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    The words "I owe my soul to the company store" didn't originate with Tennessee Ernie's iconic song Sixteen Tons. A recent visit to Anderson County Tennessee brought the coal miners' struggles to life. Coal Creek Miners Museum in Rocky Top (formerly Coal Creek), Tennessee tells the miner's story in pictures and artifacts focusing on three major crisis in the area's mining history, The Coal Creek Wars and two mine disasters; the Fraterville explosion in 1902 was the worst mining disaster in Tennessee history, then just nine years later there was an explosion in Briceville's Cross Mountain Mine that killed 84 workers.

    Miners have always had a hard life. To understand the miner's story in Anderson County, Tennessee we need to go back to the years shortly after the Civil War. As industrialization swept the nation, coal became a form of black gold. Rich capitalists grew richer and the miners, who did the work that filled the capitalists' bank accounts, were paid very little.  Miners had to pay for their housing. Pay for the doctor; pay for the coal. I looked at a monthly paycheck invoice dated 1942 at the museum; a miner made $341, owed $312, and was left with $29 in script.

    In these early days they got paid by weight not hours worked. This promoted the practice of bringing young boys down into the mine to assist their fathers. To add insult to injury, the man who checked the weight of the mined coal was a company employee, not a contract labor miner. The pot began to boil over with a miner's strike in 1877

    This caused mine owners to start bringing in free convict labor at Knoxville Iron and Coal Company Mine (KICC) in the Wye Community. Convict labor was a practice that sprang up in the south to replace slaves. The prisons would lease out convicts to companies. In the Deep South they were plantations. In Tennessee and Kentucky, it was mining. States began arresting people, mainly blacks, and small charges that normally would have been about 30 days were raised to a one year sentence. The reason being that companies wanted leased convicts to have at least a year to serve so they would not have to go to the expense of transporting and training them only to have them released in just a few months.

    Since there were many other mines and work was plentiful, the miners went to work at Briceville, Fraterville and other mines and the convicts continued in the KICC mine. This practice of convict labor miners and free miners continued until it once again came to a head with a new strike in 1891. Miners in Anderson County Tennessee went on strike again to demand  fairer treatment; mainly to end the practice of payment in script, redeemable only at overpriced company stores, and for the right to appoint their own weight checker.

    Gail Disney and Charles "Boomer" Winfrey who know and love the history of Coal Creek

    Coal Creek Mine Museum board member and local historian  Charles "Boomer" Winfrey refers to the Coal Creek War as "the last battle of the Civil War. The miners surrounded the stockade and the local militia surrendered without firing a shot. The miners put the convicts on the train to Knoxville and sent a telegram to the governor telling him they wanted no more convicts taking their jobs. Governor Buchanan didn't trust the local militia because they were pro-Union men and the miners were mostly Welch immigrant Union sympathizers so  he sent in the militia from middle and west Tennessee; mostly the sons of Confederate veterans and commanded by old Confederate veterans. Most of the convict laborers were Black. And look what they were fighting over; continued bondage of Black people."

    The cannon on Militia Hill still points out over Coal Creek no matter the name change to Rocky Top.

    The fighting escalated with both sides refusing to give in. Over 2500 miners, many from neighboring Kentucky, took part in the fighting. To protect the convict labor camp and the National Guard, the state built Fort Anderson in January 1892 on a spot overlooking Coal Creek. It became known as Militia Hill and you can still see cannon and the remains of trenches there.

    Just a short walk through the underbrush takes you to an old railroad trestle bridge where a free miner, Dick Drummond, was hanged from one of the trestles on August 10, 1893 supposedly as a warning to other miners.  Sixteen officers and enlisted men of the Tennessee National Guard were arrested for the crime.  It is unknown whether there was a conviction but the bridge is reputedly haunted by Drummond's ghost. Fort Anderson was shut down by the governor to avoid farther conflict.

    The old railroad bridge where Drummond was hanged.

    We spoke to Gail Disney, about the miners. She is a volunteer at the museum who loves history. She  said "It is a passion with me. All my family were miners.  My grandfather was in the Coal Creek War."

    Two young civil engineers, Henry H. Wiley and William S. McEwen, gained deeds to the mining rights in the area in 1835. This later evolved into the Coal Creek Mining Company. Gail told us, that Wiley family's great-great granddaughter, who still owns property near Militia Hill but has never been to visit it, met with some of the museum volunteers to talk about Militia Hill.  Gail said "She told us ‘I have never been there. As children we were told never never go up there. They hate us there.'"

    Besides the Coal Creek War, another reason for the miners to hate the owners was the two disasters that took place here. Gail told us about the Fraterville Mine explosion that occurred on May 19, 1902; 216 men and boys died in that disaster.

    Briceville Church and Cemetery Monument engraved with dead miners names

    Gail had family members that died there. "It was right at the entrance where it exploded so anybody working there was trapped. To get the bodies out rescuers had to go into an adjacent mine. They think the gases had built up in another sealed mine and that the miners accidentally broached it, those gases flowed into the original mine causing the explosion."

    The second disaster was the Cross Mountain Mine Disaster where 85 people were killed when a mine roof caved in trapping miners inside.

    We visited the Briceville Church and Cemetery where many casualties of these disasters are buried. Also in Cross Mountain Miners' Circle, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, where a circular area is filled with the miners tombs. The very nice tombstone showed that theses were not the stereotype poor, illiterate miner. Ironically the church, built in 1888, was used a as a temporary jail for captured miners during the Coal Creek War. There is a obelisk monument engraved with the names of all the known dead miners. Some were itinerate miners whom no one knew.

    The tombstones will break your heart. Many of them are the inscriptions of last messages the trapped miners had written as they slowly suffocated in the mines due to lack of air. 22-year-old Eugene Ault's tombstone bears the words he wrote on barricade boards as he slowly suffocated: "I guess I have come to die. Air is not good now. Well, all be good and I aim to pray to God to save me and all of you." Welsh Miner, Jacob Vowell's reads in part "Raise the children as best you can." Many simply say, "Gone but not forgotten." Powell Harmon's stone left his final instructions for his sons; "My boys, never work in the coal mines."

    During the strike, Governor Buchanan offered the miners a compromise where the convicts could remain and work only the original mine the had been working. It would not affect the miners jobs at all. The miners held out for "no convict labor at all" and finally ended the convict lease system in Tennessee. Other states later followed suit.

    Coal Creek was renamed Lake City and, just recently, Rocky Top but whatever you call it, this part of Tennessee is much more than the name of a song. It tells the history of that black rock that has taken the lives of so many miners and the stories of those miners. 

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    Public Disclosure-- Please Read
    I recently learned of a FTC law requiring web sites to let their readers know if any of the stories are "sponsored" or compensated.  American Roads and Global Highways' feature writers are professional travel writers. As such we are frequently invited on press trips, also called fam trips. Most of the articles here are results of these trips. On these trips most of our lodging, dining, admissions fees and often plane fare are covered by the city or firm hosting the trip. It is an opportunity to visit places we might not otherwise be able to visit and bring you a great story. However, no one tells us what to write about those places. All opinions are 100% those of the author of that feature column. 

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