Knoxville News-Sentinel
7 October 2005

1911 mine disaster still haunts


Listen. The wails of widows and children mourning the dead nearly 94 years after the Cross Mountain Mine disaster still ring in memory. Sometimes they ring loudly enough in imagination to raise the hair on the back of my neck. But mine's a special case.

My grandfather, Col. Isaac Williams, never made it to work that grim day of Dec. 9, 1911, when the mine exploded at Briceville, near present-day Lake City and Norris. A mere teen at the time, he was barred from working the day of the disaster because he'd refused to cross a picket line some days or weeks earlier.

Otherwise, he might've been numbered among the dead, and I would not be here to write this. As it was, Grandpa lived long enough to tell his many grandchildren six decades later about walking down the railroad tracks on his way to help retrieve the bodies of 84 men. I once heard him say that every house along the way echoed with the cries of widows and children.

The Coal Creek Watershed Foundation is seeking descendants of those mining families for a walking tour of sites associated with the 1911 Cross Mountain Mine disaster. The tour, which is free and open to the public, will run from 9 a.m. until noon, Oct. 15. Those attending will gather at Briceville Elementary School, hike to Cross Mountain Miners' Circle, Briceville Cemetery, the abandoned Cross Mountain Mine portal, then back to Briceville School (2.5 miles round trip by road).

Later, there'll be live music at a church built by Welsh miners in 1888 and other free events. For more information, phone Carol Moore at (865) 584-0344, or visit www.coalcreekaml.com.

The Cross Mountain disaster was the second horrific mining disaster to strike the hills and hollows surrounding Briceville in less than a decade's time. Graveyards thereabouts hold clusters of tombstones on which all the dates read the same - May 19, 1902 - the date of the Fraterville Mine Disaster.

That tragedy tolls loudest in lore because, at the time, it was the second worst mining disaster in American history, if measured in lost lives. One hundred-eighty-four men, some barely more than boys, perished that day, when coal dust ignited and swept a storm of fire and poison gases through the underground labyrinth near Briceville.

Yet, the Cross Mountain disaster must've been nearly as wrenching, coming so soon on the heels of the first. Both recede now, kept alive only by the faithful, who are busy building institutional memory of those haunting times.

Memory has been called a mystic chord. If true, maybe it explains the almost magical power wielded by words recorded in those times. I can't offer words now more searing than those bequeathed by miners who perished in the disasters - messages they wrote with stubs of pencils on paper scraps, on lunch pails or scratched into wood or the slate walls of underground chambers.

"We are shut up in the head of the entry and the bad air is closing in on us fast and it is now about 12 o'clock. Dear Ellen, I have to leave you in a bad condition. But dear wife set your trust in the Lord to help you raise my little children. Ellen take care of my little darling Lily. If we never live to get out we are not hurt but only perished for air . Elbert said for you to meet him in heaven . Powell Harmon's watch is in Andy Woods' hand. Oh! how I wish to be with you . Bury me and Elbert in the same grave by Little Eddy . Goodbye Lily, goodbye Jimmie Goodbye Horace. We are together. Is 25 minutes after two. There is a few of us alive yet. Oh God for one more breath. Ellen, remember me as long as you live. Goodbye darling." - Jacob L. Vowell.

Such notes were saved and pressed into family Bibles. Others were photographed. Some have been displayed in museums. You've likely read them here more than once.

"To George Hutson's wife. If I don't see you no more bury me in the clothing I have. I want you to meet me in heaven. Goodbye. Do as you wish." - G. Hutson.

"Dear wife and Children: My time is come to die . Teach the children to believe in Jesus . It is now 10 minutes till 10 and we are almost smothered. It is our time to go. 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 mines." - Powell Harmon.

And this one, from Eugene Ault, that mingles the daily with the eternal:

"Dear Father, Mother, Brothers, and Sisters, I guess I come to die. Well I started out and come to the side track and Alonzo Wood is with me. Air is not much now. Well, all be good and I aim to pray to God to save me and all of you. Tell Clarence to wear out my clothes, give him my trunk. I guess I'll never be with you any more. So goodbye. Give them all my love. Give Bessie Robbins a stickpin of mine. Tell her goodbye."

Don Williams is the founding editor of New Millennium Writings. You may write to him at PO Box 2463, Knoxville, TN., 37901, e-mail him at donwilliams7@charter.net or phone him at 428-0389.

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