Retracing the footsteps of Fraterville's miners

19 May 2012

The 110th anniversary of the Great Fraterville Explosion

Descendants & visitors travelled from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky,
Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee

What does Fruitland Park, Florida, have in common with Philadelphia, Pennsylvania?  Descendants of Tip Hightower live there and they met for the first time at Fraterville Miners’ Circle on Saturday, 19 May 2012, while remembering the 110th anniversary of the Great Fraterville Explosion.

Similar stories unfolded from families of other Fraterville miners—Webber, Wallace, Vowell, Roberts, Hutson, Harmon, Dezern, Slover and Webb.  Louise Nelson talked about family pride and how her great-grandmother Dezern had caskets of her five sons in her home at the same time.  She said the women in her family are known for their strength, a trait they inherited from Mother Dezern.

Family members and Coal Creek citizens await
word of the rescue efforts of their loved
ones in the Fraterville Mine explosion

Headstone of David R. Thomas whose
collection of Welsh-language books was
donated to Harvard University

At the headstone of David R. Thomas, we recalled how his family collection of Welsh-language books had been donated to Harvard University.  Dr. Eirug Davies of Harvard translated passages from those books into English and used them as references in his book, "The Welsh Of Tennessee". It tells about the lives of Coal Creek's first miners and how their descendants assimilated into American society.  David Thomas retired from the Fraterville Mine three months before the Great Explosion and he provided testimony at the inquest, which he began by saying, “I started to work in the mines when my daddy carried me on his back.”

We read stories by B. Rule Stout about life in Coal Creek at the time of the explosion.  He was a school teacher in Anderson County in the 1890s and later became a director of Coal Creek Mining and Manufacturing Company. 

At Longfield Cemetery, Tom Frew read the farewell message his great-grandfather, Jacob Vowell, wrote before suffocating in the Fraterville Mine—“Oh God, for one more breath.  Ellen, remember me as long as you live, Good bye Darling.”  After reading the lines, “Good bye Lillie, Good bye Jimmie, Good bye Minnie, Good bye Horace”, he talked about taking his grandfather, Jimmie--a giant of a man--to see his brother Horace for the last time.

Do you know that President Clinton recited Jacob Vowell's farewell letter in one of his speeches?

Tom Frew, great grandson of Jacob Vowell
reads Jacob's farewell message over Jacob's
and his son Elbert's shared grave and headstone

Carolyn Harmon McCafferty reads her
grandfather's farewell message next to his
headstone and the headstone of his son Conda
who perished nine years later in the Cross
Mountain Mine disaster in Briceville

Descendants of Powell Harmon travelled from Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama to hear Carolyn Harmon McCafferty read her grandfather’s farewell letter that says, “My Boys, never work in the coal mines.  Henry and Condy be good boys and stay with your mother and trust for Jesus sake.” 


They also heard Powell Harmon’s great-granddaughter, Barbara Titus, recall how Condy Harmon supported their family by working in the Cross Mountain Mine after his father died.  When Condy’s body was removed from the Cross Mountain Mine after it exploded in 1911, mine rescuers told his mother, Josie, how only his right shoe was removed from his foot.  His mother interpreted that as a sign from Condy that he had gotten right with the Lord.

Do you know that the trainer for the current Tennessee Mine Rescue Team is the great-great-grandson of Fraterville miner William J. Webb?

Barb Titus at the headstones of her
great grandfather Powell Harmon and
grand uncle Conda Harmon

Barry Thacker, PE, President of the
Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, led
the tour of the historic sites.  Here he
stands on the trail that leads to the
Fraterville Mine site.

Larry Harmon told how his great-grandfather
Powell Harmon protected his job by fighting the
corrupt use of convict labor during the Coal
Creek War
.  Powell perished in the
Fraterville Mine, but was able to leave a poignant
farewell message to his family.

Dr. Elizabeth Kellar DeCorse demonstrates
the probe used to verify grave sites
at the Itinerant Miners' Cemetery

No descendants were present to remember miners buried at Fraterville Itinerant Miners’ Cemetery, because the names of miners buried there are not known.  Dr. Elizabeth Kellar DeCorse explained how UT archaeologists performed a ground-penetrating radar study to at least determine the number of graves and she demonstrated the ease at which a probe could be pushed into the ground to verify grave locations delineated by geophysical testing.  Documenting the results of that study might compel descendants of those miners to share their family stories.

Some of the Fraterville miners lived in Dutch Valley and walked across Walden Ridge on their way to and from work each day.  A story was told about how miners would chase foxes after work on Fridays, not returning home until Saturday morning.  The more-senior descendants made the trek to the abandoned mine portal with the rest along the same path that their ancestors travelled 110 years ago.


Descendants of the Fraterville miners and visitors
gather at the site of the mine explosion

Steve Hutson, great grandson of George Hutson,
attended the tour with his wife and son

Before he suffocated in the Fraterville Mine, George Hutson wrote a note to his wife, telling her, “If you don’t see me no more, bury me in the clothing I have.”  At the 100th anniversary, a Hutson grandson used two canes in his hike to the abandoned portal.  He refused any help by saying, “I want to see where my grandpa died using my own power.”  His son, Steve Hutson, repeated that trek on the 110th anniversary of the explosion. 
Writer Fred Brown described how the Fraterville miners epitomized the pursuit of the American Dream.  They helped fuel the industrial revolution and abolished the convict lease system in Tennessee.  They are "gone but not forgotten" as evidenced by the fact that over a hundred of their descendants and friends travelled from 11 states to pay their respects, 110 years after the explosion.     


After the tour, we received an email from a descendant that said, Words simply cannot express how much we appreciate all of your hard work.  You have made our children's heritage very special.” 

University of Tennessee Archaeologist
Dr. Elizabeth Kellar DeCorse (L) and
Writer/Author Fred Brown
at the Itinerant Miners' Cemetery

Widows and children after the
Great Fraterville Mine Explosion

NBC's WBIR-TV's videographer
John Henry joined us for the tour
and produced a beautiful segment for TV

Fraterville Miners' Circle at Leach Cemetery:


Reading the names
carved in the
Fraterville Miners'
Circle Monument

Descendants of
Walter Roberts

Webber family

Tip Hightower
gather at his

Ernie Dezearn and
Louise Nelson

Longfield Cemetery:

One of Tip

Barbara Titus & Carolyn McCafferty receiving framed copies of Coal People Magazine article

Bob and Tom Frew
at Jacob and Elbert
Vowell's headstone

Powell Harmon

Jacob Vowell's

Itinerant Miners' Cemetery where unclaimed/unidentified miners' bodies were buried:

Fraterville Mine site:

Wallace family

[Master Plan] [Map] [Photo Gallery]
[Bank Stabilization Projects]
[Deadwood Removal Days] [Discovery Day 2000] [Scrape, Paint & Clean Day 2000
[Historic Fraterville Mine Disaster Field Trip 2001] [Fraterville Mine Disaster 100th Anniversary]
[Coal Creek War and Mining Disasters] [Mine Reclamation Lessons]
[CMD] [Economic Benefits] [Motor Discovery Trail] [Historic Cemeteries]
[Partners] [Schools in Watershed] [Mark the Trail Day]
[Awards] [Coal Creek Health Days]
[Briceville School History Field Trips] [Ghost Stories]
[Trout Stuff] [Join Us] [Eastern Coal Region Roundtable]
[Articles in the News] [Dream Contest]

Copyright© Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, Inc. 2000 through 2021