Coal Creek Artifacts join
Davy Crockett's Rifle at
Museum of East Tennessee History

8 September 2017

View the whole event taped by
Coal Creek Scholar Andy Harness at



Treasures of the Fraterville Miners

Briceville students, descendants of Fraterville miners, and friends celebrated the donation of Powell Harmon’s watch and David Dezern’s cap lamp to the Museum of East Tennessee History where they now reside near Davy Crockett’s rifle.  The watch and cap lamp were in the Great Fraterville Mine on May 19, 1902, when it exploded, killing all 216 men and boys working there that day, including Powell Harmon and David Dezern.  It remains the worst disaster in the history of mining in the South.

The journeys these artifacts took to get back to Tennessee are testaments to an amazing story.  The short version of that story is 5000 miles and 4000 miles. 

What is so compelling about the Great Fraterville Mine disaster is how descendants of those miners rebuilt from the ashes.  When tragedy strikes, the way you honor those who die is to go on with life, while preserving their memory.  Harmon and Dezern descendants are living examples of that philosophy and serve as role models for the rest of us.  We are in their debt for allowing these precious artifacts to come home to East Tennessee where their stories can be shared with future generations. 



Descendents of David Dezern.

Louise Nelson and her sister Marie Morts present their
Grandfather David Dezern's cap light to the museum

Next month, a group of Briceville students now in high school will be visiting the McClung Historical Collection at the East Tennessee History Center to do research for potential National History Day projects as a way of honoring those who came before them. 

As for the story of the watch, Jacob Vowell wrote about it in his farewell letter by saying, “Powell Harmon’s watch is in Andy Woods’ hands.”    

Powell Harmon also left a farewell letter, which tells his boys, Henry and Condy, to never work in the coal mines.  His wife, Josephine was a midwife and unable to support her family alone, so, as the eldest son, Briceville-student Condy Harmon chose to disobey his father’s last wish by quitting school to support his father’s family.  Condy never married or had any children and died in the 1911 Cross Mountain Mine explosion in Briceville.  

Briceville-student Myrtle Harmon also sacrificed by quitting school in the 4th grade to help raise her brothers and sisters.  Three of the Harmon brothers joined the military and wound up in Ohio where Myrtle joined them.  Her sister  Ida  moved to Columbus, Ohio to attend nursing school from her mother's influence as a midwife. She became a nurse and married Dr. Walter Branscomb and lived in Columbus for the rest of her life. Myrtle's granddaughter Barbara Titus helped develop an historical marker at Briceville Library about the legacy of Condy Harmon. 

As an aerospace manufacturing engineer, Barbara moved to Georgia and now lives in California.  The trek back home to Tennessee completes the 5000 mile journey of Powell Harmon’s watch. 


View the whole event taped by Coal Creek Scholar Andy Harness at



WBIR-TV Knoxville joined us and produced a segment at 

Heather Miller wrote a wonderful article about the historical significance of the upcoming event in the current issue of The Courier News as shown at

 Our Fraterville t-shirts were produced by Borderland Tees in Knoxville. Thanks to Jenny and Bob!!

BIG THANK-YOU to Butler Bus Lines for safely transporting the Briceville students to and from the event and listening to all their singing and laughter!

Here's the story of the 4000-mile journey of the cap lamp as authored by descendents of David Dezern...


I was the lamp attached to the miner’s cap worn by David Dezern.  On May 19, 1902, as he did every morning before he headed out from his home in Coal Creek, Tennessee, he made sure I had enough oil to get him through a day of darkness, kissed his wife Lula and daughter Evelyn Elizabeth, and walked with his four brothers to the Fraterville coal mine.

There was a disastrous explosion in the mine that morning, and David and his four brothers and many other men and boys lost their lives. I was saved, given to his wife, wrapped in a cloth, and kept in a trunk.  And there I stayed, in the darkness, until David’s orphaned daughter, Evelyn Elizabeth was 12 years old. She, like me, had never been away from the hills around where Norris Dam is now, but we were taken to Clinton and put on a train for Illinois to stay with her aunt. The flat, black earth was very different from the hills of East Tennessee.

