Five Caskets in
Mother Dezern’s Home
tell story of
Great Fraterville Explosion

By Fred Brown

Join us for the FREE TOUR of
Fraterville Mine disaster sites
on the 110th anniversary of
the explosion and be
interviewed for upcoming book
by author Fred Brown

 


Louise Nelson whose grandfather David Dezern was
one of the five Dezern brothers who
perished in the 1902 Fraterville Mine explosion

Deep inside East Tennessee’s massive Cumberland Mountains before the turn of the 20th century, Appalachians—many of them Welsh immigrants—were swept into the surge of America’s powerful industrial revolution.

They were joined by native Tennesseans—younger sons of farmers and African-Americans—who had faced hardscrabble lives, but found a new source of employment soon to be passed from fathers to sons.     

It also did something else that most accounts and historians overlook: coal miners of that era passed on their dreams of a better life to their descendants.

They may not have been able to live the American Dream fully, but their descendants not only could, but did. And that is a direct link back to the hard work, determination, and backbreaking lives of those early coal miners in the Cumberland Mountains, where the sound of a blasting cap often echoed out over the hills, just as did the soft whine of a mountain fiddle playing a tune as old as the ages.

Some might call that coal-mining era in East Tennessee the lynchpin of America’s Spring. Here, settled inside the coal-rich hollows of western Anderson County near the community of Coal Creek, strong-willed men and women made homes and raised large families.


Coal Creek miners
(Tennessee Blue Book, A History of Tennessee)

Their faith was as strong as their backs. They were not afraid of hard labor, or working in deep, damp mines, which then consisted of crude construction and were dependent upon specially-bred small mules to haul out tons of hand-hammered coal.

The tiny but close-knit mountainside mining communities of Coal Creek, Fraterville and Briceville became the East Tennessee nerve center of that industrial awakening that began after the end of the U.S. Civil War (1861-65).

As more European immigrants—Scots-Irish, German, and Italian—were lured to the coalfields of the Cumberlands in the late 19th century, there began a powerful resurrection of jobs for thousands of laborers.

As news of the available jobs spread, the hills flooded with those willing to fill the back-breaking posts of pick and shovel, digging coal for a living. They realized that their dreams might not arrive for them, but were to be left for succeeding generations.

And that is pretty much how it has happened.

Slowly, lives began to improve with an active social life available to them in the form of brass bands, lodges, literary debates, and county fairs. They built the Odd Fellow Opera House in Briceville in the early 1890s to house such activities.  Today, the site is the current location of Briceville Elementary School.

And the Welsh who flocked to the Cumberland Mountains found a better way of life and the freedom to practice their religion.


Odd Fellow Opera House in Briceville (W.L. Wilson)


Lodge meeting in the Odd Fellow
Opera House in Briceville circa 1902 (W.L. Wilson)

Many were extraordinary miners, who had provided the backbone of the European Industrial Revolution before coming to America to furnish a key labor force for their new country’s awakening power.

By the early 1900s, the coal mines in Anderson County provided jobs for hundreds of families. And when disaster struck in the form of coalmine explosions, generally all of the mountain communities were affected, which explains why relatives, friends and neighbors were so closely knit. When something happened to one family, it affected all families.

 

In Coal Creek, known today as Lake City, the Fraterville Coal Mine, owned and operated by the Coal Creek Coal Co., was one of many portals that opened up black veins in a narrow north-south valley sliding between Walden Ridge to the east and Vowell Mountain to the west.


"Entrance to Fraterville Mine through which over 200
men and boys passed last Monday morning in good health
and spirit to be brought out mangled corpses"
(Knoxville Journal and Tribune, May 23, 1902)

In those days, methane gas was a critical issue in coalmines. Miners were keenly aware of their open-flame headlamps and the possible dangers that existed during that early era of mining when an ignition of methane gas could trigger an explosion of coal dust. And on May 19, 1902, around 7:20 a.m. the state experienced the worst coalmine explosion in its history at the Fraterville Mine.

Although the official death count was 184 miners killed, it is more likely that 216 men and boys died that May morning.


"Entrance to Thistle Mine.  This is the entry through
which the rescuing parties entered and from
which dead bodies are being removed."
(Knoxville Sentinel, May 21, 1902)

Fraterville, one of the oldest mines in Tennessee, was considered one of the fairest in an era when other coal operators convinced the State of Tennessee to provide convicts to labor in the mines without pay.

Major Camp"
Eldad Cicero Camp
Owner of the Fraterville Mine

The company was organized by Eldad Cicero Camp, a Civil War veteran and well-known Knoxville businessman. He opened the Fraterville Mine in 1870 and never participated in the convict leasing system. He paid cash to his miners instead of the reviled coal company scrip, a system that kept miners poor and in debt to company owners, who also owned the only general stores where the scrip could be used.  He also encouraged them to recruit family members to work in his mine.  

In 1888, the Welsh miners built a community church on a hill in Briceville. That building visible over the small mining community became a symbol of the endurance of the miners. The church is there today, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It remains a monument to Welsh miners, and to the families of those who died in the catastrophic mine dust explosion in 1902.


