Striking Tennessee Miners Storm Mine and Free State Prisoners Forced to Work as Strike-Breakers
During the spring of 1891, free miners working for the Tennessee Coal Mining Company went on strike in Briceville, Tennessee, after the company demanded that all miners sign an iron-clad contract with draconian terms. In response to the strike, the company evicted the miners from their homes, built a stockade, and leased dozens of state prisoners to replace the free workers. Using convict labor, the mine reopened on July 5, 1891.
Two weeks later, on July 14, three hundred armed miners stormed the stockade and marched the convicts out of the valley, shutting down the mine once more. In response, Governor John P. Buchanan marched the state militia into the valley and, on July 16, met the miners just north of Briceville to plead for peace. The miners refused to accept the mining company’s treatment, and instead demanded that the governor enforce the state’s laws against iron-clad contracts.
When the miners seized control of the Briceville mine again, on July 20, Governor Buchanan requested a 60-day truce so that he could present the miners’ claims to the Tennessee legislature. The legislature subsequently rejected the miners’ demands, and tensions flared once more.
On October 31, 1891, the miners stormed the Briceville mine and burned the stockades to the ground, freeing more than 500 leased convicts and placing them on trains headed out of the Coal Creek Valley. Free miners in other towns soon followed suit; the conflict spread across the Cumberland Plateau and lasted several months until the militia launched a crackdown in the summer of 1892, leading to the arrests of hundreds of miners. Known as the “Coal Creek War,” this clash ultimately brought about the miners’ goal: the Tennessee legislature abolished convict leasing to private companies on January 1, 1894.
While the free miners no longer had to compete with convict labor, the Coal Creek War did not end the practice of forcing state convicts – mostly “able bodied young colored men” – to labor in mines. Instead, convicts were now shipped to Brushy Mountain and forced to mine coal for the state of Tennessee. By 1904, the state claimed $200,000 per year in profits from convict labor.