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Memorial Service Marks the 100th Anniversary of the Fraterville Mine Disaster Sunday 19 May 2002
author: Jonathan Dudley (

May 19 1902, the coal mine in Fratersville, Tenn exploded. The 100th Anniversary of this disaster, which killed more than 200 people, was marked by a memorial service which today.

Memorial Service Marks the 100th Anniversary of the Fraterville Mine Disaster

At 7:30 am, the bell of the Briceville Community Church rang as about a hundred people gathered to remember the men and boys who died in the Fraterville Mine Disaster one hundred years ago. The small church, which was built in 1896, sits on a hill over-looking the few buildings –the elementary school, the post office, and a health clinic- which surround the main intersection in Briceville, Tenn. Community members and relatives of those who died in the mine explosion, gathered participated in an early morning service which was based on an outline from a service organized by church, business, and union leaders the year of the disaster.

Two hundred and fourteen people died in the Fraterville mine explosion which occurred at 7:32 on May 19, 1902. The disaster killed almost all the adult men who lived in the Fraterville community, a mining town which grew up around one of the mines on Coal Creek which is about 30 miles north of Knoxville. Many of the victims of the explosion were boys who had gone into the mine to help their fathers load coal. The explosion which sealed the entrance to the mine was caused by a build up of methane gas in the poorly ventilated mine. Those who did not die instantly were trapped where they worked until they suffocated several hours after the explosion. It took almost a week for rescue crews to recover the bodies. The disaster remains one of the worst industrial accidents in the South.

Before the service those gathered at the church heard from two local residents and representative of the United Mine Workers . Boomer Winfrey, a local historian, spoke about the conditions that the miners worked under and pointed out that many of those who died in the explosion were veterans of the Coal Creek War. This struggle, fought between miners and the state militia, helped to put an end to Tennessee’s convict labor system. Winfrey called these men heroes. Fred Wright of the UMWA, explained that every law about mine safety has come about because of a disaster. He said that every year hundreds of coal miners die because of accidents or mining related illnesses such as black lung, but it is only after many people die at once that the government makes reforms. He said that the tragedy in Fratersville compelled other miners to organize for better health and safety laws.

Elizabeth Smith Pirtle spoke about the African American miners who died in the Fraterville disaster. At least eleven of the miners who were trapped in the mines were people of color. These men were not allowed to buried in the same area as the other disaster victims. Pirtle and Winfrey both pointed out that African Americans had helped found the communities along coal creek, and worked and died a long side white miners. However their existence, let alone contributions are rarely acknowledged.

During the service family members and other volunteers read the names of 184 miners who died in the explosion. Not included in this list were unknown itinerate miners who also died in 1902 disaster. Before the service closed Winfrey read several letters written by the miners trapped inside the mine. The service closed with combined choirs from two Briceville churches leading every one in the hymn “When we all get to Heaven.”

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