Friday, May 18, 2012

The Fraterville Mine Disaster

Tomorrow marks the 110th anniversary of the worst mine disaster in Tennessee history. At about 7:30 am on May 19, 1902, an explosion ripped through the Fraterville Mine of the Coal Creek Mining Company. Apparently fueled by methane gas that had seeped into the mine from an adjacent unventilated shaft,  the blast and its aftermath took the lives of 216 miners, some of them children. Among the youngest was 12-year-old Henry Whitton.

Whitton and many of the dead were buried in the Leach Cemetery, just south of present-day Lake City, Tennesse. Eighty-nine graves form concentric rings around a central obelisk erected as a memorial to all of the miners killed. (The extreme lean of gravestones near the margins of the photograph is due to distortion by the wide-angle lens used for the shot. Not all stones remain plumb, by any means, but none is as extreme as the photo suggests.)

The monument counts 184 miners killed. The others include miners whose names were unknown, itinerants who had no family in the area.

Names of the 184 men and boys are engraved on the base of the obelisk. One striking aspect of the names is the number of members of a single family killed. Four, five, and six identical surnames are common as one walks around the monument. One family supposedly lost eight members. It is said that only three adult male residents remained in Fraterville after the explosion, amongst a population of widows and orphans.

Indicative of the times, the names of African-American miners were listed separately on the monument. I did not verify, but I suspect that none is buried at this site, certainly not within the rings around the monument.

This seventeen-year-old was just one of many young adults killed. Next to his grave are the graves of 21 and 22-year-olds. By this age, they most likely were experienced, seasoned miners, having joined their fathers in the mines young to help support a large family. The Coal Creek Mining Company was recognized as a good employer in the area. They paid in cash, instead of script, and they never used convicts. The Fraterville Mine was considered to be one of the safest.

Not all who died were killed, or even injured, by the initial explosion. Those deeper in the mine survived, possibly up to seven hours or more before succumbing to lack of oxygen or toxic gases. Many wrote letters to loved ones seeking to comfort them in their Christian faith. J. L. Powell wrote to his wife, Ellen, on behalf of himself and the small son who was in the mine with him. He implored her to "put your trust in the Lord to help you raise my little children." On behalf of "Little Elbert" who sat beside him he added a request "for you all to meet us in heaven, all the children meet us both in heaven."

Rescue efforts were quickly organized, but in those days before modern mine-rescue technology, the rescuers were driven back by toxic fumes. The operator of the mine ventilation system and the mine superintendent were both charged with negligence and then acquitted following hearings.

At the base of the central monument is this small, ceramic Santa holding two children. Who left it? Perhaps a child remembering the children buried there generations ago, who had missed out on the joys of childhood Christmases?


  1. What a heart-rending post...And neither MM nor I had ever heard of this...I would simply comment that while safety measures are notably "better" today...mining still seems to be a very primitive business, and not much changed since this disaster when it comes right down to it. There are better ways to obtain electricity. Coal River is one of the most endangered rivers in the country today. Coal River Mountain removes mountains from existence. And who, these days, even mentions the word "conservation" when it comes to turning out the lights to save electricity? We haven't evolved. We're stuck on a pre-historic approach to living that will, in time, produce more events like the Fraterville Mine Disaster. Great post.


  2. Great post Jim! Loyal Jones uses Fraterville & some of the final notes by the miners to begin his book "Faith And Meaning In The Southern Uplands". I have, for many years, been interested in & studied the Appalachian response to disaster. Appalachian Cultural Values bring about generally more postive responses from survivors than in the general public outside Appalachia. The Floyd County School Bus Wreck, the Marshall University Plane Crash, the Buffalo Creek Flood, the Silver Bridge Disaster, and Fraterville as well as several other mine disasters and floods all help to make my point. We are also seeing some of the same thing related to how we are dealing with the West Liberty Tornado. Keep up the good work!

  3. Perhaps it's time to make mining a thing of the past or else make it safer, much safer. Nice post Jim!

    1. I think we probably have sufficient safeguards available to make mining safer; they just need to be enforced. But just like our pollution laws and regulations, there's a lot of money and political power behind non-enforcement.

  4. A very interesting and honest tribute to a horrible incident.

    Darryl and Ruth :)