PETROS, Tenn. (WATE) — A common theme among the most haunted places are areas where people died frequently, and one old prison in East Tennessee fits right into that theme.
The small town of Petros hides a haunted gem. Nestled in the town of 526 stands a prison that once held some of the state’s most dangerous prisoners. In recent years, it has been a tourist attraction and hosted concerts allowing for up to 4,000 attendees.
Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, also known as “the End of the Line,” originally opened in 1896 as a coal mine in the wake of a bloody labor battle, according to the Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary website.
The coal mine was built on the back of inmates, as a common practice of the time was for prisoners to be leased to work in the coal mines. This practice led to the Coal Creek War, which began in 1891 and lasted just over a year. It started when miners, who were citizens, attacked and burned a state prison, the stockades and mines, and then took the prisoners and guards onto a trail headed out of town. The ensuing battles between mining companies and the state against the coal miners are what eventually caused legislation to be passed to build the state’s first maximum-security prison according to the prison website: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.
The history recorded by the penitentiary explains how many of the prisoners who worked in the mine died. The website says that while there was never a death row at the prison, there was plenty of death. It is said that as many as 3/4 of the black prisoners were affected by syphilis, and tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and pneumonia were also common. But if these diseases did not kill the prisoners, being routinely beaten for “underproducing” in the mines may have led to their end.
By 1931, the prison held 976 men, which was 300 more than it was supposed to. The state sought to manage this overcrowding by building a new prison, which opened in 1934.
“Plans were drawn for a new structure to be made of reinforced concrete and they made convicts break sandstone out of the nearby quarry to build the new prison. Constructed in the shape of a Greek cross, it stood four stories high, boasted battlements atop, and by 1934 was surrounded by an 18-foot stone wall. For a moment, things got better. The new prison was safer, more sanitary, and built in the shape of a cross, offering inmates a narrow path to redemption.” the prison says when explaining the construction of the new building.
Mining continued to be the mission of the prison until the 1960s, and some beds were added for those with lesser offenses “outside the walls” according to the prison. The new minimum-security inmates were able to be entrusted with jobs serving the outside community. While its reputation as the “last stop” for the worst of criminals became more of a legend over time, some harrowing horrors of the prison continued.
In 1957, the Hole was finally shut down, but the D-block was built to keep the worst of the inmates isolated from the others, and it just happened to be built on the site of the old “death house.” The site had been where inmates’ dead bodies would be kept until they were given back to their families or buried at the cemetery just up the hill.
By 1969, the prison was classified as a maximum security prison once again, housing some notable prisoners, including James Earl Ray, who confessed to assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Paul Dennis Reid, nicknamed The Fast Food Killer.
The prison closed on June 11, 2009, but now visitors can visit and tours are offered through the prison. When it closed, it was the state’s oldest prison at 113 years old, according to the Associated Press.
Brushy Mountains website explains that visitors have experienced being touched, shoved, and even growled at, while Ghost Hunt USA says that the paranormal activities at the prison include apparitions, shadows, disembodied voices, unexplained loud bangs, growls, and physical attacks.
For more information about visiting the prison or scheduling a tour, visit tourbrushy.com. Standard tours and overnight investigations are available and can be scheduled online.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct a name within the article.