A few years ago, we took a late-winter trip to Kearny, Nebraska, to watch sandhill cranes, who use the Platte River as a staging point for their northward migration. While there, I noticed something else: every five minutes, day and night, a 100-car coal train passes through town, bringing Wyoming's Powder River basin to insatiable power plants in the Midwest and East. It struck me that we're using more coal than William Blake, writing of England's "dark Satanic mills," could have imagined. The industrial revolution won't be over until we burn the earth's last ounce of sequestered carbon. And carbon costs a lot more than just money.
The people of Appalachia might have been satisfied living traditional lives, but they had no choice: the nation needed their coal, so we transformed them into coal miners, a hard, dangerous, and unrewarding way to make a living. If you manage to survive the methane explosions and cave-ins, your reward is black lung disease.
Coal Creek, northwest of Knoxville TN, is a tributary of the Clinch River, and mining led to the founding of a town with the same name, along with two others, Fraterville and Briceville. Coal Creek is the topic of more songs than any other mining area. There's Pete Steele's Last Payday at Coal Creek, as well as several different banjo instrumentals titled Coal Creek March. The Coal Creek Rebellion of 1891 was the inspiration for Uncle Dave Macon's Buddy Won't You Roll Down The Line. Tennessee leased their prisoners to the coal companies at low prices. Instead of being relieved, the local miners attacked the mines and freed the prisoners. The result of the rebellion was collectivization of the prison industry: thereafter, forced prison labor was conducted by the states instead of by private companies. But that's another story (see www.coalcreekaml.com).
On Monday, May 19, 1902, the Fraterville miners had just started work when a massive methane explosion sealed off the mine. It took four days to reach them, by which time all 216 had died. Fraterville was left with only three adult males who had not gone to work that day, along with hundreds of widows and a thousand orphans. Some of the miners had participated in the 1891 rebellion to regain their jobs.
Miners who weren't killed immediately barricaded themselves in side passages. Before they died, several of them left notes for their families. One example:
Alice, do the best you can. I am going to rest. Goodbye Alice. Elbert said the lord had saved him. Do the best you can with the children. We are all perishing for air to support us. but it is getting so bad without any air. Charlie said for you to wear his shoes and clothing. It is now 1- 1/2 o'clock. Marvell Harmon's watch is now in Andy Wood's hands. Ellen, I want you to live right and come to heaven. Raise the children the best way you can. Oh how I would love to be with you. Goodbye to all of you. Bury me and Elbert in the same grave. Tell little Ellen goodbye. Goodbye Ellen. Goodbye Horace. We are together. It is now 25 minutes after 2 o'clock. A few of us are alive yet, Jacob and Elbert. Oh God for one more breath! Ellen, remember me as long as you live.
In an era when even the wreck of a freight train could inspire poems and songs, it's not surprising that letters like this one, published in local newspapers, were raw material for a number of poems. I even found one written in 1970.
In 1929, a Kentuckian named Green Bailey recorded this song, which was undoubtedly written shortly after the explosion. I have no idea where the song was hiding in the intervening 27 years. The tune sounds like a typical 19th century maudlin song, so it's probably a poem set to music, perhaps by Bailey himself. You can hear Bailey's version on the 7-volume Kentucky Mountain Music boxed set (Yazoo 2200), but I prefer Tracy Schwarz's magnificent unaccompanied version on The New Lost City Ramblers Vol. 2: Out Standing in their Field (Smithsonian Folkways CD40040). You'd have to learn that by ear, though. The music given here reflects the regularity of Bailey's guitar accompaniment.
Another explosion at Briceville, in 1911, resulted in 84 deaths, with two survivors. In 1936, Tennessee Valley Authority's Norris Dam flooded the Clinch River, and the town of Coal Creek became Lake City.
1. Shut up in the mine of Coal Creek,
We know that we must die;
But if we trust in Jesus
To heaven our souls shall fly.
2. Our lamps are burning dimly,
Our food is almost gone;
Death's grasp is sure but awful,
Soon we'll be carried home.
3. Goodbye, dear wives and children,
May you be treated kind,
For now our time has come to die,
Shut up in the Coal Creek mine.
4. Eleven of us were prisoned,
And two dear ones have died;
Nine more are left to suffer,
And die in the Coal Creek mine.
5. Farewell, dear wives and mothers,
You're left behind to mourn,
But if you follow Jesus,
We'll meet in heavenly home.
6. Dear friends, you should take warning,
And listen to what we say;
You're now in the world of sunlight,
So there you'd better stay.
Repeat verse 1.
Repeat verse 3.