While not normally associated with coal mining, Tennessee indeed once produced the black diamond. As a result, the state suffered its share of related destruction and devastation. A series of disasters at the turn of the Twentieth Century had locals wondering if perhaps there was more to the legends that carried from household to household. Could it be possible that the mines around Briceville, Tennessee, were haunted?
The Knoxville Iron Company was organized in 1868. It was the first major manufacturing firm in the area after the Civil War. Initially, the company only used free miners. Due to constant interruptions from labor disputes and striking, the company began leasing convict labor in 1878.
Methane gas often came in between the joints and cracks in the old mine. The often-starved convict miners learned to ignite this as a means of cooking whatever wild game they could find. It was against company policy and most were punished if caught. There were also several instances where the convicts were forced to work in portions of the mine that were poorly ventilated. Many met their death deep within those bleak tunnels.
Free miners resented the convicts and the mining companies, for taking their jobs. The “Coal Creek War,” began in 1891 when those miners decided to fight the company and local authorities. Until 1893, destruction reigned in this area. Buildings were burned, the angry miners freed many dangerous convicts, and dozens died on both sides. The war also ended Tennessee’s convict labor-lease system, although Knoxville Iron’s convict labor contract didn’t expire until 1896.
One incident demonstrated the seemingly senseless violence. A group of men in uniform took Dick Drummond from his boarding house on the night of August 11. Drummond was an ex-soldier who worked in the Shamrock mine. He was found the next morning hanging from a rail bridge trestle, at what is today Drummond Bridge. He had been lynched at 2 am. The lynching was to avenge the death of Private Laugherty, or Loughler. Three witnesses later claimed Drummond didn’t murder the young private because he was with them. Legends state the ghost of Drummond continues to haunt the area seeking revenge on those who lynched him.
During the 1890s, the mine used by Knoxville Iron was eventually abandoned. The continuous buildup of toxic gases posed a hazard for all. It would only be a matter of time before it exploded.
Fraterville was a successful and massive mine owned by the Coal Creek Coal Company, established in 1870. The tunnels branched out for miles underground and eventually overlapped those tunnels abandoned by the Knoxville Iron mine. Mine officials barricaded the old tunnels off in 1901. They said it was to prevent gases from the old tunnel entering into their mine. The miners weren’t so certain. Rumors traveled that the barricade was really to keep the spirits from that old mine from traveling into the new mine. Miners reported seeing specters and shades of the old miners moving deep within those long empty corridors.
On May 19, 1902, locals felt the tremors when the mine exploded. The Coal Creek mine was the safest in the region, according to officials. Despite the safe practices, 216 miners died. A new shift had just begun working. It remains the worst explosion in the state’s history. Many bodies were found dismembered by the force behind the blast.
The family of miner Charles Brooks reported one experience unlike most others. The family was at home. His wife was making the beds. The family heard his footsteps approach the front porch. He crossed the porch and entered the home. He walked into the bedroom where his wife noticed him. Just as she asked him why he was home so early, the figure disappeared. Brooks died in the earlier explosion.
The small community of Fraterville was nearly destroyed. Many households lost all male relatives. Only three men survived in the entire community, leaving hundreds of widows and over a thousand fatherless children.
Death hadn’t stopped visiting Briceville, or the mines. On December 9, 1911, another explosion erupted in the Cross Mountain mine. At 7:30 am, area residents felt what they believed was an earthquake. Mine officials watched a sheet of flame shoot from one mouth of the mine. The mine had been inspected only weeks earlier and was found to be safe. The explosion took a total of 84 lives. Like Fraterville, the cause for Cross Mountain’s explosion is still debated.
Stories circulated that the explosions were caused by the ghosts of convict miners who were still lighting gas leaks to cook their food. There are also reports of sobbing and crying around the entrances of the ill-fated mines, as well as in the cemeteries where they are buried.