216 coffins: Remembering the Fraterville Mine explosion

National and World

COURTESY TSLA Fraterville disaster

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The Fraterville disaster is considered one of the worst mining accidents in our nation’s history.

On May 19, 1902, 216 miners lost their lives in the explosion. News 2’s Alex Corradetti spoke with Nashville Historian David Ewing about the devastating event.

“There was a horrific explosion in a coal mine at 7:30 a.m. and the miners who had just reported to the mine and started their journey into the mine at 6:30 a.m. were all trapped,” said Ewing.

Ewing said the coal mine was shut down over a weekend, and there was no ventilation.

“The methane gas built up the entire weekend, and it just combusted. So, by the time that gas explosion happened people were either killed instantly, or the ones that could barricade themselves into the mine knew they only had hours to live as oxygen levels got so low,” said Ewing.

The Fraterville Mine disaster was the fourth worst tragedies. Ewing said the first happened in West Virginia killing 362 people. “216 minors lost their life that day, and it was gruesome. When the explosion went off this tiny mining town, every single person came to the mine to check on their loved ones.”

Ewing said after the explosion, there were only three adult men left in the entire town.

“This Fraterville mine was used for 30 years. That morning of the explosion, everyone knew something horrific had happened. The local undertaker had come and even before the death toll. The first thing he did was order 200 coffins. He knew it would be a disastrous day for the dead,” said Ewing.

Debris and smoke blasted out of the mine, and most of the miners were killed in the initial explosion. In addition, there were 26 miners who barricaded themselves into a passage and ended up suffocating hours later.

Ewing said the last known survivor made it until about 2:30 p.m. that afternoon.

“The reason we know that is they were barricaded behind one of the mine cars and they wrote last notes to one of their families and loved ones ‘they will see them all in heaven,'” said Ewing.  

“The Leach Cemetery in Anderson County has 87 of the miners who died that day buried in there. There is a large monument in their honor. They are buried around the monument in a circle which is really rare. Most historians believe the people who died in the monument were Welsh, and that was a very Welsh way to bury the dead all in a circle,” explained Ewing.

The Coal Creek Coal Company was owned by Knoxville’s Major E. C. Camp.

Major Camp’s son George learned the mining business working underground with the Fraterville miners, later becoming the Superintendent.

On the fateful day of the explosion, George was running late for work because he had visitors at his home. He led rescue efforts but still, all 216 miners died.

He was accused of negligence, but later acquitted of all charges.

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