Briceville School students leave Briceville Church after
ceremonies to add the church & cemetery to the
National Register of Historic Places (Knoxville
News Sentinel, October 23, 2010)

Descendants of the estimated 216 miners who perished in the Fraterville Mine disaster on May 19th will again commemorate the deadly explosion of 110 years ago by touring Fraterville Miners’ Circle at Leach Cemetery, Longfield Cemetery, Fraterville Itinerant Miners’ Cemetery and the abandoned mine portal.

The tour begins at 9 a.m. See the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation website for all the information on the tour and parking.


Descendants of David Dezern at his headstone
at Fraterville Miners’ Circle in Leach Cemetery
on the 100th anniversary of the explosion

One descendant expected to be present is Louise Nelson, whose grandfather, David Dezern, perished in the great explosion, which up to that time was not only the worst mine disaster in Tennessee history but it also ranked as one of the worst in the nation.

The tragedies of that day include the deaths of David Dezern and four of his brothers, who all died together in the explosion.  They had moved from their small farm in Union County for the lure of mining jobs in Coal Creek.  Their graves are on the outside of two concentric circles at Leach Cemetery at Clear Branch Baptist Church, a place where more than 80 other miners were buried after the tragedy 110 years ago. 

Nelson’s mother, Evelyn Elizabeth "Eva" Dezern, was born June 27, 1901, 11 months before her father, David, died in the blast. 


Louise Nelson (left) and her sister
Catherine Marie Morts (right) after installing
the National Register of Historic Places
plaque at Fraterville Miners’ Circle


Lula and David Dezern (standing at left)
with David’s family circa 1898

Nelson’s grandmother, Lula Harris Dezern, 16 years old when she married David Dezern, remarried after the mine disaster, but died when Eva was 12. 

In a story that would be repeated nearly three decades later, though in a slightly different way, Eva was sent by train to Illinois with a note fastened to her dress, some photos for identification and a few other personal belongings. 

Louise Nelson, small, pretty and still lively at 92 years, later took a train from Illinois the first time alone.

Instead of going to live with relatives like her mother so long ago, Louise Nelson was headed to Fort Sill, Okla., to join her new husband, Bob, who had received his U.S. Army officer’s commission, leaving his job with the Tennessee Valley Authority during World War II.

He landed a job with the new federal agency in Knoxville, which then was not only creating electricity for the region, but it was also helping farmers with the latest in agriculture techniques, especially in the hill country of East Tennessee where soil erosion was a terrific problem.

But then, not long after the couple married, Bob received his commission and was sent to Fort Sill.

That began the lifelong journey of Bob and Louise Nelson.

Bob Nelson, says Louise, was “my mentor. He was my best friend.”

The two had planned to marry in 1941, but Pearl Harbor changed all that. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Louise says people then thought the “safest place to be was home. There was no place like home,” she says, so she and Bob postponed their wedding. Since Bob had been in ROTC, Louise knew that he would be going off to war, so home was the only place for an inexperienced farm girl.

“It was just a scary time,” she says now.

After about five years, with World War II over, Bob and Louise moved to Norris, Tenn., where he again went to work for TVA. They later moved to Paris and Chattanooga and then back to Knoxville.



Louise Nelson’s grandfather and grandmother,
David and Lula Harris Dezern circa 1896.
David, his four brothers, and two brothers-in-law
were killed in the Fraterville Mine explosion

Louise’s mother, Eva Dezern, was raised by an aunt, and then when she had Louise and other children of her own, she began to return to Coal Creek and Knoxville on a quest to find out what had happened to her people in Coal Creek and Briceville.

"We (her sister and mother) began to visit when I was 6 years old," says Nelson. 

"We were going to Coal Creek and we'd visit an Aunt Vic, my grandfather's sister. My mother made sure that we always went out to Leach Cemetery to see her father and my grandfather. We would go to the tombstones." 

Nelson says those early trips didn't make much of an impact on her. Her mother, she says, had no memory of the famous mine explosion that killed her father and her four uncles.  

"She was just always sad about it. That's why we would visit the cemetery,” Nelson says, explaining the tragic search by her mother to find her family that was practically all destroyed in the Fraterville Mine Explosion. 

Nelson has now learned much more about her grandfather's death and that of his four brothers. In addition, there were two Dezern sons-in-law in the mine that day. They died in the blast as well.

"The youngest boy, George Dezern, was only 14 years old. He was among the very last to be found. He had crawled up almost to an opening," Nelson says.

"My great-grandmother lost five sons and two sons-in-law," she says. "She had five caskets in her home at one time." 


Caskets brought in for Fraterville miners (W.L. Wilson)

Nelson’s mother died March 4, 1989, at the age of 87, never really learning the complete history of her father or uncles. 

"And with everything we have found out about our family, my sister (Catherine Marie) and I feel that this is an opening and a closing for our family. We feel like our mother has found the family she never had.”

"Family should be important," says Nelson. "People need to know about their families. It is important to know the sacrifices they made so that we can have the lives that we have now and that we have a life that is so easy.”

“We, the daughters of Evelyn Elizabeth Dezern Bury, are so proud of our Dezern heritage."

 

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