Coal Creek – Part 2 – Fraterville

**Photo Source: Coal Creek Watershed Foundation  

After the Coal Creek War, coalminers garnered a new respect, reclaimed their jobs and formed unions. Coal companies gained a skilled workforce and restructured the industry better than it was before convict-leasing. Families were relatively happy as normalcy and stability returned. Ten years after the Coal Creek War’s end, however, an uneasiness settled on the periphery. We continue our journey at Coal Creek’s Fraterville Mine, beginning with the following scene:

She awakened on a beautiful May morning well before dawn, sat on the bedside, and glanced back at her husband who clung to a few more minutes of sleep. She washed, dressed, put her hair in a bun, and tied an overused apron around her waist. She approached the cookstove with confidence, opened the left hatch, filled it with wood, and lit it with a timber. When breakfast was ready, she set a modest table and covered it with biscuits, homemade blackberry jam, hand-churned butter, coffee, and buttermilk. Next, she woke the children and readied them for school. Her husband stirred in the bedroom — a swish of water from the basin, the rustle of his clothes, the tread of his boots. Coal dust puffed under the bedroom door. After years in the mines, the black dust rooted in and became part of them all. He walked through the kitchen and told her how good it was to wake up to such a fine smell in the morning. He took his seat at the head of the table, pulled on a pigtail or two, and giggles abounded. She packed his lunch pail and wrapped biscuits for the children. He patted his stomach and bragged about marrying a good woman. She chuckled, chastised him lovingly, and informed him only the Lord was good. His footsteps shuffled toward her and she handed him his lunch pail. He put his hand on her shoulder and their eyes met. He kissed her forehead and gently pinched her chin. He turned to the children, ruffled the boys’ hair, and told them all to do good in school. He looked back as the door closed behind him. She prayed with all her heart that God would keep her husband safe three miles down the dark place. Forty-five minutes later, at 7:30 a.m. on May 19, 1902, her face grew colorless as the earth trembled and the dreaded bell clanged tragedy.

The name “Fraterville” means “village of Brothers.”1)Coal Creek Watershed Foundation. 2000-2016. “Coal Creek: War and Disasters.” Accessed Jul 10, 2019. The Fraterville mine was owned by the Coal Creek Coal Company and was the oldest in Coal Creek, opening in 1870.2)The Atlanta Constitution. 1902. “Death Snatches 225 Men as They Delve in a Mine.” May 20. Major E. C. Camp was president and general manager of the mine.3)The Bolivar Bulletin. 1902. “Another Sad Calamity.” May 23. A former Civil War Union officer, he was opposed to convict leasing and hired qualified free miners, paying them in cash instead of scrip.4)livius. 2012. “The Fraterville Mine Disaster of 1902.The History Blog. May 19. Accessed Aug 25, 2019. Camp’s son, George, learned the business firsthand, working as a coalminer before succeeding his father as supervisor.5)Roy, Andrew. 1907. A History of the Coal Miners in the United States. Columbus: J L Trauger Printing Company. p. 406 The Fraterville mine sat adjacent to the Knoxville Coal and Iron Company’s abandoned mine,6)Coal Creek Watershed Foundation. 2000-2016. “Coal Creek: War and Disasters.” Accessed Jul 10, 2019. and was considered one of the safest mines in Tennessee.7)The Bolivar Bulletin. 1902. “Another Sad Calamity.” May 23.

