Coal Creek history comes

to life for

Jefferson Middle School students


7 and 11 April 2017

Students from Jefferson Middle School in Oak Ridge got a lesson on Coal Creek history from Welsh miner/engineer David R. Thomas, who was born in Carmarthen, South Wales in 1839.  The lesson began in the school’s auditorium on 7 April 2017 and concluded with a field trip on 11 April 2017 to the sites where that history was made. 

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.

Mr. Thomas explained how miners met at Thistle Switch, located between Briceville and Fraterville, in 1891 to devise a plan for ending convict leasing.  After the meeting, the miners captured the convict stockade in Briceville.  Miners marched the guards and convicts along the railroad tracks to the train depot in the town of Coal Creek and put them on a train to Knoxville.  They then learned how Governor Buck Buchanan visited Briceville at a meeting with miners in Tennessee Hollow to justify convict leasing.  Miners did not buy his explanation, which led to additional hostilities.
Our first stop on the field trip was at Fort Anderson on Militia Hill where students got to see the breastworks dug around the fort where the Tennessee National Guard had its base of operations during the Coal Creek War.  At the cannon atop Militia Hill, Thomas told how miners lost the final battle, but won the war to abolish convict leasing in Tennessee—an institution that was worse than slavery in many regards. 


At Briceville Church/Cemetery, students learned how life was good after the Coal Creek War— the area from the towns of Coal Creek to Briceville become the most populated and prosperous part of Anderson County with Opera Houses in both towns.     

Thomas then told students stories about the worst disaster in the history of mining in the South where 216 men and boys died on May 19, 1902, when the great Fraterville Mine exploded.  Thomas told of being on the rescue crew that found 26 miners trapped behind a barricade.  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. 

Only three adult males were left alive in the town of Fraterville after the explosion, but widows of those dead miners rebuilt from the ashes.  Disaster struck again in 1911 when the Cross Mountain Mine exploded in Briceville.  Students got to see the farewell message of Cross Mountain miner Eugene Ault inscribed on his headstone.   

At Cross Mountain Miners Circle, students found the name of James Aaron Pleasant Foust listed on the monument.  He is the great-grandfather of JMS 7th-grade teacher Emily Haverkamp.  Although 84 miners died, Cross Mountain was the first successful mine rescue, first use of canaries to test air quality, and first use of self-contained breathing equipment by engineers and apparatus crews from the U.S. Bureau of Mines.    

Do you know that three of the sites visited today—

Fort Anderson on Militia Hill, Cross Mountain

Miners Circle, and Briceville Church/Cemetery—

are listed on the National Register of

Historical Places?  Do you know that the

Coal Creek labor saga is now part of

Tennessee education curriculum?  

At Drummond Bridge, students learned how miner Dick Drummond was accused of killing a soldier during the Coal Creek War due to an argument over the affections of a girl.  Eleven soldiers were arrested for removing Drummond from his boarding house and lynching him at the bridge.  During the trial in Knoxville, 32 witnesses gave conflicting testimony, which prompted a judge to dismiss the case against the soldiers. 

At Longfield Cemetery, students read the farewell letters of Jacob Vowell and Powell Harmon over their headstones.  Powell Harmon’s farewell letter advised his sons Henry and Condy to never work in the coal mines. 

Briceville student Condy Harmon faced a dilemma—should he honor is father’s final words and finish his education or quit school to become a miner and support his father’s family.  Family came first, so Condy quit school to work in the Cross Mountain Mine.  Students learned how Condy died in the 1911 Cross Mountain Mine disaster and is buried next to his father in Longfield Cemetery.  Condy’s story is told on the historical marker, The Legacy of Condy Harmon, at Briceville Public Library.   

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