By Judge Brian Addington, Gray
In the summer of 1981, my family moved from Kingsport, Tennessee, to Grundy, Virginia. Grundy is located in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. We only lived for a few months in Kingsport while my dad sought a church to pastor. Before that, we lived in Nashville for four years.
The differences between Grundy and Nashville were extreme. Nashville was populated with many restaurants, malls, video arcades and music venues. Grundy had a one-screen theatre, a skating rink and the YMCA. I was lost because I was used to doing things in the community and there was not much to do there. At first, I had no friends and other than my brother and parents, no family. I did hone my hunting skills there, though, and spent many evenings chasing squirrels and grouse up hollers.
One thing I immediately noticed, however, was how tied the town was to coal mining. One could not step out the door without smelling coal, walking in it (coal dust), seeing the coal trucks and coal cars on trains, and seeing the miners going to and coming from work. A coal miner coming from work is a dirty person. I could not imagine working in those conditions.
Back in those days, news of mine closings or lay-offs were met with grief. The whole town — and I mean every aspect of it — revolved around miners being able to work. If the mines shut down, the town and the all the businesses that supported the mining industry would be severely affected.
After I lived there a while, it came to me to me that the whole town was a sort of big family. Everyone knew someone who worked in a mine, for an industry that supported the mines or a business where miners shopped. We worshiped in churches where miners prayed. Everyone everyday sought or had the latest news about the mines, miners and the need for coal. Everyone knew the danger involved and the benefits the mines provided, and they worked hard to keep it all going.
I can imagine the feelings were even more so in Coal Creek, Tennessee in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Coal Creek was Tennessee’s main coal-producing area. Many mines operated along the Coal Creek Valley in Anderson County, north of Knoxville. The Coal Creek War occurred in the 1890s along the banks of the creek. Miners and the State of Tennessee fought over the State’s program of leasing convicts to mine owners. The miners who lost jobs to the leased convicts were outraged, and a shooting war occurred. Unfortunately, several were killed, but fortunately the legislature ended the program, and the fighting stopped. One could imagine such a community in the years that followed getting back to work, building up the area (even an opera house was built) and drawing close together in the mountainous area they lived.
The Coal Creek Coal Company was one of the mines in the area. Its Fraterville Mine, one that never used convict labor, was one of the largest and safest mines there. Hundreds of miners went to work every day underground producing coal for the nation.
On May 19, 1902, all of that stopped, as the Fraterville Mine suffered a devastating explosion. In all, 216 miners died — the worst mining disaster in state history. Several miners survived the explosion to only later die from suffocation. During the time they awaited rescue, they wrote messages to their loved ones, which were found when their bodies were later recovered. It took four days to remove all the deceased. Later, the Commissioner of Labor determined the explosion occurred due to a buildup of methane gas. Although several employees were prosecuted for negligence in allowing the buildup of the gases, all were acquitted. All this occurred, of course, before enactment of the Workers’ Compensation Law.
But imagine the loss for the community. In a close-knit community in the mountains, every person was known and valued. Over 100 women were widowed and over 1,000 children left fatherless. One family lost eight family members. It was told that there were only three adult men left in the whole town.
Later, 86 of the 216 miners were buried in the Fraterville’s Mine Circle in Leech Cemetery in Rocky Top, Tennessee. In 2005, the circle was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
We can only hope that with increased mine safety over the years, such tragedy will never happen again in Tennessee. To the miners who still work every day, we thank you and pray for your safety.