Coal Creek history comes to life for Briceville School
4th & 5th graders — honoring the miners of Fraterville
on the 115th anniversary of the explosion

19 May 2017




May 19, 1902, started out like most days in the coal fields of East Tennessee.  Wives of Fraterville miners such as Edith McKamey, Serepta Sharp, Mary Adkins, Ellen Vowell, and Josie Harmon fixed breakfast to get their husbands off to work and their children off to school or work.  Catherine Dezern’s husband had died in a logging accident a decade earlier, but she fixed a hot breakfast for her three unmarried sons, Car, Samuel, and George—her daughters-in-law Minnie and Lula did likewise for her sons John and David. 

While most of the Fraterville miners started the day with their families that morning, 32 of them ate at boarding houses or fended for themselves.  They were itinerant workers, who traveled from mine to mine to get short-term work. 

All those lives changed at 7:20 that morning, when the Great Fraterville Mine exploded.  Rescue crews searched valiantly for survivors, but none were found. It was the worst disaster in the history of mining in the South where 216 men and boys died on May 19, 1902.  Many of them were veterans of the Coal Creek War in which miners had fought the Tennessee National Guard to abolish convict leasing in Tennessee. 

Briceville Students stand where the entrance to the
Fraterville Mine was located at time of 19 May 1902

Briceville students learn about the Fraterville Ininerant miners
where all 32 of them are buried where their unidentified
bodies were brought by train from the mine

Students from Briceville’s fourth and fifth grade classes learned about them today on their 17th-annual history field trip, which started at the make-shift cemetery where Fraterville itinerant miners were buried adjacent to the old Fraterville railroad spur.  Stories about the Fraterville miners were told by living historian David R. Thomas, the Welsh miner/engineer who was born in Carmarthen, South Wales in 1839. 

Mr. Thomas told how he came to Coal Creek after the American Civil War as part of a contingent of Welsh miners who developed a coal mine to fuel the mills of the Knoxville Iron Company.  He lost his job to convict labor in 1877, but found work in the Fraterville Mine where he later became an apprentice to engineer C. G. Popp, which qualified him for his job as an engineer with the Provident Insurance Company.

At the abandoned Fraterville Mine portal, students heard how Major E. C. Camp opened the Fraterville Mine in 1870 and it had the reputation of being one of the safest mines in the state.  The name of the mine and surrounding town means, “Village of Brothers.”  Major Camp recruited experienced miners and encouraged them to bring their friends and relatives to work in the mine with them. 

Thomas told how he was on the rescue crew that found where 26 miners had barricaded themselves into a room of the mine awaiting rescue, but had suffocated before help arrived.  Ten of those miners wrote farewell letters to their families before suffocating.  All the letters had two common topics—God and family—which tells you all you need to know about life’s priorities in 1902. 

View walking from the Fraterville Mine

The peaceful woods of Fraterville

At Fraterville Miners Circle in Leach Cemetery, students found the headstones of the Dezern brothers.  They searched to see how many of them have the same surnames as Fraterville miners. 

Tshirts worn by Briceville students today contain words and symbols honoring each aspect of Coal Creek history.  The word “Nantglo” is Welsh for Coal Creek and honors the Welsh miners who developed the first mines in Coal Creek after the Civil War and taught mining skills to native Tennesseans.  The cannon represents the Coal Creek War when miners fought the Tennessee National Guard to abolish convict leasing in Tennessee.  “Oh God, for one more breath” comes from the farewell letter of miner Jacob Vowell, who suffocated after the Great Fraterville Mine exploded.  The caged canary was first used in America to test air quality during the rescue of miners after the Cross Mountain Mine exploded.   Miners wore red bandanas as their uniforms during the Coal Creek War, which explains why students wear red bandanas on our field trips. 

Saylor Hutchison read the farewell message of Jacob Vowell
over his and his son Elbert's grave

At Longfield Cemetery, students read the farewell letters of Jacob Vowell and Powell Harmon over their headstones. Powell’s great-great-great grandson read his farewell letter and students learned about the Legacy of Condy Harmon.  Condy died in the 1911 Cross Mountain Mine explosion and is buried next to his father.  That story can be found on one of the historical markers at Briceville Library.

Nehemiah Harmon, the great, great, great grandson of Powell Harmon
read his farewell message over his grave

At Wilson Cemetery, students found the common headstone of father John McKamey and his three sons, Andrew, William, and James, who all perished in the Fraterville Mine explosion.  Students also found the headstone of Frank Sharp, who wrote a farewell letter on a piece of slate before suffocating in the mine. 

Headstone of father John McKamey and his three sons, Andrew, William, and James
who all perished in the Fraterville Mine explosion

Do you know that the Coal Creek labor saga is now part of Tennessee’s education curriculum?  Most people think slavery ended in Tennessee with the Civil War, but that’s not true.  The Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution outlawed slavery except as punishment for crime.  The Tennessee Legislature used that loophole in the law to turn primarily African-American convicts into slave labor.  That is until Coal Creek miners put an end to that practice during the Coal Creek War.   

Students at historic Briceville Church and cemetery.  Listed on the National
Register of Historic Places and built in 1888 by
Welsh immigrant coal miners.

Traditional Cracker Barrel porch picture!


After lunch at Cracker Barrel, students visited Briceville Church, built in 1888 by Welsh miners and rang the church bell in honor of those who perished during the Fraterville and Cross Mountain Mine explosions.  On our field trip, the church served as a classroom where Thomas described the 1911 Cross Mountain Mine disaster and rescue—during the Coal Creek War, the church served as a temporary jail for miners captured by the Tennessee National Guard.

Dakota Harvey read the farewell letter of Eugene Ault who perished in the Cross Mountain Mine.  Students later found where his message is inscribed on his headstone in the cemetery of the church. 





Students then competed in the 2017 Dixie Eisteddfod for the best historical fiction essay.  The original Dixie Eisteddfod was held in 1890 in Knoxville, which was attended by Welsh miners from 10 states.  It was how the Welsh preserved their language and culture at a time when it was illegal to even speak the Welsh language in Great Britain.  It’s a tradition Briceville students preserve today. 

4th grade essay winners were:
Brandon Budrow & Meagan Kennedy

5th grade essay winners were:
Karmen Peters & Krystan Campbell

 Do you know that two of the sites visited today—Fraterville Miners Circle and
Briceville Church/ Cemetery—are listed on the National Register of Historic Places? 

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