Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Decades have not dimmed memory of Tennessee mine disasters
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   08/02/2002)

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.

Newspapers and 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.

"My dear 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.