Coal Creek history lesson from a

Welsh mining engineer who lived it

Lake City Middle School

16 September 2016

A BIG thank-you to teacher
Tonia Gossett and academic coach
Christopher Enix for allowing us
to work with a great group of students
and teach them their proud heritage!


David R. Thomas time-travelled to Lake City Middle School on September 16th to teach Coal Creek history as a living historian to four separate eighth-grade classes.  In addition to teaching Coal Creek history, these lessons encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).  After all, a career in STEM is not just a job, it’s an adventure. 

“Bore Da (good morning).”

“My name is David R. Thomas.  I am a mining engineer with Provident Insurance Company.  I work with mine operators to reduce the risk of accidents at mines insured by Provident.  In my youth, I was a coal miner in Wales and later in Coal Creek when I came to Tennessee after the American Civil War.  The coal we dug in Coal Creek fueled the Knoxville Iron and Coal Company, which was the first major industry in East Tennessee after the Civil War.  We also provided fuel to heat homes and businesses in the region.  In the process, we built a community out of wilderness.”

“I lost my job at the Knoxville Iron and Coal Company Mine to convict labor in 1877.  In a way, it was a blessing for me because I then went to work in the Fraterville Mine where I got the opportunity to be an apprentice to Engineer C. G. Popp, which qualified me for my current position.  My fellow Welsh miners who lost their jobs to convict labor also found prosperity by becoming superintendents at mines throughout the state, teaching new job skills to native Tennesseans, including former slaves.” 

“Prosperity is not what convicts found working in the mines.  Over time, the system became corrupt.   By the mid-1880s, young black men were being arrested on the streets of Nashville and Memphis, often for petty crimes, to enrich state coffers as convict labor.  In 1889, striking miners lost their jobs to convict labor in Oliver Springs and in 1891, it happened in Briceville, That’s when we decided enough was enough.”

Thomas took students back to the time when miners captured convict stockades in Briceville, Coal Creek, and Oliver Springs to disrupt convict leasing and raise public awareness about the practice, which in many regards was worse than slavery.  Slaves had value, whereas convict laborers did not.  If a convict died, that person could be replaced with another convict by sending a telegram to the state.  Students then got to travel through time to Fort Anderson on Militia Hill, which was built by the Tennessee National Guard to restore order to Coal Creek during what was later called the Coal Creek War.

Thomas explained, “We lost the final battle, but won the war when the TN Legislature appropriated money to build Brushy Mountain State Prison, Coal Mine, and Coke Ovens.  Prisoners were used as laborers in the state-owned coal mine until it closed in 1938 when coal reserves were depleted.”

Students then got to travel through time to the Great Fraterville Mine explosion of 1902. Engineer Thomas said, “I served on the rescue crew with Philip Francis, exploring in advance of the other crews, searching for survivors.  We had almost given up hope, when we found where a barricade had been built.  We tore down the barricade, but found we were too late.  Several of the miners were in a praying position.  We found 14-year old Elbert Vowell being held by his father Jacob.  In Jacob’s field book he used to tally how much coal he mined, we found a farewell letter to his family.”

Students then traveled back to the 1911 Cross Mountain Mine explosion to learn that although 84 died, five were rescued in the first successful mine rescue by engineers and apparatus crews of the U.S. Bureau of Mines.  The Cross Mountain rescue demonstrated the first successful use of canaries to check air quality and self-contained breathing apparatus.  According to Engineer Thomas, “We even made the pages of Popular Mechanics.” 

Thomas concluded by saying, “In 1915, I donated my father’s library of Welsh language books to Harvard College.  Those books later served as references for the 2012 publication of “The Welsh of Tennessee” by Dr. Eirug Davies.” 

Those with Welsh surnames from each class were given bandanas—soldiers wore uniforms during the Coal Creek War, so miners wore bandanas to show they were part of the army of miners.

The Coal Creek Labor Saga is part of the Tennessee education curriculum for fifth, eighth, and eleventh graders.  Here is a recap of the state standards for fifth graders covered during the lesson, which served as a refresher for eighth graders:



Cumberland Plateau, coal and iron processing, the growth of urban areas, and the increase in railroads.


Summarize why the United States was viewed as the land of opportunity by immigrants versus a growing sense of protectionism and nativism by American citizens.


     Engage in a collaborative discussion to explore the ideas and events of the Gilded Age (1870 to 1900).


     Describe child labor and working conditions.


     Analyze the major goals, struggles, and achievements of the Progressive Era (1890 to 1920).


     Describe the effects of Jim Crow Laws on the nation and Tennessee.

Here are the state standards for eighth graders covered by the lesson:



Explain the movement of both white and black Northern entrepreneurs (carpetbaggers) from the North to the South. 


Explain patterns of agricultural and industrial development after the Civil War as they relate to use of natural resources, markets and trade…


Explain the restrictions placed on the rights and opportunities of freedmen (African-Americans), including racial segregation and Jim Crow Laws.


     Trace the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and vigilante justice, (compared to the Welsh of Tennessee who mentored African-Americans and helped end convict leasing).


     Discuss the role of railroads during Reconstruction and Westward Expansion.


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