Coal Creek history lesson from a Welsh
mining engineer who lived it...

Norwood Elementary School
PTO meeting
22 October 2015

Petros-Joyner School
Morgan County, TN
23 October 2015

Petros-Joyner School

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 Civil War.  I lost my job at the Knoxville Iron and Coal Company Mine to convict labor in 1877.  In a way, it was a blessing 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.    

Thomas asked, “Do you see me standing against the elm tree in this photograph from 1891 where Coal Creek miners and businessmen are all wearing waistcoats and jackets even though the photo was taken in July?  Men wore waistcoats back then to hide their suspenders, which we considered underwear.  After all, a gentleman should never be seen in public with his underwear showing.” 

David R. Thomas time-traveled to Petros-Joyner School today
to teach Coal Creek history to fifth through eighth grade students.    

Prynhawn Da (good afternoon). 

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 saw primarily young black men being arrested for petty crimes so they could generate revenue for state coffers as convict labor leased to mining operations.

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. 

According to Engineer Thomas, “It was a strange war because in those days, we had no TV, Internet, or smart phones.  In fact we didn’t even have dumb phones.  In those days, men belonged to lodges that met weekly.  At the end of a day’s fighting, soldiers and miners laid down their weapons and attended lodge meetings together in the 300-seat Coal Creek Opera House.” 

Thomas continued with his story by saying, “The current generation thinks it invented all the latest fads, which is not necessarily true as illustrated by this selfie I took at one of our lodge meetings in 1892.  After the lodge meeting concluded, soldiers and miners resumed fighting.” 

Thomas added, “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 located near Petros-Joyner School.  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.

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.

This group each has a Welsh surname in their family and received
a red bandana in honor of the Coal Creek miners

The Coal Creek Labor Saga is now 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.


Explain the need for the South and Tennessee to move toward industry and mechanization after the Civil War and identify examples of the effort, including mining on the 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 is a recap of 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.

Special thanks to Principal Donna Jerden and social studies teacher Michelle Collins for inviting us to their school. 

Barry Thacker with the great granddaughters of Coal Creek
leader the late Rev. Roy Daugherty, Hannah and Lauren

Norwood Elementary School PTO meeting

22 October 2015

Living historian Barry Thacker, P.E., portrayed Welsh mining engineer David R. Thomas to give a Coal Creek history lesson at a Norwood Elementary School PTO meeting.  He explained that in addition to teaching Coal Creek history, these lessons encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). 

State Representative John D Ragan joined us and presented some special people with the new Tennessee Blue Book (which is ORANGE). It's a big deal to get one of these books.

Special thanks to Principal Karri Hobby for inviting us to perform.  We were thrilled to see fifth grade teacher Shannon Foster, who participated in several of our field trips when she taught at Briceville Elementary.


If you teach for 40 years, you get a Tennessee Blue Book!

Rep. John Ragan presents Hunter, the student body
president with his own Tennessee Blue Book,
which are now ORANGE!

The school Citizenship Award winner receives
her Tennessee Blue Book from Rep. Ragan

Rep. Ragan with Carol Moore and Barry Thacker, PE,
of the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation
Would you like for us to come to
your school and teach the Coal Creek
history to your students,
or join us on a guided field trip
to the actual historic sites!?

Contact Carol Moore
at 865-584-0344 or 865-660-2620
or email her at


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