Coal Creek history lesson from a

Welsh mining engineer who lived it

Scott High School, Scott County, TN

27 October 2016

David R. Thomas time-travelled to Scott High School on 27 October to
teach Coal Creek history as a living historian.  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. 

Before settling in Knoxville and Coal Creek after the American Civil War, the Welsh came to Scott County in 1856.  The Welsh colony of Brynyffynon was advertised as utopia—cheap land surrounded by lush forests and mountain streams teeming with game and rich natural resources where all the freedoms of America could be exercised.  Its founder, Samuel Roberts, had been a leader and prolific writer in Wales, so the colony offered great hope for many in Wales who had been treated as second-class citizens by the English in Great Britain.

Prynhawn Da (good afternoon).” 

“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.” 

“I was born in Carmarthenshire, South Wales, in 1839, and I started working the mines in Wales when my daddy carried me on his back.  In 1849, British Parliament outlawed use of the Welsh language in an attempt to assimilate the Welsh into the English-speaking sector of British society.  We practiced our religion in our native tongue, so when the ramifications of that ruling started taking hold, I immigrated with my family to Ohio.” 

“In 1856, I started reading about opportunities for Welsh in Scott County, Tennessee, but my family rejected the idea of moving there because Tennessee was a slave state.   Like many other Welsh immigrants, we feared that if the Southern states could make slaves of black men today, they could make slaves of Welshmen tomorrow.  When Tennessee seceded from the Union, Scott County seceded from Tennessee.  I always wondered what impact Samuel Roberts had on that decision.”     

“My interest in moving to Tennessee changed after the American Civil War, when my wife’s parents moved to Knoxville.  Her uncles, David and Joseph Richards, were founders of the Knoxville Iron and Coal Company building mills in Knoxville during Reconstruction after the war.”  

“Soon after, my wife and I moved to Coal Creek with about a hundred other Welsh families to start a coal mine in Coal Creek for the Knoxville Iron and Coal Company.    The coal we dug in Coal Creek fueled the company’s iron mill, 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.  So you see, slavery didn’t end with the Civil War in Tennessee, it ended with the Coal Creek War.”

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.”

Coal Creek Welsh mining engineer David R. Thomas led the history
lesson (portrayed by Engineer Barry K. Thacker)

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 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.

One of the topics discussed with students and teachers was a research study to learn more about the Welsh colony of Brynyffynon, which was located about 5 miles northwest of Scott High School.  Could we find remnants of the colony on a field trip to the site?

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 eleventh graders covered during the lesson:

US.1 Explain patterns of agricultural and industrial development as they relate to climate, use of natural resources, markets and trade, the growth of major urban areas, and describe the geographic considerations that led to the location of specialized industries such as textiles, automobiles, and steel.

US.2 Summarize the major developments in Tennessee during the Reconstruction era, including the Constitutional Convention of 1870, the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, and the election of African Americans to the General Assembly.

US.3 Explain the impact of the Hayes-Tilden Presidential election of 1876 and the end of Reconstruction on African Americans, including Jim Crow laws, lynching, disenfranchisement methods, efforts of Pap Singleton and the Exodusters.

US.7 Analyze the movement of people from rural to urban areas as a result of industrialization.

US.15 Analyze the rise of the labor movement, including its leaders, major tactics, and the response of management and the government:

· Coal Creek Labor Saga

Scott County High School students who
have Welsh surnames

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