Ghosts of the Convict Miners
The Knoxville Iron Company Mine in the Wye Community of Coal Creek started using convict laborers to mine coal in 1877. The old convict mine was gassy. Methane gas entered the mine from joints in the surrounding rock. Several times, the convict miners were caught by their guards setting fire to the methane gas and cooking wild game over open flames.
When convict miners were brought to work in the coal mines of nearby Briceville in 1891, free miners from Coal Creek took up arms against the convict lease system. The ensuing Coal Creek War, fought between the free miners and the state militia, ended the convict lease system in Tennessee. The Knoxville Iron Company Mine was abandoned in the late 1890s.
In 1901, miners from the adjacent Fraterville Mine accidentally broke into the abandoned underground rooms of the Knoxville Iron Company Mine. Apparently, the convicts had mined off the coal lease of the Knoxville Iron Company and onto the coal lease of the Fraterville Mine. A barricade was built underground to keep methane gas and foul air in the abandoned mine from entering the Fraterville Mine.
Rumors started about another possible reason for constructing the underground barricade. Ghosts of the convict miners were reportedly seen roaming through the abandoned rooms of the Knoxville Iron Company Mine.
The Fraterville Mine exploded on May 19, 1902, killing over 200 men and boys. The most likely cause of the explosion was methane gas from the abandoned works of the Knoxville Iron Company Mine leaking through the connecting barricade and being ignited by the oil lamps of the Fraterville miners. The initial explosion then burned airborne coal dust throughout the mine. Miners who survived the explosion suffocated before they could be rescued. The actual cause of the explosion will never be known because there were no survivors.
Some believe that the 1902 explosion was not caused by the Fraterville miners, but by the ghosts of the convict miners setting fire to the methane gas to again cook wild game over an open flame. The only remnants of the convict miners left in the Coal Creek watershed today are fieldstones marking their graves. Only they know the origin of burn-spots and charred animal bones beside their graves.
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