Evelyn (Eva) eventually married an Illinois farmer, and I was unwrapped and displayed on a shelf or cabinet in each farm home they lived in. I went with them and their daughters, Louise, age 7, and Marie, age 3, across the Rocky Mountains to a hot, dusty ranch in Delta, Colorado. We then moved briefly to a hilly, rocky farm in Indiana, then back to Illinois.

When David’s daughter, Evelyn, died, I stayed with her daughter, Marie, in Milford, Illinois, the Sweet Corn Capitol of the World!  I was proudly displayed on a shelf in her den, and admired by her children, and later her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

As Marie and her sister, Louise, began to learn more about their grandfather and the history of Coal Creek, they decided that I needed to be returned to my home.  What a joy for my journey to end back in the hills of East Tennessee!  And to be displayed in the Museum of East Tennessee History, to be appreciated by everyone, not just David Dezern’s grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and great-great-great-grandchildren!  I miss the cool darkness of the mine, but I will be happy to stay in this place of light and safety. David Dezern would be proud.

Powell Harmon's watch

Letters Written in Fraterville Mine

 From Jacob L. Vowell

We are shut up in the head of the entry with of little air and the bad air is closing in on us fast and it is now about 12 o'clock. Dear Ellen, I have to leave you in bad condition. But dear wife, set your trust in the Lord to help you raise my little children. Ellen take care of my little darling Lily. Ellen, little Elbert said he had trusted in the Lord. Chas. Wood said he was safe if he never lives to see the outside again, he would meet his mother in heaven. If we never live to get out we are not hurt but only perished for air. There is but a few of us here and I don't know where the other men is. Elbert said for you all to meet him in heaven, All the children meet with us both.

Ellen, darling Good Bye for us both. Elbert said the lord had saved him. Do the best you can with the children. We are all praying for air to support us but it is getting so bad without any air. Horace, Elbert said for you to wear his shoes and clothing. It is now 1/2 past 1.

Powell Harmon's watch is now in Andy Woods hand. Ellen, I want you to live right and come to heaven. Raise the children the best you can. Oh! how I wish to be with you. Good Bye to all of you Good Bye. Bury me an Elbert in the same grave by little Eddy. Good Bye Ellen Good Bye Lily Good Bye Jimmie Good Bye Horace. We are together. Is 25 minutes after Two. There is a few of us are alive yet JAKE & ELBERT.

Oh God for one more breath. Ellen, remember me as long as you live. Good Bye Darling

From Powell Harmon

DEAR WIFE AND CHILDREN:  My time has come to die. I trust in Jesus. Teach the children to believe in Jesus. May God bless you all is my prayer. Bless Jesus it is now 10 minutes till 10 and we are all almost smothered. Don't know how long we will live but it is our time to go. I hope to meet you all in heaven. May God bless you all wife and children for Jesus sake good bye until we meet to part no more. POWELL HARMON.  My Boys, Never work in the coal mines. Henry and Condy be good boys and stay with your mother and trust for Jesus sake.


Barry Thacker, PE, Louise Nelson & Carol Moore

Louise Nelson spoke directly to the Briceville students

Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank spoke to the group.  She is the
daughter and granddaughter of coal miners

Danny Gaylor is the great grandson of Jacob Vowell.  He read
Jacob's farewell message.  It was very emotional for all.

Coal Creek Scholar Andy Harness used his
videographer skills to preserve the event

Museum Director Cherel Henderson and Briceville student
present Powell Harmon's watch

Fraterville miner Jacob Vowell's great grandson read
Jacob's farewell message.  It was very emotional for all.

Briceville students got a personal tour of the museum

Lunch at the museum!


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