John Graves Heap and his business partner Elisha Bogue Clapp are credited with bringing large-scale mica mining operations to the Toe River Valley. They came here with their families in 1870 and within a few years owned and managed over a dozen mines that employed over 600 workers. This set the stage for the two to become extremely wealthy, as well as establish the Valley and especially Mitchell County as the hub for an industry providing the bulk of mica in the US for nearly a century.
Heap from New York and Clapp from Massachusetts found their way to Knoxville, TN where they met two women about the same age, Ann Elizabeth Lyons and Alice Jane Conley. The two couples ended up in Huntsville, AL by 1860, living in a boarding house operated by Agnes Yeatman.
In 1865, Elisha was elected to the Alabama Masonic Grand Commandary as an Officer of the Huntsville Grand Chapter,as Grand Master having passed the 3rd Vail as well as being an Officer of the Grand Council G.C.G.
From January 1861 to February 1862, J. G. Heap and Company advertised the “New Tin Shop” on Jefferson Street in Huntsville. In addition to operating a Tin Shop, Heap was appointed as a clerk in the Provost Marshall’s office.
Ormsby McKnight Mitchel, classmate of Robert E. Lee at West point, became a teacher of math and philosophy as well as a noted astronomer. In 1848, he was appointed Chief Engineer of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, a key element in the following story. On August 9, 1861 he was commissioned a brigadier-general of volunteers and, at the request of Cincinnati citizens, was transferred from New York to Ohio.
Mitchel’s mission of note is that he was sent to Tennessee then tasked to penetrate Alabama to Huntsville, sever the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Line, and capture all RR assets there. While there are several other interesting details, he accomplished his mission without loss of life on either side.
This was made possible in part by two apparently related factors. Martin Pride was Huntsville’s Government telegraph operator; however, he received permission to take care of supposed “personal affairs” in Fayetteville, although his true mission as a Confederate operative was to gather information on Union troop movements. He left Huntsville on April 9th, along with a clerk from the Provost Marshall’s department, J.G. Heap, who was instructed to gather and convey information regarding Union troop movements. They were escorted by Federal pickets for several hours, then released with Pride going south to Corinth to achieve his real mission and Heap to continue north for his. Apparently Heap immediately turned around when Pride left and returned to Huntsville; he shared no information.
Charles Larcombe, a machine shop clerk, was temporarily assigned to Pride’s place assisted by his wife. The couple, apparently knowingly, failed to relay messages related to Union troop movements provided by several people who had witnessed them to either the townspeople or to General G. T. Beauregard. The pending arrival of General Mitchel remained a secret. The Union soldiers arrived unchallenged in the early morning of April 15. During the occupation, the Union soldiers were frequently harassed by Confederates, including John Hunt Morgan, who was killed later by a group from the Tennessee 13th which included men from Mitchell County.
This true story has been suggested as being the basis for the 1956 Disney movie, The Great Locomotive Chase, starring Fess Parker. Unfortunately, J.G. is not named in the movie nor are the two specifically related. Little is known at this time regarding consequences which Heap or Larcombe may have suffered, but life went on apparently for Heap, while Larcombe supposedly left town.
Eventually, both the Heap and Clapp families moved to Knoxville where the partners established a store at 31 Gay Street by 1868. According to a Bakersville resident, Clapp had ridden over the mountain from Knoxville to sell products in Bakersville. He spent the night with a family of Pattons on whose mantel was a large piece of mica, known as isinglass. Knowing its value for stoves and open-flame light fixtures, he was keen to find the source. The family directed him to a Silvers family in Bandana who told him that they dug it out of the other side of the ridge and it was found in blocks. The Silvers took him to where they found the piece, apparently a site now known as the Sink Hole Mine.
By 1870, both Heap and Clapp families were living in the Snow Creek Township. Heap installed the first steam engine in Mitchell County at the Clarissa mine. With their great success, the families built fine homes in Bakersville, near Thomas Greene.
Clapp moved to California in an effort to improve a chronic respiratory disease that had plagued him much of his life. He died on January 18, 1874 and was given a full Masonic ceremonial burial.
J.G. was elected as a Republican to the NC House of Representatives in 1876. Until his death in 1891, he pursued business as usual and politics. After his death, Anna maintained their home as a boarding house until 1896, at which time she sold it to Jane Baker and moved back to Knoxville. Ann died April 30, 1920 and her body was sent back to be buried beside her husband in the Bakersville Historic Cemetery.
A special thanks to Nancy Rohr who shared her research related to the Huntsville incident.