1. COAL CREEK WAR: Welsh miners from the Knoxville Iron and Coal Company began mining coal at the foot of this hill in 1867, but were replaced by convict laborers during a strike in 1877. After convicts were brought to a mine in Briceville in July 1891, miners and business leaders met to plan a response.
Miners captured stockades, sent convicts and guards on trains to Knoxville, and telegraphed Gov. Buck Buchanan informing him that convicts would no longer be allowed to take jobs from miners. The Coal Creek War then spread to convict mines in Oliver Springs, Tracy City, and Inman, Tennessee.
2. WHY MINERS FOUGHT: Agricultural land in the region was owned and being farmed by 1880. Younger sons of farmers sought opportunities in mining, learning new job skills from experienced Welsh miners. Mining also offered opportunities for African-Americans who comprised 16% of the local population by 1891.
Most Coal Creek miners and their families owned homes and land. An active social life was available in the form of brass bands, county fairs, baseball leagues, lodges, literary debates, and religious activities. When the convict lease system threatened their way of life, miners went to war with the state government.
3. CONVICT LEASE SYSTEM: After the Civil War, southern states leased convicts to private industry to cope with a growing number of convicts and dwindling state budgets. The system degenerated to where primarily young African-Americans were being arrested and forced to work at mines, plantations, and railroads.
Coal companies learned that convicts lacked mining skills and were a fixed cost, whereas miners were skilled and could be laid-off during economic downturns. The increased cost of providing troops and guards during the Coal Creek War hastened the demise of the convict lease system.
4. MILITIA HILL: Fort Anderson was built here on Militia Hill in January 1892 as a base for the Tennessee National Guard to protect convict laborers and restore order. Hostilities escalated with as many as 2500 miners from Tennessee and Kentucky participating in the Coal Creek War.
In retaliation, troops fired on the town of Coal Creek (now Lake City), as can be seen through the Wye Gap in Walden Ridge to the east. Soldiers remained here until late 1893 when the state legislature appropriated funds to build Brushy Mountain State Prison, thus ending the convict lease system in Tennessee.
5. AMERICAN CHESTNUTS: Convicts cut trees from Militia Hill and surrounding hillsides in 1892 so soldiers could spot attacking miners. Many of those trees were American chestnuts. The convicts and soldiers could not know that a fungus carried by Chinese chestnuts, brought to New York City in 1904, would decimate the remaining American chestnuts within a few decades.
The American Chestnut Foundation is developing a blight-resistant hybrid so the American chestnut can regain its crown as king of the forest. Chestnuts prefer loose, rocky ground, and modern surface mines provide ideal locations for planting blight-resistant hybrids where they can spread to surrounding forests.
6. BREASTWORKS: Soldiers became easy targets for miners positioned on higher ground after trees were cut from Fort Anderson. Convicts then dug these breastworks to provide cover from attacking miners.
War correspondents from national news publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Harper’s Weekly Magazine convinced soldiers to pose for photographs by standing guard over convicts during construction of the breastworks. Accidental discharge of his rifle by one of the soldiers killed a convict and put an end to the practice of posing for photographs.
7. FIRE ON COAL CREEK: Soldiers responded to attack by firing cannons from here into the Miners Nest encampment on Walden Ridge, located south of the Wye Gap. Soldiers also shot cans filled with mud through the Wye Gap into the town of Coal Creek to signal that the town could be destroyed at any time.
The Welsh miners who left the area after convicts arrived in 1877 kept close ties with local miners. Coal Creek miners helped stop attempts to bring convicts to mines in southeast Kentucky in 1886, so Kentucky miners reciprocated in the fight against convict labor during the Coal Creek War.
8. SIEGE ON FORT: The Tennessee Coal Mining Company in Briceville dismissed convict labor in the spring of 1892 and sold stock in the company to miners. Subsequent attempts to convince Gov. Buchanan to remove troops from the watershed failed, so miners attacked at this location in the summer of 1892.
Soldiers repulsed the attack using Gatling guns. Miners switched tactics and captured Col. Kellar Anderson, commander of the fort, one night while he was in the town of Coal Creek. General Sam Carnes arrived with reinforcements to impose marshal law, holding local townspeople hostage, until the commander was released.
9. STATE COAL MINE: The arrival of General Sam Carnes with the bulk of the state militia overwhelmed the miners by the late summer of 1892. Although they lost the final battle, Coal Creek miners won the war when newly-elected Gov. Peter Turney fulfilled a campaign promise and appropriated funds to build Brushy Mountain State Prison, Coal Mine, and Coke Ovens.
Unlike the convict lease system, the state-operated coal mine provided financial incentive for the state to sustain safe working conditions for convict miners. The Brushy Mountain Mine in Petros continued to yield substantial profits for state coffers until it closed in 1938.
10. WYE COMMUNITY: Named after the River Wye in Wales, Welsh miners established this community in 1867. They came here to escape cultural and religious persecution and were tolerant of other minorities. Welsh Cemetery, located on a knoll to the north, is the resting place for eight of the African-American miners killed in the 1902 Fraterville Mine explosion.
During the last half of the 19th century, the Welsh in America published books in their native language when use of the Welsh language was illegal in Great Britain. Coal Creek miners Rees R. Thomas and his son David R. Thomas donated a rare collection of those books to Harvard University.
11: GHOSTS OF CONVICT MINERS: In 1877, convict laborers replaced striking Welsh miners in the Knoxville Iron and Coal Company Mine located in the hollow to the south. Prison records show that 131 convicts died in the mine from 1877 to 1893, while others were caught setting fire to methane gas entering the mine and cooking wild game over open flames.
Some believe that the 1902 Fraterville Mine explosion was caused by ghosts of convict miners once again setting fire to methane gas to cook wild game. Fieldstones mark where convict miners are buried and only they know the origin of burn-spots and charred animal bones beside their graves.
12: FORT ANDERSON: The Tennessee National Guard built Fort Anderson on Militia Hill in 1892 to restore order during the Coal Creek War. The abandoned fort is located off Vowell Mountain Road and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
According to the Tennessee Blue Book, the official state record, "Violence in the coal fields peaked during the summer of 1892, when state militia fought pitched battles with armed miners, arrested over 500 of them, and killed 27. The miner uprisings prodded the General Assembly to end convict leasing, making Tennessee one of the first Southern states to get rid of the system."
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