Mining disaster remembered 100 years later
May 18, 2002 Posted: 1:09 PM EDT (1709 GMT)
"Oh God, for one more breath," doomed coal miner Jacob Vowell wrote to his wife.
"Ellen, I want you to live right and come to heaven," Vowell scribbled on a notepad used to log how much coal he dug each day. "Raise the children the best you can. Oh! how I wish to be with you. Goodbye to all of you. Goodbye."
Vowell was one of 184 people to die in the blast 100 years ago Sunday, though historians put the death toll closer to 214. Newspaper accounts said only three adult men were left in the Appalachian community, along with 150 widows and nearly 1,000 fatherless children.
To mark the centennial anniversary, more than 100 descendants from as far away as California, Pennsylvania and Florida are gathering this weekend in this town just north of Knoxville to remember the miners.
Tours of the 20 cemeteries where the miners are buried, a visit to the mine and a memorial service in Briceville Community Church -- following the same program as a century ago -- were planned.
The names of the dead are being recounted. Their letters are being read. "When the Mines Grew Still in Fraterville" is being sung along with "Rock of Ages."
"You see all these headstones," Barry Thacker, president of the Coal Creek Watershed Association, said as he walked among the graves of 65 miners at Leach Cemetery. "They say, 'Gone but not forgotten.' 'Gone but not forgotten.' 'Gone but not forgotten.' But they were forgotten."
Thacker's group formed two years ago to improve water quality through mine reclamation activities. Along the way, it rekindled interest in the disaster and organized reunions for descendants.
Louise Nelson, 82, of Knoxville said she didn't know the details of her grandfather's life or death until contacted by the association. Her grandfather, David Dezern, was one of five Dezern brothers and two brothers-in-law who died in the explosion.
She can now pass that history on to her children and grandchildren.
"I want them to always remember their ancestors," she said. "How hard they worked and all the things that they went through so we might have a better life now."
At the first reunion last year, Nelson said she found relatives, friends and comfort.
"When we go up there we are together as a family," she said. "We are always laughing and talking and having a good time. We always take some little flowers.
"But when we get back in the car we are all so silent. It's just a sadness and an emptiness."
At the time of the explosion, Lake City was known as Coal Creek. The name was changed in 1939 to reflect the Tennessee Valley Authority's new Norris Lake. The Fraterville mine, opened in 1870, was shuttered in 1927.
Today, the mine's sheer rockface entrance is covered by forest. Only a moss-covered stone foundation remains from which an engine once pulled coal wagons from the hole in the mountain.
The disaster happened at 7:30 a.m. on a Monday, shortly after the miners began their 10-hour day of digging with picks and shovels for 50 cents a ton. The open-flame oil lamp on a miner's cap is thought to have sparked the blast, either igniting a pocket of gas seeping from a neighboring abandoned mine or directly igniting thick coal dust in the air.
Fearing another explosion, rescuers didn't enter the mine until 4 p.m. -- about an hour and a half after Vowell penned his last note. Vowell, his 14-year-old son Elbert and two dozen other miners sealed themselves off from the deadly post-explosion gases. But as the air supply dwindled along with hope for rescue, they prepared to die.
The miners' letters are practical, passionate, even poetic. They "represent the most dramatic writings that I have ever read," said John Rice Irwin, founder and director of the Museum of Appalachia.
One miner asked his family to repay his debts "if possible" and to bury him in a black suit. Another, perhaps worried about burial costs, told his wife to "bury me in the clothing I have."
Powell Harmon, 49, offered this advice to his sons Henry and Conda: "My boys, never work in the coal mines."
Conda Harmon didn't heed the warning. In 1911, he was one of 84 miners killed in an explosion a couple of miles away from Fraterville at the Cross Mountain mine.
Father and son were buried side by side in Longfield Cemetery.
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