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Section 13 ~ Bluffton History
Pinhoti Trail - Mile 166.1 - Salem Church Road Crossing
The Church is about a mile east of the trail crossing.
Bluffton: Cherokee County's boom town gives up ghost
The Anniston (Alabama) Star, Thursday, Nov. 11, 1982
By DAVID STACKS, Star Staff Writer
BLUFFTON--There are no schools, storefronts or passenger-train depots in Bluffton
anymore, and only a few scattered Victorian homes remain.
Barely a century after Yankee investors made this hilly southeastern Cherokee County
community an iron-ore boom town, only spreading oak and sweet-gum trees remain from
the years of once-busy streets and Sunday afternoon family outings.
"It's hard to look at these hills now and tell there was ever anything here," said J. Clyde
Davis, 48, a Pleasant Gap cattle farmer who grew up in Bluffton and neighboring
Tecumseh in the waning years of prosperity.
"Some of my earliest memories are of a whole row of stores along here," Davis said
recently of what now is Cherokee County Road 45, stretching from near Rock Run and
Pleasant Gap northeast of Piedmont to the Polk County, Ga., community of Etna.
Little remains today from the glory years of Bluffton. After several years of prosperity
in the iron ore-mining industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bluffton
residents dismantled their homes and moved to other communities in Northeast Alabama.
ONLY ORDERLY ROWS of water oak and other hardwood trees have survived the
decades. Almost no one calls home the region where geologists from Woodard Iron Co. of
Birmingham and Tecumseh Iron Co. -- following Reconstruction -- discovered rich, iron,
zinc and other mineral deposits.
The coming of the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad in the 1870's and 1880's
signaled to Northern industrialists that mining in the Southern Appalachian Mountains
could be profitable, according to letters from Yankee collections.
"Bluffton is the only real boom town of Cherokee County," genealogist Mrs. Frank Ross
Stewart Sr. of Goshen wrote in her seven-volume history of Cherokee County, part of it
published in 1981.
"It is noted for its mountains, its mineral springs and its Signal Hotel, which was a
favorite summer resort during the years of the boom," Mrs. Stewart wrote in Volume 4
of her series, "Cherokee County History." A handful of settlers after the Civil War built
houses and a general store. Prosperity came with construction of iron blast furnaces in
the 1880s and 1890s, Mrs. Stewart wrote.
NATURAL LITHIUM SPRINGS feeding Hurricane Creek attracted thousands to the
Signal Hotel and other resorts during the late 19th century, said Sylvie Prince Davis, 78,
who was born in a house between Tecumseh Furnace and Bluffton. "I went all the way
through the old hotel when I was a little girl," Mrs. Davis said recently. "The fifth floor
was just a place with windows all the way around. You could look out and see mountains for
miles." Water from the spring was believed to have healthful effects. "The spring was
just past the hotel bluff," Mrs. Davis said.
Ballroom dancing at the hotel was popular, she said. Baptist and United Methodist church
groups organized square dances and congregations became the focus of social activities,
Mrs. Davis said.
Salem Baptist Church, organized in 1854 across the road from where the Signal Hotel was
built, today is one of the few reminders of the boom years. Arrington Chapel
Congregational Methodist Church, south of Bluffton near what now is U.S. 278 near
Cleburne County, also attracted many members, Mrs. Davis said.
"BACK THEN WE just had preaching once a month at each church," Mrs. Davis said. "When
you went to Salem Church or Arrington Chapel, the meeting room would be filled."
Mrs. Davis said she and her girlhood friends -- some still living near Piedmont, Cedartown,
Ga., and other cities -- would make day-long treks to take in morning and evening workshop
services as well as visit with neighbors and relatives. "Or we would have a party," she
said. "Everyone would come. We would walk from Arrington Chapel to my brother's house
in Tecumseh, then to Etna and back again in time to see the train. There were always
passengers getting on or off at the depot."
The East Tennessee railroad, making four runs daily from Rome, Ga. to Selma in South
Alabama, also stopped at depots at Rock Run and Spring Garden in southern Cherokee as
well as Etna, Mrs. Davis said.
