History behind the Play ... Fraterville, Village of Brothers

New coal mines opened in Coal Creek in 1870 when the Southern Railroad was extended to the area from Knoxville.  Most of the new mining operations eventually used convict labor and became embroiled in the Coal Creek War.  From 1891 to 1892, free miners from Coal Creek fought the Tennessee Militia over the use of convict labor.  In the end, the free miners of Coal Creek were instrumental in abolishing the convict lease system in Tennessee in 1896.  Other states soon followed Tennessee's lead and abolished the convict lease system throughout the South, an institution that was worse than slavery.

Coal Creek miners during
the Coal Creek War

 

Odd Fellows Opera House

Coal Creek Coal Company never used convicts to mine coal.  Instead, Major Eldad Cicero (E. C.) Camp, a Civil War Union veteran and U.S. District Attorney from Knoxville, organized his company by establishing contracts with experienced miners who were paid based on the tonnage of coal they mined.  Fraterville, the name of Major Camp's mine and the surrounding town, means "village of brothers".  Fraterville had the reputation of being one of the safest mines in the state and Fraterville miners convinced their relatives to join them in their mining ventures.  The miners had the opportunity to own their own land, build their own homes, be paid in cash, and validated the concept of Fraterville as a village of brothers.

 

Major Camp's son George learned the mining business working underground with the Fraterville miners.  George Camp later became superintendent, supervising the miners who had taught him how to mine coal.  Life was good in Fraterville.  The area prospered for many years as evidenced by the Odd Fellows Opera House built in nearby Briceville in 1895.  

On May 19, 1902, George Camp had visitors staying in his home and left for work late that morning.  On his way to work, a light rain convinced him to return home for a jacket.  Otherwise, he would have been underground that morning.  At 7:30 am, a violent explosion occurred and then the Fraterville Mine grew still. 

George mounted rescue efforts, but found that all 216 miners had perished.  Ten of the miners survived for as long as seven hours before suffocating as documented by poignant farewell messages found on the bodies of Jacob Vowell, Powell Harmon, John Hendren, Harry Beech, Scott Chapman, James Brooks, R.S. Brooks, George Hutson, Frank Sharp, and James Elliott.

George Camp was initially accused of negligence, but later acquitted.  In his defense, he cited the exemplary 30-year safety record of the mine.  He furnished letters from state inspectors verifying that modifications required by the inspectors had been made.  According to the May 23, 1902, Knoxville Sentinel news account of the inquest, "George Camp, the young man who has grown up as a comrade to the dead men and who became skilled in the mining business under the tutelage of the men now dead, wept bitterly on the stand".

Fraterville farewell message

Friends and relatives of Fraterville
miners after the explosion

The ventilation furnace operator, Tip Hightower, was also accused of negligence.  George Camp could have diverted blame from himself by blaming the explosion on the furnace operator.  Instead, he testified at the inquest, "Tip Hightower never let his fire die down.  I always found his fire all right.  He was trustworthy".  Tip Hightower had two sons who died in the Fraterville explosion.  He was acquitted at the inquest based on the testimony of George Camp.
Ironically, the explosion likely occurred because the Fraterville Mine had intercepted unventilated workings of the adjacent Knoxville Iron Company Mine that had been previously mined by convict laborers and abandoned.  When the Fraterville miners with their open oil lamps reached the area near the abandoned mine workings, methane gas ignited and set off an explosion of airborne coal dust.  The Fraterville tragedy was exacerbated by the fact that male members of entire families perished including five Dezern brothers, Peter Childress and his three sons, John McKamey and his three sons, seven Webb’s, and eight Wallace’s.  The explosion left only three adult males alive in the town of Fraterville.
Newspapers from around the world printed the farewell messages and other accounts from the village of brothers, allowing the general public to know coal miners by name for the first time.  Increased public awareness about the dangers of mining resulted in the formation of the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1910.  On December 9, 1911, 84 miners were killed in the Cross Mountain Mine disaster in Briceville, but five were rescued by engineers and apparatus crews from the newly formed Bureau of Mines.  Cross Mountain was the first successful mine rescue effort led by the Bureau of Mines.  Mine safety is now the responsibility of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the agency that led the successful rescue of miners trapped in the flooded Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania in the summer of 2002.

Engineers/apparatus crews from Bureau of Mines during Cross Mountain rescue

Attempts to portray the Coal Creek miners as poor and abused do them a disservice.  They migrated to Coal Creek from as far away as Wales to seek a future for themselves and their families.  Current Fraterville resident, Mr. Owen Bailey, still tells students how his father walked to Coal Creek from North Carolina in 1895 because he needed a job.  “Nobody held a gun to their heads making them work in the coal mines”.  To the contrary, when their neighbors started losing their jobs to the convict lease system, they literally went to war to protect the mining jobs in Coal Creek.  


Descendants of Fraterville miners on the 100th Anniversary of the disaster

The legacy of the Coal Creek miners....fueled the industrial revolution, helped abolish the convict lease system in the South, and made working conditions safer for miners today... rivals that of any comparable group its size in history.   Knoxville Actors Co-op is developing an original play about the surviving widows and children of the Fraterville miners which will premier at the Black Box Theatre in Knoxville in April 2004.

The Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, Inc. assisted by grants from the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is working to reclaim historical abandoned mine land sites in Coal Creek to bring tourism and jobs to the area.

Self-guided tour information

Coal Creek War and Mining Disasters

"THE COAL CREEK PROJECT" Play presented by Actors Co-op

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