The Oak Ridger
May 16, 2002
 

Dying miners wrote their final farewells
by Chris Cawood
for The Oak Ridger

In Wednesday's edition, Kingston author and writer Chris Cawood began the story of the worst mining disaster in the nation's history -- the Fraterville Mine Explosion of May 19, 1902. The explosion that left an estimated 217 men and boys dead occurred in the Fraterville community between Lake City, then called Coal Creek, and Briceville.

Besides approaching the largest mine disaster in the country, the Fraterville blast wiped out entire households and families of men. James Webb suffered the deaths of two sons, three grandsons, two nephews, and two sons-in-law.

One woman lost five sons and two sons-in-law in the explosion. Mrs. Dizern's (first name unknown) five sons: Cord, John, Samuel, David and George were all killed. George Dizern's identification was a matter of controversy and mistake. A body was identified as his early on and buried. Then, two days later another body was positively identified as his.

"Well, if that man is George Dizern, who is the man we buried Thursday?" a miner asked.

Another time, two arms and a leg were recovered and buried without identification. Then a few days later, a trunk of a boy with only one leg attached was found. The remains of little Johnny Wallace were then reunited with the previously buried parts.

Many families lost more than one of their men. The list of dead shows: four Adkinses; two Allens; three Alreds; three Bennetts; four Brookses; three Chapmans; four Childresses; three Coopers; four Evanses; three Elliotts; four Greens; two Goodmans; two Goinses; three Hightowers; two Hendrens; three Hutsons; three Hatmakers; two Leinarts; three Leaches; three Millers; three McKameys; two McGhees; two Murrays; two Orbens; two Pittmans; five Reynoldses; two Riggses; two Robertses; two Stansberrys; three Smiths; two Smiddys; six Sharps; four Slovers; two Vandergriffs; four Wilsons; two Whittens; two Webbers; two Witts; three Webbs; and two Woodses.

Two well-known area coal mining families suffered the highest loss. The Vowells lost seven and the Wallaces lost eight.

LETTERS FROM THE DEAD

All of the 217 victims of Fraterville did not die suddenly from the explosion. Rescue workers found one room to which five men had retreated and had attempted to board and fill up the opening to keep the poisonous gas out. There in the corner of the room four miners sat with their heads resting on their knees, and behind them was one more who had tried to burrow his head into the base of the wall. All were dead without a mark on them.

The most haunting find came at a room where the scene was later described as "The Last Prayer Meeting." Fourteen men were found slumped over. Pieces of paper and a pencil were in the hands of one and a watch in the hands of another.

Jacob Vowell apparently was the leader of this group. In the few hours that they had left from the 7:20 a.m. explosion until they were believed to have died shortly after 2:30 p.m., these men hunkered together in the dark room with a miner's lamp occasionally shining through. There they barricaded themselves against the smothering gas and waited for their good air to run out.

Vowell took pencil in hand and scribbled a last farewell for him and his son, Elbert, who was with him. He also acted as the scribe for some of the other men who were trapped in the room. Jacob had a wife, Ellen, and other children -- Lillie, Jimmie, and Horace.

"Dear Ellen,

"We are shut up in the head of the entry with but little good air left. The bad air is closing in fast. It is now 12 O'clock. Dear Ellen, I have to leave you in bad condition. But, dear wife, put your trust in the Lord to help you raise my little children. Ellen, take care of my little darling Lillie. Ellen, little Elbert said he had trusted in the Lord. Charles Wood says he is saved, if he never lives to see the outside again, he would meet his mother in heaven.

"We are not hurt bad, but perish for want of air. There are but few of us here, and I don't know where the other men are at. Elbert said for you all to meet us in heaven. All the children meet us both in heaven. JAKE VOWELL"

Vowell then wrote for Henry Beech this succinct letter:

"Alice, do the best you can. I am going to rest."

Scott Chapman in his final words written through the hands of Vowell admonished his wife:

"I have found the Lord. Do change your way of living. God be with you. Good-bye."

James Brooks told his wife:

"My Dear wife and baby, I want you to go back home and take baby. So, good-bye. I am gone to heaven. I want you to meet me there."

John Hendren said:

"Dear, Darling, mother, brother and sister. I have gone to heaven. Dear friends, don't grieve over me. Oh, Dear! Stay at my father's or your father's and pay all that I owe, if possible. Bury me at Pleasant Hill if it suits you. Bury me in black. It is 1:30. I have not suffered much yet."

Jake Vowell closed out the letters:

"Horace, Elbert said for you to wear his shoes. Powell Harmon's watch is in Andy Woods' hands. Ellen, I want you to live right and go to heaven where we may meet. Raise the children the best you can. Bury me and Elbert in the same grave by little Eddie. It is 2:25 o'clock. There are a few of us alive yet. Good-bye, Darling. J. L. VOWELL"

CAUSE AND EFFECT

No one knew for sure what caused the disaster. State Mine Inspector R.A. Shiflett said it was for certain gas and not dust. He had done a mine inspection of Fraterville in 1900 and found it in fairly good condition. He recommended more ventilation, which had been accomplished.

The neighboring Knoxville Iron Co.'s deserted coal mine was seen as the possible culprit. There was the break through to the deserted mine shaft on Saturday and the attempt to fill it up. The Sunday off gave Fraterville time to fill with the gas from the Knoxville Iron Co. mine. When the first shift entered on Monday morning, no one had been deep into the mine since late Saturday. The miners walked into a mine filled with gas, and their lamps were the torches that lit the bomb.

There were other possible explanations, such as blasting powder stored in the mine. But none could account for the force of the blast and the death toll except a mine completely full of gas.

The explosion left over 1,200 widows and fatherless children. All of Anderson County, and especially the communities of Briceville, Fraterville, and Coal Creek, was affected. Some of the miner victims were old enough to have fought in the Civil War. Others were mere boys -- 13, 14, and 15 years old.

The mine reopened shortly. Many lawsuits were filed. The mine owner and superintendent were indicted on misdemeanor charges. But none of this meant anything to families who lost their husbands, fathers, and sons along with their sources of livelihood. There was no Social Security or workers compensation. Children, mothers, and wives had to depend on other family members who had suffered equal losses.

Today, the mine entrance to Fraterville is grown over with brush. Mining is mainly done on the surface now. No one is alive who witnessed this tragedy. In cemeteries in and around Lake City, people who visit point and wonder at the number of grave markers that bear the same date of death -- May 19, 1902.

To miners past and present, FRATERVILLE is a word that means disaster and heartache.

Chris Cawood is the author of "Tennessee's Coal Creek War."

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