One century ago precisely, Knoxville was already Christmas-mad. Newcomer’s Santa Claus Toy World tried its best to compete with Miller’s Big Toy Store, which touted velocipedes, the popular board game Crokinole, “dirigibles that whirl on a string,” “ducks in blankets,” diving submarines, and bucking broncos that “throw the cowboy on his head.”
Knoxville was booming, and one of the reasons was its natural resources, celebrated in the second big Appalachian Exposition, which had drawn hundreds of thousands to Chilhowee Park a few weeks earlier. Much of that big fair had celebrated the region’s riches, in lumber, coal, iron, even bauxite, which was one reason the Aluminum Company of America was reported to be close to breaking ground on a major plant in the Knoxville area, to employ 5,000.
Knoxville was optimistic, and shoppers had money to spend. The stores were all downtown, and people came from many miles around to shop, filling the hotels and boarding houses.
When the sun went down, few went home. Five vaudeville theaters competed for the Gay Street pedestrian, each promoting multiple traveling performers. That Friday, Staub’s welcomed Al H. Wilson, the impressionist most famous for making fun of Germans; the musical farce Around the Clock was at the Bijou. Ragtime was hot in 1911, and one troupe trumpeted its holiday ragtime parade. Even University of Tennessee students put on a ragtime vaudeville show on campus that night, headlined “Better than Booze for the Blues.”
With so many demands for their attention, you wouldn’t think Knoxvillians would be looking for stuff to do, but downtown that same Friday, Dec. 8, also hosted a fine-arts tea and gallery show, a Socialist rally (at the Knoxville Socialist headquarters, near Market Square), a Thalian dance, a pie social, and a musical performance by the Attucks Literary Society of all-black Austin High.
Chances are only a few Knoxvillians were even awake the next morning when 92 miners reported for work before dawn to begin working with picks and mules at the Knoxville Iron Company’s Cross Mountain Mine, about 30 miles northwest of downtown. They probably weren’t even thinking about breakfast at 7:20, when residents of Anderson County’s Briceville community noticed, in the earth beneath their feet, a silent thump.
Three miners made it out, as billows of flame swept through the shafts. An intrepid rescue crew made it one mile into the mine before encountering a wall of debris. By 10:30, visible flames shot out of some mine openings.
Newspaper writers pictured a “chamber of horrors.” Some witnesses suspected all the trapped miners were dead.
Back in Knoxville, mine owners were upbeat, insisting it wasn’t nearly as bad as characterized. The mine had been inspected twice in 1911, including just a week ago. Many if not all of the men, declared a company executive, would be rescued alive.
There was, to be fair, reason to be optimistic. The newly established federal Bureau of Mines had one of its first field stations in Knoxville. The first-ever mine-safety exhibition had been held in Pittsburgh just six weeks before, outlining impressive new rescue equipment and techniques. The federal rescue team arrived promptly, equipped with “oxygen helmets” like those of deep-sea divers. Some of their equipment had never been used before. Canaries to detect toxic gas? Who’d have thought of that. The Cross Mountain disaster became a textbook case.
But John Bowden, president of the Knoxville chapter of the United Mine Workers, thought it sounded bad, and he wasn’t surprised. It was a non-union mine. The UMW had been trying to unionize Cross Mountain for years, but the Knoxville Iron Co. forbade all labor organization there. The UMW would help rescue efforts, he said, only because the trapped miners were “fellow craftsmen.” He claimed he had predicted the catastrophe, “but I regret from the bottom of my heart that it happened.”
Hundreds, among them mine executives and labor organizers, arrived in Briceville to pitch in, as did many neighbors and families of missing miners. Within days, Briceville was suffering a serious food shortage.
That Saturday and the following Sunday, the only miners to emerge were dead, some of them burned or mutilated. One man was found at a mine telephone, apparently calling for help, his skull crushed. By Monday evening, two and a half days after the explosion, a cold rain fell on Cross Mountain. They’d found 19 bodies, no survivors. Seventy men were still missing.
But then they opened a passage where five men, age 22 to 55, were still alive. One of the men was a Christian, and he’d spent the previous 63 hours trying to convert the other four.
Around that time, rescuers reported something very strange. Deep in the mine, they encountered two “demented men...bereft of reason” who, making strange noises—like cries of men chained in a prison, one remarked—ran from the rescue party deeper into the mine.
The tally of bodies pulled out of the Cross Mountain Mine finally stopped at 84. It was one of the deadliest disasters ever to occur in the Knoxville area, worse than the New Market train wreck, worse than the Gay Street fire of 1897. But it was overshadowed, from the very first newspaper reports, by the nearby Fraterville disaster, nine and a half years earlier, in which 214 men died. Had it been a transportation disaster, an urban fire, a riot, it would be remembered as the worst in Knoxville-area history. As a mining disaster, it’s just the second worst.
Human nature was no less distractible 100 years ago than it is today. Within a couple of weeks, people in the city 30 miles to the southeast had stopped talking about the Cross Mountain explosion. There were more vaudeville singers and comedians, a prominent Mormon evangelist, and the beginning of the season of that new game, basketball.