When the explosion occurred, the whole camp felt the earth rumble. Witnesses saw smoke, flames, and wreckage shoot up in the air and out of the mine’s opening.8)Coal Creek Watershed Foundation. 2000-2016. “Coal Creek: War and Disasters.” Accessed Jul 10, 2019. After the bell rang, all the camp inhabitants ran toward the mine. Two search and rescue teams were immediately formed. The first team met deadly gas at two thousand feet 9)Roy, 407 Subsequent teams sifted through rubble, falling slate, mounds of blasted coal, and shattered pillars. The initial impact of the explosion killed almost every miner. One miner was found alive but his arms were contorted, his eyes “blown out,” and his legs were broken. Another miner was blown from the mouth of the mine and survived for a short time.10)The Nashville American. 1902. “Removal of Bodies from Mine.” May 21. The consensus for the number of deceased stands at 184 men. Various nationalities of men, aged sixty to twelve, all died together.11)Coal Creek Watershed Foundation. 2000-2016. “Coal Creek: War and Disasters.” Accessed Jul 10, 2019. Some recovered bodies were without limbs or heads. Twenty-six men and boys survived the initial blast and barricaded themselves inside pockets and passageways, stuffing clothes or anything they could around air crevices to stop the deadly gas. But their efforts were in vain. Some of the men survived several hours, long enough to write farewell letters to their families or friends. The letters are heart-wrenching.12)Coal Creek Watershed Foundation. 2000-2016. “Coal Creek: War and Disasters.” Accessed Jul 10, 2019. One miner’s twelve-year-old son begged him for years to work alongside him in the mines. The explosion happened on the boy’s first day. Father and son were found wrapped in each other’s arms. They were the last bodies recovered. 13)Roy, 410-411

The “piteous wails” and primal, guttural howls from wives, mothers, grandparents, children, grandchildren, friends, and fellow miners haunted the land for days.14)McGhee, Marshall L. 1995. Coal Mining Towns: Stories and Pictures of Anderson and Campbell Counties. Jacksboro: Action Printing, Ltd. p 64 The disaster left at least ninety-nine women widows and almost 270 children fatherless.15)The Nashville American. 1902. “Fraterville Mine Disaster: Dreadful Story of Sorrow Told by Cold Figures.” June 2. Some women lost husbands and all their sons. When the casket train came to Fraterville, only three men remained in the camp.16)Offbeat Tennessee. n.d. Fraterville Mine Disaster -largest in TN history, devastated Fraterville with only 3 adult males residents remaining.

Widows and children – Source: Coal Creek Watershed Foundation

Several possible causes were given but no definitive answer was ever reached. The mine was closed on Saturday and re-opened Monday, the day the miners came to work. It is possible that, since the ventilation was cut off over the weekend, a buildup of methane might have occurred and was probably ignited by the miners’ lamps (the lamps being open flames). With the explosion of the gas, coal dust caught fire as it circulated and further added to the explosion.17)Coggins, Allen R. 2017. Tennessee Encyclopedia. Oct 8. Accessed Jul 2019. Another theory was that a young, fifteen-year-old miner tapped into the adjacent Knoxville Iron and Coal mine. This adjacent mine was shut off and the methane accumulation spilled into the Fraterville mine. Once the breach was discovered, the miners made efforts to seal off the gasses but the occurrence of the explosion suggests the attempts were unsuccessful.18)The Atlanta Constitution. 1902. “Mine Explosion Caused by a Boy.” May 21.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention published a report in 2008 entitled, “Explosion Hazards from Methane in Emissions Related to Geologic Features in Coal Mines” which suggests the cause was gas released from a falling roof. The finding states, the gas “was liberated from overhanging strata by the ‘creep’ that had began with an unusual violence shortly before the explosion.”19)Ulery, James P. 2008. Explosion Hazards from Methane in Emissions Related to Geologic Features in Coal Mines. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services, Pittsburgh: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 6.  Creep is forcing wooden pillars into the malleable parts of a strong roof.

Another reason was company negligence. State Commissioner of Labor, R. A. Shifleft stated he inspected the mine in 1901 and found the “ventilation was not up to requirements” but acknowledged the company did make changes by installing a sixteen foot fan for aeriation.20)The Atlanta Constitution “Death Snatches 225 Men as They Delve in a Mine.” May 20. The company, it was also discovered, did not have the required air pipes opening every ninety feet.21)The Nashville American. 1902. “Removal of Bodies from Mine.” May 21. Indeed, the coroner’s jury found the coal company and Inspector Shifleft negligent at the inquest.22)The Atlanta Constitution. 1902. “Against Coal Creek Company: So Finds the Coroner’s Jury in the Fraterville Horror.” June 25. The charges were later dropped. On the stand, George Camp “cited the exemplary thirty-year safety record,” and produced documents stating the company made all safety modifications they were told to. One newspaper stated, “George Camp, the young man who has grown up as a comrade to the dead men and became skilled in the mining business under the tutelage of the man now dead, wept bitterly on the stand.”23)Coal Creek Watershed Foundation. 2000-2016. “Coal Creek: War and Disasters.” Accessed Jul 10, 2019. Camp also defended Fraterville’s ventilation furnace operator, Tip Hightower, who lost two sons in the blast, touting his trustworthiness and excellent work ethic.24)Coal Creek Watershed Foundation. 2000-2016. “Coal Creek: War and Disasters.” Accessed Jul 10, 2019.