"There were a lot of people who rode the trains back then," said Mrs. Davis, who lives
near Pleasant Gap with her husband, Paul Davis, 79. "It was great entertainment. There
weren't many cars."
ONE OF THE FIRST automobiles in Bluffton was owned by a blast-furnace overseer. "He
used to ride everybody all over the place," Mrs. Davis said. "He wanted to do something
for us poor folks who had never been in a car before."
Paul Davis said most of Bluffton's about 2,000 residents helped each other in time of
need. "When a barn burned or somebody needed help they could count on it." the elder
Davis said. Helping a sick neighbor with his crop harvest or house-building project was not
unusual, he said.
Neighbors also helped the economy to grow as Bluffton's economy boomed, the elder
General stores, blacksmith shops, a gun shop and other businesses sprang up around the
ore pits and smelting furnaces, Davis said. Sawmills, gristmills and other lumber
operations also took root and businessmen traded with distant points by railroad.
But prosperity also brought unwanted elements to the community. Residents felt the
need to take law enforcement into their own hands, Clyde Davis said.
"IT TOOK DAYS to get the sheriff from Centre," he said. People had to count on
themselves for protection."
Davis said one land-owning cotton farmer and businessman, William A. Smith, was a friend
to many in need but he also killed at least eight trespassers intruding on his property
near what is known as Smith Hollow.
"If anybody was neighborly to him, he returned the favor," the younger Davis said. "He
gave chickens to people who were hungry and money to those down on their luck. You don't
forget a man like him."
Smith Hollow is a steep-cliffed valley running through the mountains northeast from
Bluffton. It extends into Polk County, Ga., and was the home place for the family of
Melton Smith, William Smith's father.
William Smith and several others distributed the fruits of their vineyard and liquor
businesses from a hollow tree with a hand bell inside, according to the Sept. 14, 1917,
issue of the Centre-based newspaper, The Coosa River News.
Those seeking locally distilled moonshine are reported to have approached the tree, rang
the bell and deposited cash in the "Bell Tree" in exchange for moonshine, Clyde Davis said.
IT WAS A DISTRIBUTION system largely based on honor, although there were problem
customers, the younger Davis said.
Melton Smith, 67 at his death, was killed in a gun battle in 1892. William Smith, at age
39, died in a fist fight with a business associate in Borden Springs in 1908.
William Smith's son, Robert Smith, was convicted in Georgia and Alabama following two
murders, including one in 1917 in which the victim was decapitated with an ax and the
remains mutilated, according to The Coosa River News.
Melton Smith and William Smith are buried beneath a 7-foot granite monument in the
Salem Baptist Church cemetery along with other family members.
Relatives living in southeastern Cherokee County and near Piedmont visit the graveyard
occasionally and leave potted flowers. "A light from our households is gone," says the
inscription on William Smith's tombstone. "He was a kind and loving son and affectionate
Historians say Bluffton's decline came quickly at the end of the 19th century. But some
residents remained until the Great Depression of the 1930's forced many rural
Americans to the cities, Paul Davis said.
"THE PEOPLE WHO invested in the ore furnaces put out too much at too big an expense,"
Mrs. Davis said. "They just moved too fast."
A tornado touched down in the early 1900's and destroyed a general store, forest
property and killed many people, Clyde Davis said. Several years of heavy spring rains
brought flooding. Many property owners dismantled their homes and store buildings and
moved them to Rock Run, Spring Garden and other communities.
Mining companies returned in the 1950's and 1960's. But geologists decided mineral
deposits were not rich enough to begin digging again. In recent years, search teams have
passed through Bluffton looking for oil and natural gas pockets.
Today, water-filled ore pits from the 19th and early 20th centuries dot the countryside
along Cherokee County Road 45. Varmints of one kind or another live in abandoned wells
and old mountainside mining tunnels. Old and dilapidated railroad trestles lie hidden in
"There still is a lot of iron ore back in these mountains," Clyde Davis said. "But it is a poor
grade. I wonder if anybody will ever do anything to get it out."