The miners of Coal Creek, in Anderson County, Tennessee, left their mark on history. They fueled the industrial revolution. They fought the Tennessee Militia to abolish the use of convict miners by private industry during the Coal Creek War of 1891 to 1892. About 300 Coal Creek miners, many of them veterans of the Coal Creek War, perished in mine disasters in 1902 (Fraterville) and 1911 (Cross Mountain). Mine disasters like these raised public awareness of the hazards of mining, resulting in advances in mine safety practices. In the early part of the 20th century, thousands of coal miners died in the United States each year. In 2012, coal mining fatalities in the U.S. numbered 19. Here’s their story.

3Dmapforweb.JPG (26286 bytes)Coal Creek Watershed,
Anderson County, Tennessee


Click image to enlarge

Coal Creek War

After the Civil War, crime was rampant and southern states were broke. Legislation was enacted that allowed southern states to lease convict laborers to private industry as forced labor to work in coal mines, plantations, railroads, etc. Not only did states save money by not having to build prisons, but the revenue from the convict labor force was a significant part of the budgets in southern states.

Abandoned Knoxville Iron Company mine where convict miners worked during the Coal Creek War (water discharging from the mine is indicative of working conditions for the convicts)

Knoxville Iron Company Foundry

Knoxville was able to rebuild faster than most parts of the south due in large part to experienced Welsh miners and iron workers who started the Knoxville Iron and Coal Company.  It became the largest employer in the area, creating jobs in both Knoxville and at its mines in Coal Creek.  The Welsh built schools and churches with Coal Creek becoming home to as many as 150 Welsh families by the early 1870s.

 In 1877, a labor dispute resulted in the first convict laborers being brought to Coal Creek to work in the now-abandoned Knoxville Iron and Coal Company (KICC) Mine No. 1 located in the Wye Community. Mining jobs were plentiful, so the miners who lost their jobs found work at mines in nearby Briceville, Fraterville, and Beech Grove.  Others left the area to mine coal in Jellico and Soddy, Tennessee, and in Kentucky.

The mortality rate for the convict miners was high because they had no experience in mining.  Also, there was little financial incentive to provide safe working conditions for them.  If a mule died while working in the coal mines, a new mule had to be purchased. If a convict miner died, the state would furnish a new convict to replace the convict who died at no cost to the mine owner or the state.

Coal Creek free miners during
the Coal Creek War

Another labor dispute erupted in 1891 between the Tennessee Coal Mining Company in Briceville and its miners after new laws allowed miners to elect one of their own as a check-weighman to verify how much coal was mined.  The dispute arose when the miners elected a check-weighman who had previously been fired by the company for incompetence and theft.   

At first, a compromise was reached whereby both sides agreed on the average weight that would be assigned to each carload of coal mined.  The miners later went on strike because they thought the average weight should be higher and the company disagreed.  When a resolution could not be reached, convict miners were brought to the company’s Tennessee Mine in Tennessee Hollow near Briceville.  According to mine owners, convict miners were "a class of labor that could be depended on".

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Free miners waiting at Thistle Switch
near Fraterville for the arrival of
Governor Buchanan on July 16, 1891

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