The worst mine disaster in Tennessee history took place on May 19, 1902, at the Fraterville mine, near Coal Creek (now Lake City), Campbell County. At about 7:30 a.m., 184 men and boys entered the mine. Minutes later a horrendous methane gas and coal dust explosion erupted, sending debris and smoke belching from the ventilation shaft and the mouth of the mine. The heat and impact of the blast instantly killed many miners. Along the main entry, the force of the explosion splintered mine cars and timbers and dismembered the bodies of miners. Some victims, found in side passages off the main entry, showed no signs of trauma. They probably lived for a short time before suffocating from the buildup of toxic gases and lack of oxygen. Others, alive but unable to escape toward the entrance, moved still deeper into the mine, where they constructed barricades in a futile attempt to close out deadly gases and stifling heat. Twenty-six men were found barricaded in one side passage, some still alive as late as 2:30 in the afternoon as evidenced by notes found with their bodies. “It is 25 minutes after two,” noted one miner. “There is a few of us alive yet. Oh God, for one more breath. Ellen remember me as long as you live. Good Bye Darling.”
Rescue efforts commenced immediately, but the first party had to turn back when they encountered the first dead miner and bad air. By late afternoon, the gas had been vented to the point that rescue efforts could continue. Shift after shift of volunteers began inching their way along the partially caved-in main entry and side passages. To do this, they had to construct a venting system of bratticing, a conduit made of cloth fabric impregnated with creosote, to remove bad air. They searched one side passage after another, slowly retrieving bodies, some of which were torn apart and mutilated beyond recognition. The last body was carried from the mine four days after the ordeal began.
At the mine entrance, a crowd of some 2,000 relatives, friends, neighbors, nearby miners, and spectators anxiously awaited word of the fate of the unaccounted-for miners. A temporary morgue was established at the Farmers Supply Company in Coal Creek. At the Leach Cemetery in Anderson County, 87 of the Fraterville miners were buried in a circle around a large monument in their honor.
The precise cause of the explosion was never determined, or never disclosed. The mine's ventilation furnace had been shut down all weekend, which could account for the accumulation of methane, an extremely explosive gas that can build up in poorly ventilated coal mines. When the gas exploded, probably kindled by the open flames of the miners' lamps, coal dust was blown into the air and subsequently ignited, adding even more force to the explosion.
The mine disaster devastated the small town of Fraterville, leaving both broken homes and a broken community. Only three adult male residents remained in Fraterville after the explosion. Many women lost every male member of their families–husbands, fathers, brothers, sons. Unfortunately, few lessons were taken from the Fraterville tragedy; mine disasters did not end in the Southern Appalachian coalfields. From 1902 to 1927, according to the research of historian Ronald D. Eller, over 2,400 Appalachian workers died in mine explosions, with three of these disasters occurring in Tennessee at Briceville (1911), Catoosa (1917), and Rockwood (1926).