Coal Creek history for
students of all ages


18 October 2014


Attendees at Militia Hill with the town
of Coal Creek in the background

Students of all ages attended our Coal Creek history field trip today, including Coal Creek Scholars from Anderson County High School, as well as the “Mountain Mayhem” class from Pellissippi State Community College.  History Bill Carey and his family interrupted their family vacation to visit Coal Creek historical sites, while writer Jeanie Robinson Ahrens gathered research data for a book she is writing about Briceville. 

History Bill was instrumental in getting the Coal Creek labor saga included in the state curriculum for high school students.  The title of the booklet Bill developed as a guide for the Tennessee history lesson is titled, “Raise the children the best you can,” which is from the letter written by Jacob Vowell before he perished in the Fraterville Mine explosion.  He also developed a Tennessee history map for kids, which includes Briceville Elementary School students on photo 59. 

Here are some of the lessons taught during the tour:


The Civil War destroyed Knoxville along with much of the rest of East Tennessee.  Community leaders of that day saw development of the area’s rich natural resources as the way to rebuild, but they lacked the skill to do so.  That’s when they recruited Welsh miners and iron workers who possessed those skills because the industrial revolution had started in Great Britain 50 years before it did in America. 

What attracted the Welsh to East Tennessee?  They were viewed as second-class citizens in Great Britain, whereas they could practice their religion as they saw fit in America.  What attracted East Tennesseans to become miners in Coal Creek?  The Welsh miners offered a first-class apprenticeship program, which attracted younger sons of farmers and others seeking new careers as evidenced by the fact that African-Americans comprised 16% of the population in Coal Creek by the 1880s. 

That same dynamic existed at the Knoxville Iron Company mills in Knoxville where Welsh iron workers trained African-American apprentices to run the mills.  Welsh and African-Americans built the community of Mechanicsville around the mills in Knoxville.

History Bill's Map

Group gathers at the site of the Fraterville Mine

In their day-jobs, the Welsh were miners and iron workers, but in their spare time, they wrote and published books in their native language.  One of them, David R. Thomas, later donated a collection of those books to Harvard University where they are used by students today.

The industrial revolution in East Tennessee was fueled by coal and Coal Creek had lots of it on property owned by Henry Howard Wiley, whose story is told at

Another community leader was Major E.C. Camp who came to East Tennessee during the Civil War and decided to stay.  He was an attorney who killed a Confederate colonel in a duel on Gay Street in Knoxville, long after the war.  Did Major Camp go to prison for that deed?  No, that was during the administration of President Grant who promoted Camp to district attorney of East Tennessee.  In addition to being an attorney, Camp was a businessman who negotiated contracts with experienced miners, who later taught his son George to be a miner in the Fraterville Mine. 


On Militia Hill, students saw where the Tennessee National Guard built its base of operations to restore order when Coal Creek miners fought them to preserve their jobs and way of life against the convict lease system    

 Not only did the convict lease system take jobs from the miners of Coal Creek, but it also subjected the convicts to inhumane working conditions.  By 1891, the convict lease system had become corrupted to the point where young African-American men were being arrested in metropolitan areas and forced to work in coal mines, railroads, and plantations.  Such treatment infuriated the Welsh miners because their kinsmen had been arrested for petty crimes in Great Britain, only to be shipped to the British penal colony of New South Wales in Australia. 

 Although the miners lost the final battle, they won the war when the state abolished convict leasing. 

Put May 15, 2015 on your calendar as the tentative date for unveiling the cannon at Militia Hill. That ceremony is guaranteed to go off with a bang!

Barry Thacker, Carol Moore and History Bill Carey

Fraterville mine entrance in the background


Mining was a dangerous profession in those days, but it was the miners who accepted the risk, not their families.  They could have picked up and moved west for opportunities as many others did, but that would have also subjected their families to dangers.  Some of the miners lived long a productive lives in Coal Creek, while others died in mine explosions such as the one at Fraterville in 1902

Most of the Fraterville miners had long-term relationships with Major Camp’s Coal Creek Coal Company.  The name of the town, Fraterville, means village of brothers.  Fathers brought their sons to work with them, along with their brothers and cousins.  Edith McKamy, Mary Vowell, and Liza Childress each lost their husbands and three sons in the explosion.  Elizabeth Dezern lost five sons and two sons-in-law in the Fraterville Mine explosion after her husband had died when a tree fell on him.  This was a sad lesson of the perils associated with families working together that was relived during WWII when the five Sullivan brothers were killed during the sinking of the USS Juneau.  

Fraterville was a large mine that needed various numbers of miners depending on market conditions.  Therefore, the mine routinely employed itinerant workers when additional miners were needed.  Newspaper accounts reported 216 miners who died, but the names of only 184 were recorded.  The additional 32 miners were itinerant workers.  Because no one claimed the bodies, they were buried beside the old railroad spur that led to the mine.  In 2012, a ground penetrating radar study identified the likely locations of those 32 graves.   

Why did the Fraterville Mine explode?  It became too large to ventilate with the equipment of the day.  Farewell messages written by the miners were published in newspapers nationwide, raising public awareness of the dangers of early 20th century coal mining, leading to the formation of the U.S. Bureau of Mines.  Has coal mining become safer?  In the early 1900s, over 2000 coal miners died each year compared to 20 last year.  The disasters that happened at Fraterville in 1902 and Cross Mountain in 1911 led to this dramatic improvement in mine safety.  


Farewell letters written by miners before they perished in the Fraterville Mine enabled the public throughout the U.S. to learn the names of coal miners when those letters were published.  They raised public awareness about the dangers of early 20th century coal mining, leading to the formation of the Bureau of Mines in 1910, which had a mandate to improve mine safety and rescue in this country.

Where did the Bureau of Mines have its first successful rescue?  Where was the use of canaries to check air quality and improve mine safety first used?  The answer to both questions is during the rescue at the Cross Mountain Mine, which exploded on December 9, 1911    

Inside historic Briceville Church built by Welsh Coal Miners in 1888


Stories about the Fraterville miners were told at these cemeteries where the miners are buried.   Farewell messages were read over the graves of Jacob Vowell and Powell Harmon.  A self-guided tour of Coal Creek cemeteries can be found at

History Bill Carey and his family at Longfield Cemetery

Reading the farewell message of Powell Harmon at the
graveside of Powell and his son Condy

Historic Leach Cemetery where 89 of the
Fraterville miners were laid to rest

History Bill reads the farewell message of Jacob Vowell
over the headstone of Jacob and Elbert

Looking up to the heavens above Fraterville Mine

Coal Creek Scholars at Fraterville Mine
Dillin Goodman, Noah Lamb, Nathan Goodman, Paul Long,
Chad Whittaker, Holley Smith, & Barry Thacker

Carol Moore and Coal Creek Scholars Holley Smith, Dillin & Nathan Goodman
and Noah Lamb at the Fraterville Mine

Longfield Cemetery

At the gravesite of Jacob Vowell & his son Elbert

Carol & Coal Creek Scholar Holley Smith

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