The marble king

Jim Tumblin
History and Mysteries

Cotton had once been king and the railroads had dominated for a time but, by the late 1880s, another industry had assumed a major role in East Tennessee’s economy. Knoxville became a leader in the marble industry, and the industry was so big that Knoxville became known as Marble City.

Although the first extensive developments were in Hawkins County, shipments from Knoxville via the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad were three times as great by 1881. There were 11 quarries operating in Knox County by 1882, and 300 workers were employed. By 1906, it was estimated that the county’s marble industry generated $1 million annually.

The pioneer marble company in East Tennessee was in Rogersville (Hawkins County). Founded in 1838 by S.D. Mitchell and Orville Rice and operating as the Rogersville Marble Co., its quarry provided marble for interior furnishings such as floors, doors and mantelpieces. By 1850, its water-powered finishing machinery was used to produce monuments and tombstones.

In 1873, William Patrick founded the Knoxville Marble Co. near the Forks of the River and became its president, with George W. Ross as secretary-treasurer. Ross’s son, John M. Ross, succeeded Patrick in 1886 but eventually sold to the W.H. Evans Co.

Albert Milani (1892-1977). The Italian-born master sculptor is probably working on the American eagles used on the U.S. Post Office Building between Main and Cumberland. Photograph courtesy of the East Tennessee Historical Society
Albert Milani (1892-1977). The Italian-born master sculptor is probably working on the American eagles used on the U.S. Post Office Building between Main and Cumberland. Photograph courtesy of the East Tennessee Historical Society

Perhaps the most interesting of all the companies was established in 1878 by John J. Craig (1820-1892). Over the years it eventually morphed into John J. Craig Co. and its subsidiary Candoro Marble Works, where the marble was finished and artists such as the Italian-born sculptor Albert Milani (1892–1977) created elegant monuments.

The patriarch of the family was succeeded in the business by his son John J. Craig Jr. (1860-1904) and then by his grandson John J. Craig III (1885-1944). With quarries near Friendsville and Concord, as well as in South Knoxville, the company became the foremost producer of pink Tennessee marble by the early 1900s.

Born in Lauderdale County, Ala., on Sept. 20, 1820, John James Craig came to Knoxville in 1839. He married Mary C. Lyon, whose home was on what became Lyons View Pike. Craig began his career as cashier of the Union Bank and, in 1858, began construction of an impressive mansion on 11 acres that now are a part of the University of Tennessee campus. He called it Lucknow, but it eventually became Melrose.

The house was almost completed when the Civil War broke out, and Craig sold out and moved to Cincinnati. The family, including the three children who grew to maturity, W.L., John J. Jr. and Mary, returned to Knoxville in 1869. Many more generations of John J. Craigs have continued to make the company a strong presence in the industry for over 125 years. John J. Craig IV and John J. Craig V continued until recent times to serve as officers in the business.

In 1926, John J. Craig III, like his grandfather, built an elegant mansion. His was called Craiglen and was located on Westland Drive, featuring Tennessee marble throughout. It has been called the most elaborate and beautifully detailed of all the Barber-designed homes. Patterned after a palazzo in Florence, Italy, it has two wings connected by a loggia with six sets of Palladian doors. Several terraces provide views of two acres of gardens and woodlands with exedra, ponds and herb gardens. The marble columns, walls, ceilings and floors provide a museum-like example of the beauty of Tennessee marble.

Locally, the Craigs provided marble for the U.S. Post Office on Main, the State Office Building on Cumberland, the Criminal Court Building on Gay and interior marble for some of UT’s buildings. Several Washington, D.C., buildings were also constructed with marble from the Craig quarries: Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology, AFL-CIO Headquarters, Australian Chancery and, most notably, some of the stone for the National Gallery of Art, at one time the largest marble building in the world.

Rock of Ages

East Tennessee’s Marble Industry
Through May 14, 2017

East Tennessee marble is prized the world over. There are only two months left to visit the exhibit that describes the industry that launched the stone’s fame and crowned Knoxville as the Marble City!

The marble industry was once an important sector of East Tennessee’s economy. Beginning in the mid-1800s, demand for East Tennessee marble increased, it being sourced for the interiors and exteriors of homes, businesses and government buildings in Tennessee and across the country.

Occurring in a vein in what is called the Holston Formation, Tennessee marble is actually a type of crystalline limestone. It resembles marble when polished, and architects and builders cherish its pinkish-gray color. It also occurs in gray, dark burgundy (“cedar”) and some variegated shades.

Visit the exhibit at the East Tennessee Historical Society Museum at 601 S. Gay St. (across from the Tennessee Theatre). M-F: 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. • Sat: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. • Sun: 1 p.m. – 5 p.m., 865-215-8830. Exhibit closes Sunday, May 14, 2017.

Dr. Tumblin’s latest book, Fountain City: Those Who Made a Difference, is available at Page’s Fountain City Pharmacy, Pratt’s Country Store, Long’s Pharmacy, the East Tennessee History Center, Union Avenue Books and online.

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