Oh, God for one more breath....Goodbye, darling
(Self-guided tour of Coal Creek mine disaster cemeteries)

Are you interested in teaching your children about life’s priorities while exploring local history?  If so, spend an afternoon visiting graves of Coal Creek miners who wrote farewell messages after mine explosions trapped them underground.  These testaments, written by men taking their last breaths, provide a unique perspective on what is important in life.  

The subject of each message is the same....God and family.  You or your children may want to read each farewell message aloud over the grave of the miner who wrote it.  A suggested itinerary for visiting these cemeteries, and selected farewell messages, include:

Longfield Baptist Church Cemetery
Jacob Vowell shares a common headstone with his son, Harvey Elbert Vowell, who was 14 when he died with his father in the Fraterville Mine.  They are buried next to the headstone of Edward Vowell, another son of Jacob who died as an infant.  Before suffocating, Jacob wrote: “The bad air is closing in on us fast.  Dear Ellen, I leave you in bad condition, but set your trust in the Lord to help you raise my little children. Little Elbert said he had trusted in the Lord and said for you all to meet him in heaven.  Horace, Elbert said for you to wear his shoes and clothing.  Bury me and Elbert in the same grave by little Eddie. Goodbye Ellen, Lillie, Minnie, Jimmie, Horace. Oh God, for one more breath.  Ellen, remember me as long as you live. Goodbye darling.”

Directions to mine disaster cemeteries:

     Coal mine explosions at Fraterville on May 19, 1902, and Briceville on December 9, 1911, killed nearly 300 men and boys in the Coal Creek watershed of Anderson County, Tennessee.  The youngest miner was 12 years old.  Most died instantly, but some lived up to two days before suffocating.  Twelve left poignant farewell messages, written while awaiting death.

     Cemeteries where these miners are buried are marked with “Coal Creek Mine Disaster Burial Site” signs.  A self-guided tour begins at Longfield Cemetery, located on the north side of Norris Freeway, 0.3 miles east of I-75 exit 128 in Lake City, TN.

     Continue the tour by turning right onto Norris Freeway from Longfield Cemetery, proceeding to the first stoplight, and turning right onto Highway 25W.  Wilson Cemetery is located behind Days Inn adjacent to I-75. 

     From Wilson Cemetery, go south on Highway 25W.  Turn right at the second stoplight onto Highway 116 and proceed 4 miles to Briceville Cemetery, passing the town of Fraterville on the way.  Park at Briceville School or the clinic and walk up the hill to Briceville Church Cemetery.

     From Briceville Cemetery, return to the intersection of Highways 25W and 116, turn right, and proceed 0.8 miles on Highway 25W to Old Lake City Highway.  Turn right on Old Lake City Highway and drive 4.5 miles to Pleasant Hill Cemetery. 

     From Pleasant Hill Cemetery, return to the intersection of Old Lake City Highway and Highway 25W.  Turn right on Highway 25W, drive 0.8 miles to New Clear Branch Road, and turn left.  Follow the signs to Leach Cemetery at Clear Branch Baptist Church.  More details about these men and boys can be found on the Internet at www.coalcreekaml.com.

 

Briceville Elementary School students reading
the farewell message of Powell Harmon
over his grave in Longfield Cemetery

Powell Harmon is buried next to his son, William Condy Harmon, in Longfield Cemetery.  Before he suffocated in the Fraterville Mine, Powell wrote: “Dear wife and children, my time has come to die.  I trust in Jesus.  Teach the children to believe in Jesus. We are all almost smothered.  I hope to meet you all in heaven. May God bless you all wife and children for Jesus sake goodbye until we meet to part no more. My boys, never work in the coal mines. Henry and Condy be good boys and stay with your mother and trust for Jesus sake.”  Condy did not follow his father’s advice.  He died nine years later in the Cross Mountain Mine explosion in Briceville.  If you wanted to support your family in Coal Creek in the early 1900's, you mined coal.  Today, a good education provides students with unlimited opportunities like Powell Harmon’s great-grandson who owns a software development company.  Coal mining has also changed.  In the early 1900's, thousands of coal miners died each year.  In 2004, 25 coal miners died while providing the fuel that generated over half of the electricity used in the U.S.  An experienced mining machine operator can now support his or her family by earning up to $80,000 per year.
Wilson Cemetery
Frank Sharp, who is buried in Wilson Cemetery behind Days Inn, left a farewell message to his wife.  Since he had no paper, he scratched his message on a piece of slate saying, “Dear Mabel, I am dying for air.  I will soon be gone.  Meet me in heaven.  Help Jesus.  Take care of the children and do the best you can.  Meet me in heaven”

Briceville Church Cemetery
Briceville Church was built in 1888 by Welsh immigrant miners and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.  Eugene Ault is buried at the rear of Briceville Cemetery.  Before suffocating in the Cross Mountain (Briceville) Mine with Condy Harmon, Eugene wrote on a barricade wall in the mine:  “Dear father, mother, brothers, and sisters, I guess I come to die. Air is not much now. Well, all be good and I aim to pray to God to save me and all of you.  I guess I'll never be with you any more, so goodbye.  Tell Clarence to wear out my clothes.  Give Bessie Robbins a stickpin of mine. Tell her goodbye.”  Eugene’s farewell message is inscribed on his headstone.  Clarence was his younger brother and Bessie was his girlfriend.  The names of all 84 miners who perished in the mine explosion in Briceville are included on a monument in New Circle Cemetery, which is 0.5 miles south of Briceville Cemetery off Highway 116 on Circle Cemetery Road.

Farewell message from Cross Mountain written on barricade wall inside the mine

 

Pleasant Hill Baptist Church Cemetery
John Hendren is buried near the center of the cemetery at a large headstone.  Before he suffocated in the Fraterville Mine, John wrote a lengthy message that is inscribed on his headstone.

Leach Cemetery at Clear Branch Baptist Church
A kiosk at the cemetery entrance, built as a Boy Scout Eagle Project, tells the story of the Fraterville miners.  Fraterville was the worst disaster in the history of mining in the South and folks in the Coal Creek watershed still celebrate Memorial Day on May 19th.  The large monument at the rear of Leach Cemetery contains the names of 184 of the miners killed in the Fraterville Mine disaster.  Many of the Fraterville miners are buried in concentric circles around the monument including the five Dezern brothers and Henry Whitton who was 12 years old when he died with his father James.  Fraterville Miners' Circle in Leach Cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

Newspapers in 1902 reported that as many as 216 bodies were recovered from the mine, but only 184 were identified.  Itinerant miners killed in the explosion were not included in the official listing of fatalities because their names were unknown.  They are buried under simple fieldstones next to the railroad siding that leads to the abandoned Fraterville Mine.

Farewell messages written by the Coal Creek miners were printed in newspapers nationwide allowing the general public to know coal miners by name for the first time.  Increased public awareness about the dangers of mining resulted in new government safety regulations and development of rescue methods.  Advances in technology and improved mining practices make coal mining as safe today as many other professions. 

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

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

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