George Camp, Source: Coal Creek Watershed Foundation

Regardless of the cause, the fact remained that the worst mine disaster in Tennessee history had occurred and the grief-stricken community was in serious need. The state legislature proposed relief funds for widows and orphans. Businesses and patrons throughout the region offered financial assistance. Coal Creek wrapped community arms around the hurting. The pain is still felt today, one hundred seventeen years later. Some of my own people were killed in the disaster:

Peter C. Childress (father 48 y)

William L. Childress (son, 18 y – newly married two days before the explosion)

James C. Childress (son, 15 y)

John C. Childress (son, 12 y)

Noah Daugherty (35 y)

William (W. B.) Goodman (35 y)

 

Many were buried in Miner’s Circle at Leach Cemetery in Rocky Top. The plot was designated especially for the miners who died in Fraterville. When I stand among the graves, a gentle breeze greets my face and I sense them there all together, united forever. Protective love engulfs me, and I thank them all.

The beginning scene is fictional, of course, but is it? It is the story of every woman whose husbands move down, down, down to the darkened place. For Fraterville, the men were three miles down. Other mines in Appalachia were even deeper and miles across. Let us give pause and think of Fraterville . . . then journey forward in Coal Creek.

References   [ + ]

1, 6, 8, 11, 12, 23, 24. Coal Creek Watershed Foundation. 2000-2016. “Coal Creek: War and Disasters.” Accessed Jul 10, 2019.
2. The Atlanta Constitution. 1902. “Death Snatches 225 Men as They Delve in a Mine.” May 20.
3, 7. The Bolivar Bulletin. 1902. “Another Sad Calamity.” May 23.
4. livius. 2012. “The Fraterville Mine Disaster of 1902.The History Blog. May 19. Accessed Aug 25, 2019.
5. Roy, Andrew. 1907. A History of the Coal Miners in the United States. Columbus: J L Trauger Printing Company. p. 406
9. Roy, 407
10. The Nashville American. 1902. “Removal of Bodies from Mine.” May 21.
13. Roy, 410-411
14. McGhee, Marshall L. 1995. Coal Mining Towns: Stories and Pictures of Anderson and Campbell Counties. Jacksboro: Action Printing, Ltd. p 64
15. The Nashville American. 1902. “Fraterville Mine Disaster: Dreadful Story of Sorrow Told by Cold Figures.” June 2.
16. Offbeat Tennessee. n.d. Fraterville Mine Disaster -largest in TN history, devastated Fraterville with only 3 adult males residents remaining.
17. Coggins, Allen R. 2017. Tennessee Encyclopedia. Oct 8. Accessed Jul 2019.
18. The Atlanta Constitution. 1902. “Mine Explosion Caused by a Boy.” May 21.
19. Ulery, James P. 2008. Explosion Hazards from Methane in Emissions Related to Geologic Features in Coal Mines. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services, Pittsburgh: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 6.
20. The Atlanta Constitution “Death Snatches 225 Men as They Delve in a Mine.” May 20.
21. The Nashville American. 1902. “Removal of Bodies from Mine.” May 21.
22. The Atlanta Constitution. 1902. “Against Coal Creek Company: So Finds the Coroner’s Jury in the Fraterville Horror.” June 25.

2 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading (and learning) from this, as I did the previous post — which was as infuriating as this one is heart-wrenchingly sad. I got to wondering if there might be a topical ballad, and sure enough: https://lomaxky.omeka.net/items/show/1359

  2. Author

    Hello Jud. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I didn’t know the details, even though I heard about these events as far back as my childhood. I learned so much through research. We really enjoyed listening to the ballad on the Lomax recording! Thank you for the link. It was a new and welcome experience.

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