What’s the connection between Jesse James and Coal Creek?

Maurice Stanley will answer this question on Sunday, June 27th at 2:00 pm during a presentation at the East Tennessee Historical Society at 601 S. Gay Street in Knoxville. 

In his book, Sorrows End, Maurice Stanley describes how his grandfather, Henry Baker, rode with Jesse James.  Baker was eventually caught and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor at the Knoxville Iron and Coal Company (KICC) convict mine in Coal Creek.  Henry escaped by jumping from a train in route to Knoxville after miners captured the convict stockades during the Coal Creek War in July 1891.  He changed his name to Tom Stanley and began a new life.

The story of Henry Baker a.k.a. Tom Stanley adds a new chapter to the history of the KICC Mine No. 1.  It opened in 1867 to provide coal for the foundry of the Knoxville Iron and Coal Company in Knoxville and was operated by experienced Welsh miners.  The mine soon expanded to also provide coal for heating many of the homes and businesses in Knoxville.

In the fall of 1876, the Welsh miners went on strike for higher wages, but KICC management halted production rather than negotiate.  The winter of 1876/1877 was particularly bitter and public sentiment turned against the striking miners when homes and businesses in Knoxville ran out of coal to burn.  In the spring of 1877, KICC management proposed the idea of replacing the Welsh miners with convicts from the state prison.  Local newspapers and the general public supported the move and the first convicts arrived in the summer of 1877.


Convict miner at work from
“History of Tennessee” (Bluebook)

 

Mining jobs were plentiful, so the miners who lost their jobs found work at mines in nearby Briceville, Fraterville, and Beech Grove.  Others left the area to mine coal in Jellico and Soddy, Tennessee, and in Kentucky. 

The mortality rate for the convict miners was high because they had no experience in mining.  Also, there was little financial incentive to provide safe working conditions for them.  If a mule died while working in the coal mines, a new mule had to be purchased. If a convict miner died, the state would furnish a new convict to replace the convict who died at no cost to the mine owner or the state.

Another labor dispute erupted in 1891 between the Tennessee Coal Mining Company in Briceville and its miners, resulting in convicts being brought to the company’s mine in Tennessee Hollow.   Coal Creek miners decided that without intervention, the convict lease system would continue expanding until no jobs remained, so they surrounded the convict stockade in Tennessee Hollow and forced the guards to surrender.  They marched the guards and convicts to the town of Coal Creek (now Lake City) and put them on a train to Knoxville. They sent a telegram to Governor Buck Buchanan, explaining their actions and offered to meet to resolve the situation.


Coal Creek miners at Thistle Switch awaiting the arrival of Governor Buck Buchanan on July 16, 1891 

Governor Buchanan, accompanied by troops, met with the miners at Thistle Switch and justified why the convicts were being returned to Coal Creek.  In response, the miners explained that convicts would no longer be allowed in Coal Creek.  Not only did the convict lease system take jobs from miners, it put unskilled convicts in unsafe mines.  To punctuate their message, the miners captured stockades at Tennessee Hollow and KICC Mine No. 1, putting convicts, guards, and soldiers on trains to Knoxville. 

Governor Buchanan gave his Commissioner of Labor, George Ford, the task of investigating the claims about the poor working conditions of the convict miners. Commissioner Ford inspected the mines and found that working conditions in the KICC Mine No. 1 were acceptable.  His report noted that the convict stockade housed “sullen” white miners on one floor and “jovial” African-American miners on a separate floor.

Commissioner Ford determined that the Tennessee Mine in Tennessee Hollow was unfit, as follows: “At one place a gang of seven or eight convicts were gathered in the passageway, with their lamps suspended from their caps, and one of them handling a can of powder, pouring it out of the can in a dangerously careless manner.  It seemed as if a single false step might send the whole crowd to their maker instantly.  In conclusion, this mine is found to be in worse condition than any mine in the State that has been inspected, of which we can find any record; and it is shameful to think that any class of men, whether free men or convicts, are compelled or allowed to work therein.”


Coal Creek miners during the Coal Creek War
from “History of Tennessee” (Bluebook)


Fort Anderson on Militia Hill as seen looking up from the
KICC convict stockade (from Harper’s Magazine, 1892)

After his inspection, the Commissioner had the convicts removed from the Tennessee Hollow Mine, but not KICC Mine No. 1.  He offered a compromise to allow convicts to remain in mines where they had worked prior to the conflict, provided the mine met specified safety standards, but the miners refused.  Hostilities escalated with the state building Fort Anderson on Militia Hill in January 1892.  The entire state militia was mobilized to Coal Creek in the summer of 1892 to stem the revolt. 

Due to public sentiment for the free miners, the governor was not re-elected in November 1892. The new governor, Peter Turney, abolished the convict lease system in Tennessee.  The remaining Southern states soon followed Tennessee’s lead and abolished the convict lease systems in their states.

Ironically, Governor Turney abolished the convict lease system because he found a more profitable alternative.  In 1893, he enacted legislation to build Brushy Mountain Mine and Prison in nearby Morgan County.  Coke ovens were built by the state to increase the value of the coal mined there and convicts were able to reduce their sentences based on how much coal they mined.  Convicts with mining experience worked in the mine and the remaining convicts operated the coke ovens or farmed the land to feed the prisoners.  From 1903 until 1917, the state realized a net profit of almost $1.7 million from Brushy Mountain.

Unlike the convict lease system, the state-operated mine provided financial incentive to sustain safe working conditions for the convict miners.  The Brushy Mountain Mine continued to yield substantial profits for the state each year until it closed in 1938.

KICC Mine No. 1 closed soon after the convict lease system ended, but its legacy continued.  On May 19, 1902, the adjacent Fraterville Mine exploded, killing over 200 men and boys.  Mining engineers attributed the Fraterville explosion to methane gas that had accumulated in the abandoned KICC Mine No. 1.  Convicts had apparently mined off the lease of the Knoxville Iron and Coal Company and onto the lease of the Coal Creek Coal Company, the owner of the Fraterville Mine.  When the Fraterville Mine expanded to the boundary with KICC Mine No. 1 in 1901, miners intercepted the abandoned works of KICC Mine No. 1.


“Coal Creek Belle” - from the archives of the
Tennessee National Guard, Souvenir of
Company "C", Coal Creek War, 1892

At the inquest following the Fraterville explosion, J. E. Hightower reported: ”I ran the old Knoxville Iron Company mine about 14 years.  It generated gas, had an explosion there once, 2 years after the convicts came there, on a Monday morning.  A convict, who had missed a shot, ran in ahead of the mules, doormen had not gone in yet, and was blown 40 feet.  The mine was very badly torn up, worse than Fraterville in this last explosion.  There was no dust, it was all wet… The convicts did slip over on the side next to Fraterville, reports show on State’s books, and were punished for cooking on gas.  Had a crack along the airway and I have never seen the time you could not stick your lamp into it and set it afire.”


Jenny Phillips, Jacob Phillips, and Cassie
Phillips (left to right) at the abandoned KICC Mine
No. 1.  In 2006, they researched prison records
and found the names of 130 convicts who died
at KICC Mine No. 1.  Some are buried in
unmarked graves on the hillside above KICC
Mine No. 1, while the graves of other convicts
are marked by simple fieldstones.

Ghost stories surrounding the convict miners persist in Coal Creek to this day….  Some believe that the 1902 Fraterville explosion was caused 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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