The highways and byways of Tennessee are dotted with those little signs that are often ignored. They are historical markers and placed to provide a very brief explanation of why some thing or some area has significance to Tennessee. Within the state are some 3,683 such markers located in every county. The unincorporated community of Briceville, Tennessee, a place small enough that it does not show up on the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Fact Finder, nevertheless sports nine historical markers. Briceville is in Anderson County in northeast Tennessee. The marker that is the focus of this paper is entitled “The Coal Creek War: 1891-1892.” Based on the text of this marker then, there should be no doubt that Anderson County is in the heart of Tennessee coal country and coal mining was a centerpiece of business in Briceville.
Other markers make clear how closely entwined Welsh immigrants and the coal mining industry were. The “Briceville Church” marker, for example, explains how this old church was built by “Welsh Coal Miners in 1888.” More general markers point out events that had an impact on the area and its inhabitants. The “Cross Mountain Disaster” marker, commemorates the 1911 mine explosion and subsequent rescue efforts, which efforts became a template for mine rescue efforts in future disasters. The related “Legacy of Condy Harmon” marker tells the sad story of a family’s loss in the mines, and the “Miners’ Circle Cemetery” plaque completes that particular trilogy dealing with the 1911 disaster. The “Welsh in Coal Creek” marker returns to the subject of the significance of Welsh immigrants.
The great boom for Briceville, and for the Coal Creek area in general, came after the American Civil War. Although the first coal mining operation in Tennessee had been opened in 1847, it was the post-Civil War explosion of industrialization that had the great impact. The iron ore outcroppings in the Western Highland Rim area were being exploited as early as the 1790s and by 1840 the U.S. Census found some 82 “furnaces, bloomeries, forges, and rolling mills in East Tennessee”. Coal mining and the accompanying production of coke to fuel the blast furnaces of the iron and steel industry is an activity closely linked to iron processing. The major coal mining activity that developed in the 1840s was originally in support of the iron and steel operations. Ironically, the iron activity played out, but coal production remains a significant component of the Tennessee economy, as well as the economy of much of that area known as Appalachia, today.
The involvement of the Welsh immigrants in the mines of Coal Creek traces back, as many waves of migration do, to persecution by the authorities. In the case of the Welsh, the British were the persecutors. Immigrants from Wales were familiar with coal mining since Wales was a primary source of coal throughout the British empire which fueled the first waves of the industrial revolution as well as the great steamships that were the lifeblood of the British Empire. The first wave of Welsh migrants settled in Pennsylvania where they worked the anthracite coal fields. By the late 1800s the Pennsylvania fields, and the work there, had attracted waves of immigrants from other parts of mainland Europe. Poles, Hungarians, Slavs, Swedes and Italians were eager to emigrate in search of a better life both economically and in terms of religious and cultural freedom. These immigrants had offered labor at about half the wages commanded by the Welsh. They were also described, by at least one Welshman writing home, as being a “harder working people and physically stronger than the English and Welsh.
Joseph and David Richards, experienced Welsh miners, came to Coal Creek following the end of the American Civil War. As they developed their coal mine and the markets of the Western Highland Rim to which to sell the coal, they prospered. A community of Welsh grew up. It included homes, stores, and the above mentioned Briceville Church. The brothers sold out to the Knoxville Iron Company, but coal mining continued to be the center of the local economy. These coal seams are still being worked today.
The historical marker on the Briceville Elementary School property, then, opened the door to a whole world of Tennessee history. The significance of coal mining in Tennessee is, of course, obvious to anyone who has ever driven the state highways and county roads outside of the cities. The importance of the iron industry, though, is not nearly as well known. Once the co-dependency of coal and iron are understood, it makes perfect sense. The significance of the Welsh immigrant population was also a revelation.
As Tennessee has become more urban, with two-thirds of the state’s population now residing in urban areas, these historical markers have become more important. Coal mining remains generally a rural operation, which makes it invisible to the majority of Tennesseans. Since it is part of the history that has made Tennessee what it is, it is important to retain the memory. The historical markers accomplish that and, if one reads them, can reveal other locations to which the person interested in history may be drawn
Bogan, Dallas. “Bogan Explores History of Welsh Coal Miners in the Knoxville Region.” History of Campbell County, Tennessee. Last modified 1 August 2019. https://www.tngenweb.org/campbell/hist-bogan/WelshCoalMiners.html.
“Briceville Church.” The Tennessee Historical Commission. Last modified 27 March 2017. https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=102331.
“Community Facts.” U.S. Census Bureau: American Fact Finder. 2019. https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.
“The Coal Creek War.” Tennessee Historical Commission. Last modified 27 March 2017. https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=102292.
“Coal Creek: War and Disasters.” Coal Creek Watershed Foundation. 2016. http://www.coalcreekaml.com/Legacy.htm.
“Cross Mountain Disaster.” Tennessee Historical Commission. Last modified 27 March 2017. https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=102329.
“Historical Markers in Tennessee.” The Historical Marker Data Base. 2019. https://www.hmdb.org/results.asp?State=Tennessee.
Johnson, David. “Tennessee Mines.” Miningartifacts.org. 2019. http://www.miningartifacts.org/Tennessee-Mines.html.
“Legacy of Condy Harmon.” Tennessee Historical Commission. Last modified 27 March 2017. https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=102425.
“Miners’ Circle Cemetery.” Tennessee Historical Commission. Last modified 27 March 2017. https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=102427.
“Survey: Tennessee Urban Area Population Increasing.” University of Tennessee: Knoxville. 8 December 2016. https://news.utk.edu/2016/12/08/survey-tennessee-urban-area-population-increasing/.
Thacker, Barry. “Preserving Coal Creek Mining History.” July 2012. http://www.coalcreekaml.com/CivitanClubJuly2012.pdf,
“Welsh in Coal Creek.” Tennessee Historical Commission. Last modified 27 March 2017. https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=102333.