Jerry Summers: The Coal Creek War

Monday, September 14, 2020
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The mining history in Tennessee is filled with labor disputes involving violence between employees and employers.  Strikes occurred on issues such as low pay, safety and unionization.

The Coal Creek War was, however, primarily held on the question of the use of convict labor by employers instead of hiring miners.  It was in the early 1890s that armed labor uprisings took place in the Southeastern United States with its principal location being Anderson County, Tennessee, when the owners of the coal mines in 1891 in the Coal Creek watershed attempted to replace free coal miners with convicts leased out by the State of Tennessee, called the “convict lease system.” 

In addition to attempts to undermine union organizing, the systems perpetuated a form of slavery as the vast majority of the convicts were African-Americans who had often been imprisoned on false charges.  For example, of 120 men brought into work in the mines for the Tennessee Iron Company at Coal Creek only five were identified as white.

For over a year the free miners burned and attacked prison stockades and mining company buildings.  In the course of the war, hundreds of convicts were freed and dozens of miners and state militiamen were killed or wounded in small-arms skirmishes.  Striking miners not only freed hundreds of convicts but in some cases provided the escapees with food and clothing.

Historian Perry Cotham described the Coal Creek War as “one of the most dramatic and significant episodes in all American labor history.”

October 31, 1891 is a particularly significant date because a group of miners seized the Knoxville Iron Stockade at Coal Creek and freed convicts.  Most of the violence was located in two communities - Briceville, at the upper end of Coal Creek near its source and the town of Coal Creek which is now known as Rocky Top, Tennessee at the lower end of the creek where the body of water emerges from Walden Ridge. In the town of Rocky Top a Coal Creek Museum is maintained where visitors can learn more about the Coal Creek War.

Sympathetic miners came from surrounding communities such as Jericho and the state of Kentucky to join the uprising.  At the same time of the war in Coal Creek a similar anti-leasing riot took place in Grundy and Marion counties on the Cumberland Plateau about 100 miles south of the Coal Creek area.

Although there were abuses by the owners such as requiring some miners to rent houses owned by them and to purchase groceries at the company store at inflated prices by the use of “scrip” (company currency) instead of cash, the demand for labor in the highly profitable coal industry kept things under control for a while.

When the miners started talking about forming a union, the owners, although they preferred free labor, would threaten to replace free miners with convicts.

The Tennessee Coal Mining Company (TCMC) rejected the various demands at its Briceville mine. On April 1, 1891, after a breakdown in negotiations involving the use of scrip and use of company check weighmen (the specialists who weighed the coal and determined how much a particular miner had earned) instead of the miners’ choice of check weighmen, the company shut down mine operations.  On July 5, 1891, the company re-opened the mines using convict labor.

Governor John P. Buchanan, who was elected in 1890 with the support of the miners, was defeated for re-election in 1892.  In an attempt to resolve the labor disputes, he sent 583 militiamen under the command of General Samuel T. Carnes to East Tennessee to restore order on August 19th.   The blockades that housed convict labor in several communities such as Briceville and Oliver Springs were burned and convicts were freed.

The Coal Creek War ended when General Carnes made a sweep of the Coal Creek Valley.  Chief Justice Peter Turney of the Tennessee Supreme Court later defeated Buchanan in the governor’s race. 

Faced with a legal issue as to whether the companies had a valid contract allowing them to use convict lease labor before the agreement expired, the government and legislature let the contract expire and enacted legislation in 1895 to build Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and purchased land in Morgan County to erect the now closed prison in 1896.

Under new legislation, convicts would mine coal directly for the state rather than competing with free labor.  The Coal Creek War received national publicity by the New York Times and Harpers Weekly and many others as well as state newspapers in Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga that initially favored the miners but withdrew their support after the burning of the stockades in October, 1891.

The Coal Creek War lives on in music of the times as “it provided inspiration for some of the Appalachian coal mining protest music.”  Other songs such as “Coal Creek Troubles,” “Coal Creek March”, and “Buddy Won’t You Roll Down the Line”, are still popular with bluegrass performers.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com  

The Coal Creek War
The Coal Creek War

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