this important piece of Warren County history,” said TDEC Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill. Preserving and protecting “the cultural significance of Tennessee’s special places” is part of the agency’s mission, he said.
The mill property is situated along the Caney Fork River about about a quarter mile below Great Falls Dam, which was completed in 1917 by the Tennessee Electric Power Company. Today the mill’s remains and the dam are owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is involved in the restoration discussions.
According to TDEC, other agencies mulling the costs, rewards and logistics of refurbishing the mill are the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Tennessee Historical Commission, the McMinnville-Warren County Chamber of Commerce, the Industrial Development Board of McMinnville-Warren County and various local elected officials.
Patrick McIntyre, executive director of the Tennessee Historical Commission, said his agency is “pleased to be a part of this effort to restore the Great Falls Cotton Mill. The project would fit well with the commission’s efforts “to preserve historically significant properties that are part of the rich history of Tennessee,” he added.
Rock Island State Park was established in 1969. However, the community of Rock Island dates back to the early days of Tennessee. Not only was it the first permanent settlement in Warren County, but the old Tennessee Superior Court, a forerunner to the state supreme court, would from time to time hold proceedings there. Andrew Jackson sat on the Superior Court in the late 1700s and early 1800s, nearly three decades before he served as president of the United States.
In order to improve access and parking and enhance the surrounding “green space” for people to safely and enjoyably explore the Great Falls Mill and surrounding grounds in the event that it’s transformed into a special attraction, rerouting the section of Highway 287 that runs by the mill may become necessary, officials say.
“During peak season, we have a lot of visitors who park in this area and our goal is to provide a safe experience that gives park-goers access to the historical and natural sites they’ve come to see,” said Rock Island State Park Manager Damon Graham.