You Old Welsh Coal Miner...I found you Rees R. Thomas!
(See photos below)

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Dr. Eirug Davies of Harvard University solved a puzzle about a Welsh Coal Creek miner recently that he has pondered for many years. His journey has taken many turns but came full circle on Monday, May 3, at Briceville Elementary School.

Dr. Davies started his trek in Llannon, Cardiganshire, Wales where he was born and raised. After graduating with a doctoral degree in electrical engineering from the University of Wales, Dr. Davies moved to Boston where he spent the better part of his professional career as a solid state physicist with the Air Force, conducting microelectronics research. As a hobby, he developed an interest in Welsh literature produced in the United States.

After retiring from the Air Force, he became an associate member of Harvard University's Celtic Department where he put his engineering problem solving skills to work researching Welsh literature generated within the United States
and sharing his knowledge with students at Harvard.

Dr. Davies followed a long tradition of Welsh who immigrated to the United States. In Great Britain, many considered the Welsh as lower class citizens, and during the 18th century even forbade them from using their native language in their own schools. Dating back to colonial times, Welsh immigrants came to the United States to seek their fortunes and to enjoy the freedoms we take for granted.


Carol Moore (L) and Dr. Eirug Davies (R) at Welsh Cemetery in the Wye Community of Coal Creek.

Welsh immigrants were instrumental in founding colleges in the United States long before the first colleges were built in Wales in the late 1800's. Publishing in the Welsh language also became important.  The Welsh in America published their first successful newspaper, Y Drych (The Mirror) in New York City in January, 1851, which pre-dates The New York Times by nine months. Because of their relatively large numbers, Welsh coal miners who came to the United States became part of such endeavors.

What first got Dr. Davies interested in Coal Creek is a rare Welsh book collection from the 1800’s that belonged to Rees R. Thomas of Coal Creek, Tennessee.  A note of friendship from one of the authors on an inside book cover showed that Rees R. Thomas was the owner of the rare book collection.  That collection now resides in the library at Harvard.  Graduate students at Harvard still use those books today. 

Dr. Davies tried to find “Coal Creek, Tennessee” on a map many years ago, but was unsuccessful because the name of the town changed from Coal Creek to Lake City in the 1930's.  Three years ago, Dr. Davies found the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation on the internet and contacted us.  Thus began a warm and mutually beneficial cultural exchange of information.

Two years ago, Dr. Davies sent literature to the students at Briceville School about the early Welsh coal miners from Coal Creek.  He also noted that the Welsh word for Coal Creek is “Nantglo”.  He suggested that we name the scholarship we offer to Coal Creek students the “Nantglo Scholarship” in honor of the Welsh coal miners who came to the area in 1868 to start the coal mine of the Knoxville Iron Company in the Wye Community of Coal Creek. 

The Knoxville Iron Company
Foundry after the Civil War

According to Dr. Davies, the Civil War devastated Knoxville and the surrounding area.  Welsh immigrant, David J. Richards, was instrumental in developing the iron works in Knoxville.  His brother-in-law, Daniel Thomas, opened their coal mine in Coal Creek.  When Welsh iron workers and coal miners came to Knoxville, one wrote a letter saying, “not a window was left unbroken by the Civil War”.  The influence of the Welsh iron and coal mining ventures in the area was principally responsible for the region’s quick return to economic stability.  The Foundry banquet hall is all that remains of the iron works in Knoxville today.
A personal hero of Dr. Davies, the Rev. Robert D. Thomas, is buried in Knoxville.  Rev. Thomas is the author of “Hanes Cymru America” (History of the Welsh in America), published in 1872.  In a letter written in 1847, Rev. Thomas also spoke out against the mistreatment of the Welsh in Great Britain, which was one of the reasons he immigrated to Tennessee.  Another prominent Welsh immigrant, Rev. Thomas Thomas, was the first minister of the Welsh Church in Coal Creek, which was established in 1870.

Eirug visits with Missy Dickey, great granddaughter of Welsh immigrants David J. Richards and Rev. Robert D. Thomas

Briceville students sent Dr. Davies “thank you” letters for his help in teaching them about their Welsh coal mining heritage.  One of the students also told Dr. Davies about what a treat it was eating at Cracker Barrel restaurant after a history field trip.

Dr. Davies says that those letters touched his heart and meant more to him than “being knighted by the Queen”.  This year, he decided to visit Briceville students in person.  He also wanted to learn more about Rees R. Thomas and the origin of his rare book collection that was donated to Harvard in the late 1800’s by his son, David R. Thomas.

Like Indiana Jones hacking his way through the jungle undergrowth to find ancient treasure, Dr. Davies found the headstone of Rees R. Thomas on Saturday, May 1, in Wiley Cemetery in Coal Creek (now Lake City).  His reaction was the same as when Alex Haley found traces of Kunta Kinte in Africa…. “You old Welsh coal miner, I found you Rees R. Thomas.” 

According to his headstone, Rees R. Thomas was born in 1814 in Carmarthen, South Wales and died in 1891.  According to Dr. Davies, legend has it that Carmarthen was the village of Merlin from King Arthur's days. An old stump of a tree is preserved in Carmarthen's town hall today because of a Welsh legend that says, "When Merlin's tree shall tumble down, then shall fall Carmarthen town".  The many legends that persist in Coal Creek today might be explained by the Welsh ancestry of its residents.

Rees Thomas is buried near the headstone of Henry Howard Wiley, a civil engineer, surveyor, and businessman who helped found Coal Creek Mining and Manufacturing Company of Knoxville.  His prominent position in the small family cemetery of the Wiley’s indicates that Rees R. Thomas must have been a close personal friend of Mr. Wiley, another key figure in early Coal Creek history.  Dr. Davies celebrated the find by eating lunch at Cracker Barrel as recommended in the letter from a Briceville student.

