The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution

May 18, 2001
Section: News
Edition: Metro; The Atlanta Constitution
Page: A17

Coal mine disaster haunts Tennessee city
Date spotlights fight for safety

   KEN MINK; For the Journal-Constitution

Lake City, Tenn. -- It has been nearly a century since the early morning call went out to a Knoxville funeral home for shipment of 200 coffins to the Fraterville Coal Mine.

But the nightmare of May 19, 1902, is a lingering memory for the people of Lake City and the descendants of the 184 miners who died. Each year, on this date, townspeople gather in the middle of Leach Cemetery on the edge of what was then called Coal Creek for a somber memorial service.

At the time, it was the second-worst coal mining accident in American history, behind the Scofield, Utah, disaster two years earlier that killed 200. Grave diggers in Coal Creek worked two days burying the dead.

The Fraterville tragedy still ranks as the worst coal mine disaster in the South and is seventh on the list of the all-time-worst coal mine disasters in the United States. Some researchers argue that the toll actually was higher, citing 1902 newspaper accounts that give the total as 214 when transient workers were added in.

The disaster left about 150 widows and about 1,000 fatherless children. According to one account, only three men were left alive in the village of Coal Creek.

In a letter, preserved at the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn., one of the victims, James A. Brooks, wrote as he breathed the last of the thinning air: "My dear wife and baby. I want you to go back home and take the baby, so goodbye. I am going to Heaven. I want you to meet me there."

The Coal Creek Watershed Foundation has begun planning a centennial reunion of mine victims' relatives for May 19, 2002. The Rev. Roy Daugherty, who is helping spearhead the gathering, has Boy Scouts helping track down addresses of descendants.

The foundation is asking anyone who might know mine victims' relatives to contact the foundation at P.O. Box 31707, Knoxville, TN 37930-1707, or call 865-291-2898.

This year's anniversary is being recognized the same week President Bush outlines an energy policy that relies, among other things, on coal. Vice President Dick Cheney, who is heading a White House task force on energy, put in a good word for coal, which he said remains the most available, most affordable way to generate electric power.

The Fraterville mine explosion was one of two in the area at the turn of the century. On Dec. 9, 1911, 84 men and boys were killed in an explosion at the Cross Mountain Mine in Briceville, two miles from Coal Creek.

Mine disasters were not uncommon in the United States from 1875 through 1950, but the number of large-scale mine tragedies has greatly decreased since 1970 under tighter safety regulations.

Mine disasters, however, remain part of the folklore of working underground and have gotten increasing attention in recent years as part of the harsh reality of mining history.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration has a mine disaster display at its Washington headquarters that includes film footage and artifacts.

The city of Nellis in Boone County, W.Va., is working to establish a National Coal Miners' Memorial in the heart of coal country. The underground exhibit would include a replica of a room-and-pillar mine common in the coal industry and a sculpture depicting men trapped by a rock fall.

The plan also calls for displays listing the names of all coal miners killed in coal mining accidents. Collecting those names has become a problem. MSHA records indicate 104,388 fatalities since records were first kept, but researchers for the memorial organization say their list has grown to nearly 127,000.

From 1875 through 1950, America experienced 667 mining accidents in which five or more miners were killed, the national industry standard for classification as a disaster. Over the past 51 years there have been 58 such disasters, but only 14 since 1976.

The two largest coal mining tragedies in recent history were the 1968 disaster at Consol No. 9 Mine at Farmington, W.Va., in which 78 people died and the 1972 disaster at Saunders, W.Va., in which 125 people died.

The uproar over the Farmington disaster prompted establishment of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which empowered federal officials to conduct stringent safety inspections and require mandatory safety equipment.

Fines for violations were stiffened. Fines totaled several million dollars in the Blue Diamond Scotia case, for example.

The crackdown was a long time coming. Congress was first urged to pass tougher mining laws after the Fairmont Coal Co. mine disaster Dec. 6, 1907, in Monoghah, W.Va., in which 362 men and boys died. That remains the single worst coal mining disaster in the United States.

The memory of the Fraterville tragedy five years earlier is kept alive in letters and other mementos at the Museum of Appalachia at Norris, where visitors can view a copy of the program from the first memorial services, June 8, 1902.

The program captures some of the horror of the disaster:

"Some were killed instantly, some were shut-up in small passages and rooms and probably lived but a short time, while a goodly number were able to escape to the headings and entries in parts of the mine away from the explosion and exist for several hours. . . . The presence of unbearable heat and of after-damp in the mine prevented the escape and caused the deaths of all those who were not injured in the explosion."

ON THE WEB: Mine Safety and Health Administration: www.msha.gov

Coal Creek Watershed Foundation: www.coalcreekaml.com 
Map: Map shows location of Lake City, Tennessee. / DALE E. DODSON / Staff

Graphic: WORST DISASTERS IN U.S. COAL MINES

 Monongah, W.Va., Dec. 6, 1907 (362 killed)

 Dawson, N. M., Oct. 22, 1913 (263 killed)

 Cherry, Ill., Nov. 13, 1909 (259 killed)

Jacobs Creek, Pa., Dec. 19, 1907 (239 killed)

Scofield, Utah, May 1, 1900 (200 killed)

Mather, Pa., May 19, 1928 (195 killed)

Coal Creek, Tenn., May 19, 1902 (184 killed)

Eccles, W.Va., April 28, 1914 (181 killed)

Castle Gate, Utah, March 8, 1924 (172 killed)

Marianna, Pa., Nov. 28, 1908 (154 killed)

Sources: United Mine Workers of America, Mine Safety and Health Administration

Copyright 2001 The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution

 

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