52 Ancestors – Week 7: Outcast

This week’s theme, Outcast, has me a little stumped. No one ancestor comes to mind. No one robbed banks (that I know of) or had a terribly contagious disease. The closest I can come to an outcast is this guy…Tipton Hightower (and what happened wasn’t his fault).

Born in the 1850s in Tennessee, Tipton is my 2x great-granduncle. His sister was Edith Hightower who married my 2x great-grandfather, John C. McKamey. The relationship between Tipton and John is essential because of what happened in May 1902.

In the 1900 census, both Tipton and John were coal miners in Anderson County, Tennessee. Coal mining was one of the main industries in the area.1 Most men in Anderson and surrounding counties used coal mining as a way to make a living. And it wasn’t just grown men working in the mines. This picture from the Library of Congress shows boys as young as 12 or 13 working dangerous jobs for coal mining companies.

Library of Congress photo of young boys working as coal miners in Tennessee around 1900.

Tipton and John were employees of the Fraterville Mine outside Briceville, Tennessee. This mine “had the reputation of being one of the safest mines in the state and Fraterville miners convinced their relatives to join them in their mining ventures.”2 This was true for both men as their sons joined them.

The reputation may have been one of safety, but on 19 May 1902, an explosion occurred that rocked the community. The number of men and boys who died that day reached 216, either initially from the blast or from lack of oxygen in the hours afterward.3 Tipton did not die, but John and his three sons did. They were Andrew, William, and James McKamey. James was the youngest at only 15 years old. Tipton also lost one of his sons that day. My great-grandfather, John Edward McKamey, was also a coal miner at that time. I don’t know why he wasn’t with his family…he just wasn’t.

The investigation of the blast concluded that gas built up in the mine and when the miners lit their lamps, it exploded. The superintendent of the mine, George Camp, was charged with negligence and later acquitted.4 Tipton Hightower was the ventilation furnace operator at the time. He was also acquitted of the same charge.

Tipton testified before the investigation board regarding the explosion:5

Clip of newspaper article of Fraterville Mine explosion investigation.

The final verdict found the Coal Creek Coal Company, owner of the mine, and mine inspector, R. A. Shiflett, guilty of neglect. As of this date, I can find no evidence that either paid a price for that crime.

Tipton was still in Anderson County as a coal miner in the 1910 census but moved to Perry County, Kentucky by 1920.6 It’s not for me to say whether Tipton was outcast by family and friends by this event. He lost many family members that day and I’m sure the grief was a heavy burden to bear for the remainder of his life, especially since John was married to his sister.

There are several cemeteries dedicated to the victims of the Fraterville Mine explosion. The McKamey men are buried in Wilson Cemetery and their gravestones are found online.

1 Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, Inc., Coal Creek: War and Disasters (https://www.coalcreekaml.com/Legacy.htm: accessed 13 Feb 2023).

2 Ibid.

3 Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org: accessed 13 Feb 2023), “Fraterville Mine disaster,” rev 02:25 14 June 2022.

4 Ibid.

5 “Mine Disaster Caused By Official Neglect,” Nashville (Tennessee) Banner, 24 June 1902, p. 1, col. 6; image copy, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com: accessed 13 Feb 2023).

6 1910 U.S. census, Anderson County, Tennessee, population schedule, District 13, p. 3B, dwelling 41, family 42, Tipton Hightower; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/
collections/7884/images/4449669_00319?pId=157536187: accessed 13 Feb 2023), image 5; citing National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm publication T624. And 1920 U.S. census, Perry County, Kentucky, population schedule, First Creek, p. 44A, house number 234, dwelling 354, family 354, Tipton Hightower; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/
collections/6061/images/4300940_00781?pId=90372521: accessed 13 Feb 2023); citing NARA microfilm publication T625.

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