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Knoxville's Coal Baron
B. Ray Thompson made a lot of money in the mines. Some of it is still around.

  The Coal Creek War

Anderson County was home to Tennessee's first mine uprising

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

There's not much to see anymore on Militia Hill. A narrow road rides tightly around the rising curves, bounded by overarching trees and forest undergrowth. But there are spots along the way that stand out, unnatural bulges in the earth that are the only physical remains of Fort Anderson.

For more than a year in the early 1890s, this was the center of one of the strangest conflicts in the history of Tennessee—the Coal Creek War.

The community of Coal Creek, born during the land rush that followed the Civil War, was well established by 1891 as a small commercial center. A few hours from Knoxville by train, it was the link between dozens of local coal mines and the rest of the world. Within the next two years, however, its name would gain a notoriety the town never shook.

One of the biggest issues of contention between miners and management at the time was the position of "check-weighman," the company employee who weighed each miner's daily output and paid him accordingly. Miners, with good reason, didn't trust the weighman to have their best interests in mind. In 1891, a group of workers at the Tennessee Mine Company in Briceville, a mining camp just down the road from Coal Creek, demanded the right to elect their own weighman.

After a brief attempt at negotiation, the company simply fired all the miners and evicted them from their company-owned houses. To dig its coal, it contracted with a New York-based firm called the Tennessee, Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. But TCIR's miners didn't simply come from another mining camp—they came from Tennessee's prisons.

Most of the states in the South after the Civil War had some form of "convict lease" system, in which they rented out prisoners to private corporations. TCIR, via heavy lobbying, had secured an exclusive contract for convict leases in Tennessee. In turn, it subleased the prisoners to anyone who wanted them. The convicts themselves, at least the ones lent out for most hard labor, tended to be black men who had been arrested for one violation or another of the state's "Jim Crow" laws. As Lake City journalist and historian Charles Winfrey says, "It was an extension of slavery."

Briceville miners knew the introduction of convict labor could put them all out of work. So two weeks after the convicts arrived (their first job was to build the stockade they would be kept in), 300 miners marched on the Tennessee Mining Company. The outnumbered company guards surrendered quickly, and the miners peacefully escorted the convicts and guards into Coal Creek, put them on a train to Knoxville, and appealed to Gov. John P. Buchanan to end convict leasing.

Buchanan, a populist Democrat who had been supported by farmers and working-class voters, wasn't as sympathetic as the miners hoped. He sent the convicts back, along with three companies of the National Guard, and personally accompanied the convoy to Coal Creek. Six hundred miners met him at the train station, and refused to applaud when he made a public plea for law and order.

Nobody was surprised when, less than a week later, a force of 1,500 miners again marched to the stockade and—once more without a shot being fired—captured the prisoners and guards and sent them back to Knoxville.

A few days later, on July 22, Buchanan met in Knoxville with a committee of miners. He agreed to their demand for a special legislative session to resolve the issue. But the resulting debate only made things worse, producing a resolution that made it illegal to interfere with the convict lease system. The situation had by now attracted national attention, and the New York Mail and Express said of the lawmakers, "If this sort of thing goes on long, the people of East Tennessee will be sorrier than ever that they were not like their loyal brethren of West Virginia, set off while it was still possible as a separate Commonwealth."

By autumn, the miners were angry enough to abandon their relatively respectful demeanor. On Halloween night, hundreds of torch-bearing men seized the stockades of the Tennessee Mining Company and Knoxville Iron Company, which had also started using convict labor, set fire to the buildings, and turned the prisoners loose. (Many of the convicts didn't feel any safer roaming the East Tennessee hills than they had in the stockade. One of them, Richard Huber, sent Gov. Buchanan a telegraph from Clinton that read, "Me and 160 men loose. Been working at Briceville. The miners have burned everything there last night at that place. What must I do?")

The governor responded with equal force. On New Year's Day of 1892, state militia troops under the command of Gen. Kellar Anderson escorted 200 convicts back to Briceville and constructed the fort whose foundations can still be seen on Militia Hill. The occupying army held things at a stand-off for the next eight months.

But the stalemate couldn't last. One effort to storm the fort failed, with several miners shot by a militia Gatling gun. As a second attack neared, some of the miners took Anderson prisoner during one of his forays into town. When Gen. Samuel Carnes arrived with troops from Chattanooga shortly afterward, he demanded Anderson's release. Carnes also immediately began arresting anyone with suspected ties to the rebellious miners, filling boxcars, schools, and churches with his prisoners.

Eventually, 300 miners went to trial on various charges. But only two were convicted, and they received short sentences. The entire episode became a black mark for the governor, who finished third in the Democratic gubernatorial primary later that year. When TCIR's lease contract with the state expired in 1896, the Legislature refused to renew it. Convict labor in Tennessee was dead.

"The miners lost the battle, but they won the war," Winfrey says. "Tennessee was the first state to repeal the convict lease system. That was kind of the first wave of real labor unrest."

It was also one of the main reasons Coal Creek changed its name four decades later. State Sen. Robert D. Lindsay, whose father had been among those arrested by Carnes, proposed taking advantage of the town's new status as a lakeside community (courtesy of TVA's Norris Dam). He suggested "Lake City" as a replacement. In supporting the change, one resident said, "It might be a good thing. Coal Creek is sometimes classed with Harlan, Kentucky."

May 25, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 21
© 2000 Metro Pulse