Two farmers, father and son, were plowing the soil for corn planting on the slope of the mountain in Anderson County near sunrise on a sunny spring day -- Monday, May 19, 1902 -- when they felt the earth tremble beneath their feet.
William "Uncle Willy" Morgan, an Englishman by birth, was a veteran coal miner working at the Fraterville Mine just miles down the road from Coal Creek, now Lake City, on the same morning. Mining was brutally hard work and dangerous. He had seen his share of death and maiming injury.
Roof falls and explosions had killed many of his miner friends over the years. Yet, the survivors returned to the damp, dark holes because it was honest work.
Anderson County produced more coal in Tennessee than any other county. Mines honeycombed the mountains. Coal from Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Illinois fueled the Industrial Revolution. Strong-armed and strong-minded men mined the coal. They worked hard, drank heavily, and died young.
Just 10 years before in 1892, the miners had revolted against the state and prevailed in their battle to keep convicts out of the mines where they competed with free labor. The insurrection was known as the Coal Creek War and was fought along the same valleys and on the same mountains where now only free miners -- black and white -- dug the coal.
The state had built Brushy Mountain Prison across the mountain on the edge of Morgan County in 1896 and now used the convicts to mine coal from the state's own coal mines.
The seams of coal that streaked through the Tennessee mountains in sinuous layers were, at most, four to five feet thick. Above the veins of coal, natural slate roofs had to be reinforced or they would fall with deadly results. Miners worked either on their knees or squatting with pick and shovel to dig and load the coal in cars pulled to the mine entrance by mules or the new pulley systems.
Morgan had survived three mine explosions that had killed all the others who were working with him. He seemed to have a lucky charm about him. His luck ran out on May 19, 1902.
The Fraterville Mine connected to the Thistle Mine on the other side of the mountain. All of the land was owned by the Coal Creek Mining and Manufacturing Co. which did neither mining nor manufacturing of its own. It was in the land-lease business, and many coal companies leased mineral rights from the company. It is still in business today and maintains an office in the First Tennessee Plaza Building in Knoxville.
The Fraterville Mine also was near the Knoxville Iron Co.'s coal mine which had been closed for years and was full of deadly and explosive gas.
On the preceding Saturday, a young miner in the Fraterville Mine had accidentally broken through a wall connecting to the Knoxville Iron Co. Mine almost two miles inside the mountain. He immediately smelled the bad air, doused his lantern, and worked feverishly with other miners to close the hole. Satisfied that they had filled the opening to where no bad air or deadly gas would get in from the closed mine, the miners ended their shift, drew their wages, and went to Coal Creek to drink up part of their money before having their day of rest.
On Monday morning, the shift of over 170 signed in and began the mile or more trek into the heart of the mountain around 7 a.m. The mine's main entrance had rooms off of it to the left and right. It turned and had more entries. As they entered the mine, the men grabbed their own picks and shovels.
Ernest McDonald saw that someone had exchanged his pick for a dull one. He lingered to sharpen the pick for the day's work and began his walk in -- about 15 minutes behind the main group. About a thousand feet in, McDonald was knocked off his feet by a terrific blast of cold air.
No one outside had any indication that anything was amiss inside the mine. There was no loud boom to be heard. There was no great burst of smoke or dust from the mine entry. Only the farmers on top of the mountain felt the earth move. Over the mountain at the Thistle Mine, some miners saw a puff of smoke rise about 100 feet from the air exhaust shaft but thought it was only the furnace tender blowing some accumulated coal dust out.
As soon as McDonaId was able to get back to his feet, he realized there had been a terrible blast deep in the mine.
"My God! Boys, do come back," he yelled. Then he turned and ran. He was overtaken shortly by a "muffled, crashing roar, as if a thousand cannon had been fired simultaneously."
McDonald continued to run until he could see the light of the mine opening ahead. But he was caught by the blast and hurled off his feet and against a wall. The force pinned him to the wall for seconds that seemed like hours. Then he dropped to the floor, his arms and legs broken. He crawled into a spring that ran through the mine about 200 yards from the entrance and put his head into the water. That's as far as he got.
A town in shock
McDonald was pulled from the spring by Lew Card of the Beech Grove Mine. McDonald suffered broken bones, burned skin, and seared lungs from the explosion. He was the only miner who lived long enough to make a statement.
"This suffering is far worse than the death the others met. I would have rather died like them than the way I'm going now," he said. He died later the same day.
George Camp, mine superintendent, was reached by phone and was at the mine within 10 minutes of the 7:20 a.m. explosion.
"Even then no one knew the explosion had occurred by outward signs," he said.
Camp and a few others began a cautious journey into the mine. Less than 90 feet inside they found the unconscious Morgan. They grabbed him up and went back out. Morgan was alive, but barely.
Camp called all the other mines for men to work as rescuers. Within the hour hundreds poured into the cove where the Fraterville Mine was located. Weeping and wailing women and children followed along not knowing the extent of the damage or the number of fatalities.
The first task was to get good air into the mine through partitioning and ventilation. About 2,200 feet into the mine, Camp and the others came upon a blockage where the roof had fallen onto the coal cars. Another miner, Robert Smith, was found dead there, a victim of suffocation.
This time on their retreat from the mine, Camp and his helpers were met by thousands at the entrance. Women were frantically trying to force their way into the mine wanting to find their husbands, sons, and brothers. The men had to forcefully hold the women back.
By way of the Thistle Mine, Camp and the rescuers made their way to the Fraterville Mine. Over 4,000 feet inside they found 22 more dead, most victims of the original explosion.
"A young boy of the number had his head blown completely off. Both arms were torn off and he was otherwise horribly mutilated. Some of the men had not died by the original explosion because they were found in the posture of trying to burrow their heads into solid rock in order to avoid the poisonous gas," Camp reported when he came out.
The force of the blast was demonstrated by what Camp and other rescuers witnessed. A mule's mangled body was blown three hundred yards from where she had been tethered. Forty-gauge iron rail and tramway track had been picked up and twisted like straw. Heavy oak beams were strewn throughout.
As the day drew on, no survivors were found. As each body was brought to the surface, a pitiful line of women and other miners looked at them in hopes of identifying them or in faith that their relatives were not dead.
Morgan was carried to a house where a doctor examined him. Nearly every bone in his body was broken. His thigh bones punctured his flesh and were visible. A doctor told him his only hope would be to have his legs amputated. Morgan refused. What kind of miner would he be without legs? He died later in the day.
By the next morning, hope for any survivors had dwindled while body after body was brought to the surface. Calls went out to Knoxville for caskets and undertakers. John Donahue from Hall and Donahue responded, along with Arthur Mann, S.L. Stallings, and Frank Hodge from E.B. Mann and Co. Theirs would be a grisly and agonizing task of burying the dead and comforting the widows and children. Coal Creek became the city of the dead.
Numbers kept mounting -- 80, 90, 111, 135 -- approaching the number of all the miners in Fraterville.
In the entire village of Fraterville, there were 42 houses. Each had been home to large families of miners -- fathers, sons, and brothers. Now there were only three men left in the entire village. Widows and fatherless children were all that remained.
When the number of dead rose above the 170 who had checked into the mine, the explanation was that everyone did not sign in. Fathers sometimes signed in for their sons, and they worked together. So, the exact number of miners in Fraterville on the morning of the explosion was unknown. They just had to keep looking.
THURSDAY: The dying miners write letters to their loved ones and the area's residents grieve.
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