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.

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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.

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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.