No fresh air.
No warmth piped in from above.
No rescue capsules lowered into the earth.
No governor announcing to the press, all nine are alive.
Hundreds of miners lost their lives last century in the mountains northeast of Knoxville,
mostly during two history making disasters that are talked about still. In these hollows, the heroic rescue of nine miners in
Pennsylvania resonates loudly.
Walk through graveyards around Briceville and Lake City and you'll come across these
dates again and again: May 19, 1902 and Dec. 9, 1911.
The Fraterville Mine Disaster of 1902, tolls loudest in lore. At the time, it was the
second worst mining disaster in American history. One
hundred-eighty-four men perished that day, when coal dust ignited
and swept a storm of fire and poison gases through the underground
labyrinth near Lake City, then known as Coal Creek.
It was at seven-twenty a.m. on a Monday when the miners, carrying their lunch pails, walked
into the Coal Creek company mine at Fraterville. About seven-thirty,
the mine belched smoke. Miners working outside the Thistle Mine, on
the next ridge over, saw wisps of smoke trailing up the mountain and
sounded the alarm. Telegrams spread word across the country. Men and
women poured in by train and horse and on foot to rescue the miners.
Wives, mothers and daughters tried to force their way in to see if
loved ones were among the dead. Not one miner had survived. Not one.
magazines all across the country reprinted messages the doomed
miners left --messages written with stubs of pencils, or with blood,
or carved into wood, or into the very walls of death chambers
underground, as the air slowly ran out.
Many were pressed into
family Bibles. Others have been displayed in museums, and they've
been reprinted again and again.
"We are shut up
in the head of the entry... and the bad air is closing in on us
fast and it is now about 12 o'clock. Dear Ellen, I have to
leave you in a bad condition. But dear wife set your trust in the
Lord to help you raise my little children. Ellen take care of my
little darling Lily. If we never live to get out we are not hurt but
only perished for air.... Elbert said for you to meet him in
heaven.... Powell Harmon's watch is in Andy Woods'
hand. Oh! how I wish to be with you.... Bury me and Elbert in
the same grave by Little Eddy.... Goodbye Lily, goodbye Jimmie
Goodbye Horace. We are together. Is 25 minutes after two. There is a
few of us alive yet. Oh God for one more breath. Ellen, remember me
as long as you live. Goodbye darling." --Jacob L. Vowell.
wife... I want you to go back home and take the baby. I am going to
heaven. I want you to meet me there." --James A. Brooks.
"To George Hutson's wife. If I don't see you no more bury me in
the clothing I have. I want you to meet me in heaven. Goodbye. Do as you wish." --G. Hutson.
"Dear wife and Children: My time is come to die. Trust in Jesus. Teach the
children to believe in Jesus. May God bless you all is my prayer...
It is now 10 minutes till 10 and we are almost smothered. It is our
time to go. I hope to meet you all in heaven. May God bless you
all, wife and children, for Jesus sake goodbye until we meet to part
no more. My boys, never work in the mines." --Powell Harmon.
Those messages had scarcely ceased ringing in the thoughts of the survivors, when the
second disaster occurred, just nine and a half years later, this one
at Cross Mountain, Dec. 9, 1911.
My grandfather, Colonel Isaac Williams, was barred from working that grim day for refusing
earlier to cross a picket line during a strike. If not for that
quirk of history, he would have been among the dead and I would not
be here to write this. As a teenager, nearly six decades after the
event, I heard him talk about walking down the tracks in Briceville
on his way to help retrieve the dead. Each house all along the
tracks in that crowded mining camp rang with sobs and wails mourning
the dead. Listen. You can almost hear them still.