Life in the Coal Mines

coal mining photo

Whitwell was home to the largest mine in Marion County. This 1947 photo shows miners at the Reel Cove Cave mine near Whitwell. (Photo: Department of Conservation)

The Marion County Coal Miners Museum in Whitwell, Tennessee, offers storytelling in its most engaging form: from the mouths of those who experienced it. The museum is a labor of love for the six retired coal miners who keep its doors open Monday through Saturday.

Jewell Shadrick works the Tuesday shift at the museum and talks easily with visitors about objects and displays that mark more than a century of coal mining in his community. What emerges from his informal tour is a deep understanding of the significant cultural heritage that coal mining played in Whitwell and the Sequatchie Valley as a whole.

Museum displays mark more than a century of coal mining in Whitwell. (Photo: Jenni Frankenberg Veal)

Coal mining operations set up shop in the southern Appalachian Mountains in the 1800s. Tennessee was once one of the largest coal producers in the United States, aided by the construction of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad in the mid-1800s.

Southern coal—a high-grade bituminous coal—was a better quality than northern coal and was delivered to American consumers at a lower cost, according to “Coal Mining in the Cumberland Plateau, 1880–1930.”

Whitwell (formerly the town of Cheekville) was established in 1877 as a mining community and was the home of the largest mine in Marion County. Immigrants came from Great Britain and Europe to get in on the action of coal mining and coke production.

In order to preserve this significant history, the Marion County Coal Miners Museum opened in 2011 in an unassuming building along Main Street in Whitwell. Shadrick’s cousin, J.T. Shadrick, had maintained a coal mining display at a local funeral home that was a frequent topic of conversation in the community. One night, he had a dream about starting the museum—and the rest is history.

Whitwell Museum exhibit jfv

Museum displays mark more than a century of coal mining in Whitwell. (Photo: Jenni Frankenberg Veal)

A stone from an old wall near the Whitwell mine bears witness to the date when the first death occurred in the mine. (Photo: Jenni Frankenberg Veal)

The museum is located just down the road from the old mines and coke ovens on the side of Cumberland Mountain (also known as Olive Mountain).

Museum relics showcase a community entrenched in the mines in all aspects of life. The camaraderie of the men who worked in the mines is palpable, and every item tells a story.

Generations of coal mining caps and helmets, dating back to the mid-1800s, are displayed. One of the oldest is a child-sized cap with a metal bracket and lamp on the front for light.

“In the early days, a boy 8 years old could go underground with his daddy and work and get paid,” Shadrick said.

A small homemade device called a “rail horse” used by coal miners to ride the rails down the mountain after work sits on a countertop next to a black and white photo of a miner using one.

“The men had to be going over 60 miles per hour riding these things down the rails,” Shadrick said. Below the display is a long, thin shard of metal from the rails, which once impaled a miner’s leg as he rode his rail horse down the mountain.

Metal hooks that look like oversized diaper pins and numbered tags are spread along a counter. Miners would attach their numbered tag to each 1-ton cart of coal they filled so they could get paid. In the early days, they were paid 87 cents per ton of coal. Young boys were issued half tags, so a father would attach that if his son had helped, as well.

Story after story reveal an element of coal’s dark shadow. Photos of men in cramped spaces covered in black soot only suggest what miners endured. Shadrick said that he can’t hear well because of his days in the mines. However, despite the risks, men and boys—and later, women—descended hundreds of feet beneath the earth’s surface daily into a labyrinth of shafts spread miles and miles across the valley in order to provide for their families.

Shadrick points to the location in the mine where 13 men died in 1981. (Photo: Jenni Frankenberg Veal)

A stone from an old wall near the mine bears witness to the date when the first death occurred in the mine; “1877” was written in oil or grease over a century ago.

In 1981, one of the worst mining disasters in the coal industry took place at the Whitwell mines. Shadrick pointed to a giant map that reveals a honeycomb of shafts more than 200 feet below the surface of the Sequatchie Valley. A red tack marks where 13 men died after a blast that occurred at No. 21, nearly 5 miles from the entrance to the mine.

A cigarette lighter apparently touched off a methane explosion in the mine. Later, the United States Department of Labor accused Tennessee Consolidated Coal Company and Grundy County Mining Company of failure to evacuate workers from a methane-laden shaft, to adequately ventilate the shaft and to enforce a federal regulation prohibiting smoking materials in a mine.

Shadrick was one of the first men to go back into the mine after the explosion. While he discussed his role, he quieted and his eyes filled with tears. He knew the men who died and their families. Some were relatives.

Jewell Shadrick with map of mines jfv

Shadrick points to the location in the mine where 13 men died in 1981. (Photo: Jenni Frankenberg Veal)

Coal mining was a significant industry in Whitwell until 1996, when the mines went bankrupt. However, the museum and its volunteers think it’s a history worth telling, one that gave the community its beginnings and defined it for generations.

