In celebration of this Labor Day weekend we thought we would share information about the Coal Creek War. According to the Department of Labor’s website, Labor Day is “a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”
Many people may be asking, “What is the labor movement?”
The labor movement in the United States grew out of the need to protect the common interest of workers such as better wages, reasonable hours and safer working conditions, which lead to trade union development.
So what does all this have to do with Anderson County, Tennessee? The Coal Creek War from 1891 to 1892, was what most people would call a labor dispute or labor strike. After the Civil War, the Southern States were basically bankrupt and could not afford prisons. They were also looking for ways to make money so they enacted the convict lease system, where they would lease convicts out to coal mining companies, plantation owners, railroads, etc.
Along the same time, the miners in Coal Creek, Tennessee (now known as Rocky Top) were not very happy with how they were being treated by the Tennessee Mining Company. Instead of being paid an hourly wage, coal companies would pay the miners by the ton. The miners were basically sub-contractors to the companies. The companies would pay the miner in scrip, which was usually only accepted at the company store. The miners also lived in housing provided by the company.
Remember the Merle Travis song made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford and Johnny Cash, Sixteen Tons? The chorus of the song goes like this, “You load sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt, Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.” All true. The miners usually ended up owing all their earnings back to the company.
The dispute started because the miners working for the Tennessee Mining Company wanted to elect their own checkweighman, which is exactly what it sounds like, the person who checks the weight of the coal brought out by each miner. The miners didn’t trust the company to accurately weigh the coal. The company decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble, kicked the miners out of their houses and brought in convict workers to mine coal.
Needless to say, that didn’t sit well with the miners. Not only did they lose their livelihoods, they were not real happy about the conditions that the convicts had to live in.
To make a long story short, the miners revolted, the state sent in the militia, the miners sent the militia back home, the militia came back and set up camp, one man lost his life and the miners lost the battle but as the saying goes, they didn’t lose the war. The Governor who championed the convict lease system did not win his re-election campaign and his opponent went on to be instrumental in ending the convict lease system in Tennessee.
I know, I know, we blew through some very important information really quickly but you can get the long version at the Coal Creek Miners Museum located in Rocky Top, TN. Or if you can’t make it any time soon, check out their website where you can purchase a book about the history for only $15.
Side note: After the abolishment of the convict lease system, the state built Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary about 25 miles away in 1896 and it operated as a maximum security prison until 2009. The prison is best known for housing James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, it is open for tours and has a restaurant and distillery.
So on this Labor Day, we celebrate the brave men of Coal Creek who stood up for what they believed in and instituted change for their fellow man and generations to come.