Relaxing outside the Cracker Barrel


Engineers Barry Thacker, (L) and Dr. Eirug Davies (R) celebrating after finding the headstone of the old Welsh coal miner, Rees R. Thomas

On Monday, May 3, Dr. Davies gave the 4th and 5th grade classes at Briceville Elementary School a rare treat… a history lesson on the Welsh coal miners by an expert from Harvard University.  Welsh influence permeates Coal Creek history and culture.  Briceville was named after a Welshman, Senator Calvin Brice from Ohio, who was instrumental in getting the railroad extended to the area.

According to Dr. Davies, the Welsh coal miners who came to the United States had a thirst for knowledge.  In Wales, their choices were limited, but not so in the United States.  They worked in the coal mines by day to support their families but furthered their education at every opportunity.  Those who could read and write taught the others. 

Education of their children, both sons and daughters, became a top priority for the Welsh miners.  Wanting better lives for their children, many of the first Welsh immigrant coal miners in Coal Creek saw that their children received higher education in Knoxville.

Convicts were brought to Coal Creek from 1878 to 1892 and some of the Welsh miners lost their jobs and left the area.  They helped establish Welsh mining communities in Jellico and Soddy, Tennessee, and Dowlais, Mountain Ash, Emlyn, and Williamsburg, Kentucky.  David J. Richards opposed the use of convicts in the mines and left the Knoxville Iron Company when they brought convict labor to Coal Creek.

Dr. Eirug Davies in front of the abandoned Knoxville Iron Company mine in the Wye Community of Coal Creek started by Welsh coal miners in 1868.

Welsh immigrant miners continued moving to Coal Creek, especially after the Coal Creek War ended the convict lease system in 1892.  Welsh miners with surnames like Davies, Evans, Morgan, Price, and Roberts died in the 1902 Fraterville Mine explosion.  Ten farewell messages written before coal miners suffocated at Fraterville offer further evidence of the Welsh influence on education at the mines. 

Outside the play with descendants of Fraterville miner David Dezern, Dan Nelson, great grandson (L) and Louise Nelson, granddaughter, Eirug and Barry.

One of the miners who came to Fraterville to aid in the rescue and recover bodies was Welsh miner Philip Francis from Jellico, who later authored the book, “Seventy Years in the Coal Mines”.  One of the lead characters in the play, “Measured in Labor: The Coal Creek Project”, is based on Philip Francis.  Dr. Davies attended a performance of the play at the Black Box Theatre in Knoxville along with descendants of Fraterville miners during his visit.  He also visited the grave of Philip Francis in Knoxville, another of his personal heroes.

Because of the persecution they received in Great Britain, the Welsh in the United States were sympathetic toward minorities.  Dr. Davies told students about a Welsh minister in Chicago who started the Welsh practice in this country of allowing African-Americans to be buried in their church cemeteries.  Eight of the 11 African-American miners killed at Fraterville are buried in Welsh Cemetery in the Wye Community of Coal Creek, showing that racial tolerance by the Welsh existed in Coal Creek.

Dr. Davies showed students photographs of the grave of Rees R. Thomas and an excerpt from one of his rare books donated to Harvard by his son, David R Thomas.  As a token of his appreciation, Dr. Davies presented Briceville School with a flag of Wales.  Briceville students decided that they will visit the grave of the old Welsh coal miner, Rees R. Thomas, in Wiley Cemetery on Friday, May 21, during their annual history field trip.  

Dr. Davies also met four former Briceville students, now seniors at Anderson County High School, who will receive Nantglo Scholarships this year.  He met a former Briceville student, now at Lake City Middle School, who dreams of attending Harvard someday.  He congratulated the students on their accomplishments and encouraged them to do great things with their lives.     

2004 Nantglo Scholarship winners
(L to R) Andy Harness, Michelle Lindsay, Rocky Bailey, and Ashley Weaver
with Eirug Davies

Eirug making a presentation of a Welsh flag to the Briceville students after teaching them about their Welsh coal mining heritage.

After the history lesson, students took Dr. Davies on a tour of Briceville Church, which was built in 1888 by Welsh immigrant coal miners.  We expect that when the first Briceville student gets accepted at Harvard, Dr. Davies will be there to take them on a tour of the campus and show them the rare Welsh books that preceded them to Harvard from Coal Creek.   

The influence of the Welsh in Coal Creek lives on… nôs da.

See photos of the adventures of Dr. Davies in Coal Creek, Tennessee below:
Click on image to enlarge

Barry and Eirug at the Longfield Cemetery kiosk recently erected by Coal Creek Scholar Andy Harness for his Eagle Scout project.

Reading the inscription on the overturned headstone of Welsh miner Rees R. Thomas at Wiley Cemetery.  (Not even Poison Ivy could slow them down)

Eirug and Barry speak with the students.

Eirug and Briceville Principal Tom Braden talk about the smart students. Students and teachers gather outside the Briceville Church built by Welsh immigrant coal miners in 1888.
2004 Nantglo Scholars telling Dr. Davies and the Briceville students about their college plans and career goals. Krystina Long (far right), who dreams of attending Harvard some day.

At left, photojournalist Paul Efird and writer Fred Brown from the Knoxville News Sentinel with Eirug, teachers, and students at Briceville Church.


Dr. Eirug Davies (L), Rev. Roy Daugherty (C), and Barry Thacker, PE, (R) in Briceville Church, built in 1888 by Welsh immigrant coal miners.


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