Environmentally, coal mining still impacts the region. The coal seam that underlies the Cumberland Plateau, the Sewanee Coal Seam, is surrounded by a layer of shale that contains pyrite, which creates toxic acid mine drainage when exposed to water and air. Today, acid mine drainage from hundreds of abandoned mines on the Cumberland Plateau and Walden’s Ridge continue to impact waterways and communities.

Visit the Marion County Coal Miners Museum, located at 900 S. Main St. in Whitwell, to learn more about coal mining in the Sequatchie Valley. It’s open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. CT. Group and school tours, bus tours, and senior citizen tours can be scheduled by calling 423-658-6868. There is no admission fee, but donations are welcome.

Beth Salem Church

Beth Salem Church in McMinn County

Beth Salem Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Athens, Tenn., was founded in 1866 by two black ministers and a white minister. (Photo: Jim Caldwell)

Organized in 1866, Beth Salem Cumberland Presbyterian Church stands as a testament to the Christian heritage that spans the years for blacks in the region. Located between Athens and Etowah, Tenn., off Tennessee Highway 30, Beth Salem was the first black church in McMinn, Meigs and Polk counties.

Slavery officially ended in Tennessee in April 1865, and Beth Salem Church was founded the following year by two black ministers and former slaves, the Revs. George Waterhouse and Jacob Armstrong, on land donated by a white woman, Martha Patsy Fite. The church, its adjoining cemetery and kitchen pavilion are lasting remnants of post-Civil War recovery and enduring hope in the region.

Today, the history of Beth Salem Church is being preserved through the efforts of Ann Hitchcock Boyd, a descendant of one of the church’s founding families, and other relatives and friends.

Boyd’s great-great-grandmother, Sylvia Chestnutt, was born into slavery on Edwards Plantation in Charleston, S.C., and toward the end of the Civil War was sold to the Chestnutt family, which owned a farm located between Athens and Etowah.

Sylvia’s three children were sold to other farms in the McMinn County area. Her youngest daughter, Daphney, who was 12 or 13 years old at the time, was sold to the Peck family in Etowah, Tenn.

Daphney Chestnutt Melton

Daphney Chestnutt Melton, a former slave on an Etowah farm, was one of the original members of Beth Salem Church. (Photo: Ann Boyd)

After the Civil War came to an end, Sylvia reportedly traveled to area farms in an effort to find her daughter and two sons, asking about any slaves who were originally from South Carolina. Boyd’s family passed down this story of Sylvia and Daphney’s reunion: One day, Sylvia rode up to the Peck farm in a dilapidated wagon pulled by a mule. Daphney, age 15, jumped into the wagon without looking back. Years later, Daphney told family members that even if she lived to be 1,000 years old, she would never forget the day that her mother came to get her.

After the war ended, former slaves often didn’t have anywhere to go, and many farmers still needed help on their land. Sylvia and Daphney returned to the Chestnutt family farm, which Boyd says must have been a big farm with a kind family that took them in. (Today, the Chestnutt farm is called Pebblebrook Farm and is located off Highway 30 between Athens and Etowah.)

Beth Salem Church organized monthly worship services for black families in what was an integrated farming community after the Civil War. Services were held under a brush arbor until a log meetinghouse was constructed. The Rev. Fate Sloop, a white minister, assisted the congregation by reading scripture from the Bible, as former slaves had been banned from learning to read.

In the 1920s, a one-story, one-room, weatherboard-covered building was constructed to replace the log house, which was destroyed in a fire. Church services were held each Sunday, and a school for black students operated during the week.

With the decline of small farms and the growth of factory jobs in the 1920s, the community of Beth Salem faded as many people left family farms for work in the nearby towns of Athens and Etowah. Regular church services at Beth Salem ceased in the 1950s, about a decade after classroom instruction ended. The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.

Bethsalem Church historical marker photo

Ann Hitchcock Boyd, an ancestor of one of the church’s founding families, grew up attending the annual Beth Salem homecoming. (Photo: Ann Boyd)

Each year in August, family and friends gather at Beth Salem Church to remember ancestors and celebrate the church’s history with preaching, singing and a potluck dinner on the grounds. The annual homecoming event, which will take place Aug. 24 this year, is open to the public.

“Homecoming makes you feel like you have a little bit of history that you can take home with you once a year,” said Boyd, who grew up attending the Beth Salem homecoming each year with her family. “The Beth Salem homecoming was always my father and mother’s favorite place to go every year,” said Boyd, who grew up in Etowah and now lives with her husband on 30 acres in Riceville, Tenn.

“My older brother and I had a real passion for Beth Salem, just as my parents did,” she said. “After he passed away in 2012, I thought, ‘I can’t let this go—I have to keep it going so future generations understand what it was to have a place to go worship after we were free.’

“My ultimate desire is to preserve that building and to keep its history going and to allow younger generations the opportunity to understand the history and how it wasn’t easy for people to get to church,” she said.

For more information about Beth Salem Cumberland Presbyterian Church, visit the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association website.