Fraterville mine explosion killed 216 in Anderson County

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FRATERVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - In a rural neighborhood in Anderson County, a man named Barry Thacker leads Local 8 News Anchor Amanda Hara and Chief Photojournalist Keith Smith past a barking dog, behind a home, and onto a path winding through the woods of the Coal Creek Watershed. Barry runs the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, charged with preserving the rich history of the area and improving the quality of life for people who live there.

Barry crunches along the snow covered trail, his feet pushing away pieces of ice and shards of coal. If every one of his steps counts as a year gone back in time, then eventually the path he walks along leads to a story long grown over and nearly forgotten.

He points to a moss covered structure and says, "This was the concrete foundation for a steam engine that was used to pull the coal cars out of the mine... When people walk through the woods here now they could walk right past this area and not realize what an important part of Tennessee history happened in this spot."

Barry sees what many might miss, what the passage of time has nearly erased at Coal Creek. On May 19th, 1902, every male member in the town of Fraterville died except three. That morning coal miners walked down the very path that Barry walked, they entered the mine, and all 216 of them were killed. The oil lamps they wore for lights ignited gas leaking underground and caused the deadly explosion.

Barry said, "Sadly this has been a part of Tennessee history that has been forgotten."

In a home not far away in Knox County, Louise Nelson pulls an old photograph from an envelope. There's no way she'll ever forget what happened to her grandfather, George Dezern, who was 23-years-old when he died.

Newspapers yellowed with age record what happened to her grandfather and four great uncles. Louise read from the old article, "This is a whole list of all the miners that were killed on this list right here. The scene at the entrance to Fraterville mine is heart rendering. One-thousand women and children are assembled there."

Louise's great-grandmother lost five of her sons and two of her son-in-laws in the explosion at the Fraterville mine.

At 96-years-old, as she nears the end of her own life, Louise begins to understand how short her time here is. "That’s exactly right and it goes by so swiftly."

That's why she holds her family's history a little tighter. "My sense of purpose is I don’t want these men to be forgotten. I don’t know if there’s anything more important."

Nearly 100 miners killed in the explosion at Fraterville, including Louise's grandfather, are buried at Leach Cemetery. Ten of them left something behind before they passed.

Barry said, "Those are the ones who left farewell messages. Those miners knew within in the next hour they were going to perish so they wrote what was dear to their heart."

One of the letters still exists, written on old paper. It says, 'Oh god for one more breath, Ellen remember me as long as you live.'

God and family. Barry says those are the two things each letter discussed. But for decades, the discussion didn't go any further. The loss was so painful that many families didn't speak of the disaster to their children and eventually the story slipped away.

Barry said, "Many of the headstones say the miners are gone but not forgotten. But sadly this has been a part of Tennessee history that has been forgotten."

Forgotten until Barry Thacker brought it back to life. At Briceville Elementary School, children file into the library to learn about Anderson County's coal mining history. It's now required learning for all 5th, 8th and 11th grade students in the state of Tennessee thanks to Barry's efforts.

Which leads us back to Leach Cemetery. It turns out the final resting place for so many men is not where the story goes to die.
Louise said, "Now I can pass it along to my great grand daughters and my great grandsons."

Barry says now the story lives, plain as day, set in stone. "It will validate what it says on their headstones, that they are gone but not forgotten."

COAL CREEK WAR

After the Civil War, Tennessee and other southern states started leasing convicts to coal mines. The system helped generate income for Tennessee, and offered cheap labor to various industries.

Free miners became opposed to the system as their high-paying jobs were taken up by convicts. After a series of failed negotiations, the free miners of Anderson County went to war. They rounded up the convict laborers and put them on a train back to Knoxville.

There was a series of incidents between the militia and the miners before the war finally came to an end. In 1892 Governor Peter Turney was elected and abolished the convict leasing system in Tennessee.

Fort Anderson on Militia Hill in the Wye Community has been preserved and offers a view of how Tennessee's militia fought the Coal Creek War.