The Courier-Journal
Louisville, Kentucky
May 19, 2002


Victims' kin mark mine-blast centennial
1902 explosion left hundreds dead in Tennessee

By Duncan Mansfield
Associated Press


Spectators gathered at the Fraterville coal mine after the explosion on May 19, 1902.

Barry Thacker has helped organize reunions of the descendants of those killed in the Tennessee mine blast.

LAKE CITY, Tenn. -- Two hundred men and boys entered the Fraterville coal mine a century ago. None came out alive, but their voices still resonate in the farewell letters they left behind.

''Oh God, for one more breath,'' doomed miner Jacob Vowell wrote to his wife, Ellen, hours after the blast on May 19, 1902.

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.

''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.''

The official death toll was 184, though historians put it closer to 214 -- making it one of the deadliest mining disasters in U.S. history.

TO MARK THE disaster's centennial, more than 100 descendants of the victims from as far away as California, Pennsylvania and Florida are gathering this weekend in this Appalachian town 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 -- are planned.

The names of the dead will be recounted. Their letters will be read. And the song ''When the Mines Grew Still in Fraterville'' will be sung along with ''Rock of Ages.''

''You see all these headstones?'' Barry Thacker, president of the Coal Creek Watershed Association, asked 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 in the area through mine reclamation. Along the way, it rekindled interest in the disaster and organized reunions for descendants.

At the time of the explosion, Lake City was known as Coal Creek. The name was changed in 1939 to reflect the town's proximity to the Tennessee Valley Authority's new Norris Lake. The Fraterville mine, opened in 1870, closed in 1927.

Today, the mine's sheer, rockface entrance is covered by forest. Only a moss-covered stone foundation remains where an engine once pulled coal wagons from the 3-mile-deep, 4-foot-tall hole in the mountain.

THE DISASTER occurred at 7:30 a.m. on a Monday, shortly after the miners began their 10hour 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 90 minutes after Vowell penned his last note.

Newspaper accounts said only three adult men were left in the community, along with 150 widows and nearly 1,000 fatherless children.

The miners' letters left a legacy. 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.''

The miners told their wives how to live without them. ''Do change your way of living,'' wrote one. ''Do as you wish,'' wrote another, freeing his wife to remarry if she wanted.

They described how to distribute their belongings. They expressed their faith and their hope to meet loved ones in the hereafter.

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 from Fraterville at the Cross Mountain mine.

Father and son were buried side by side in Longfield Cemetery.

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