The Marion County Coal Miners Museum is a small, two room structure nestled in Sequatchie Valley of Eastern Tennessee. The museum is a passion project launched by seven local, retired coal miners who have collected artifacts to preserve the history of the coal industry in Marion County.
Tennessee has had a long industrial history of coal mining. It began in small quantities in the 1840s in Anderson, Campbell, Grundy, Hamilton, Marion, and Roane counties. Like many industries, the Civil War interrupted mining in the area. Yet, at the conclusion of the war, coal became a significant industry in Tennessee. By the 1870s, the coal industry had risen so that Tennessee ranked 13 of the 29 coal producing states and provinces in the US. While iron had earlier been Tennessee’s major mining product, by 1909, coal was the state’s leading mining export and continued until 1939. In another decade, coal mining would constitute 66% of the state’s minimum wage workers.
Marion County accesses the furthest south of the Appalachian coal fields in Tennessee. The county is part of Sequatchie Valley, flanked by the Sewanne coalfield along the western side of the valley. Many mines follow coal seams directly into the mountains sides. The level valley floor allowed for rail to easily transport the coal.
Tennessee coal is bituminous coal, a soft variety which is of higher quality than lignite coal yet a lower quality than anthracite. Much of it was coked for industrial use, particularly for the iron furnaces where local iron ore could be refined into pig iron.
The Marion County Coal Miner’s Museum is a passion project launched by 7 retired coal miners determined to preserve the industrial heritage of the region. Many once booming coal mining towns are now just a few old houses but, in the museum, the work and culture has been preserved. The majority of the items are individual donations by community members. Volunteers run the museum, many of whom are retired coal miners and can not only explain the items on display but also throw in personal anecdotes of the mines and the people who worked them. It is testament to the grassroots nature of this museum that each item is identified by a handwritten tag attached to it in the old archival style.
Many uniforms and helmets decorate the walls of the museum, from local sports teams to mining rescue uniforms for the Tennessee Consolidated Coal Company. An extensive collection of miners’ helmets trace the evolution of head protection from soft fabric caps to sturdy, reenforced plastic. Head coverings purpose shifted from warmth and handsfree light mounts, to boiled and molded leather as early attempts at head protection, to modern day plastic helmets.
Lamps, helmets, drills and other mining equipment are all on display at the Marion County Coal Miners Museum. Electric, carbide, and gas lamps fill shelves, as well as the caps and elements that they would be attached to to free miners hands and illuminate the darkened tunnels. There is even a wide selection of carbide, used for fueling lamps. Even the administrative minutia such as car tags remain. These were the tokens carried by the miners and used to mark the full coal carts, attributing who would be credited for producing that coal. This was a serious tool, as coal miners were paid per cart of coal.
Mine safety items are widely represented in the museum. Coal mining, in general, is a dangerous endeavor. Mining bituminous coal, which is found in Tennessee, is of a particular concern. Bituminous coal it is considered to release greater amounts of firedamp than other coals. Firedamp is a mixture of gases that can cause explosions in mines. Thus, these mines required special attention to gas levels, ventilation, and vigilante management. In 1981, an underground explosion in the No. 21 Mine just outside of town killed 13 coal miners when a lit cigarette ignited a pocket of methane. In such a dangerous environment, everything from the humble canary to high tech breathing apparatus has an important role.
Not only is the museum managed by former coal miners, it is filled with their past possessions. A display of pipes and tobacco reminds us how mine policy and real life did not always aline. Miners would sneak pipes, tobacco, and matches into mines, despite the risks of explosion. And certainly the risks are also on display.
A first in our exploration of mining museums, the Coal Miner’s Museum includes a used prosthetic leg. This leg had replaced one lost in a mining accident. Since its use, technology has advanced and this leg has been replaced with a more advanced prosthetic. At the museum, it is a powerful reminder of that mining accidents include serious and varied repercussions.
The Miner’s Museum has a rare peak into more administrative concerns in mining. There is a massive map stretching from the floor to the ceiling tracking the honeycomb of coal tunnels tracing into the mountainside. Safety trophies populate a corner of the museum. As well as a wide selection of local coal company stock certificates along with a proud portrait of the Tennessee Consolidated Coal Company President.
It is clear that this museum is more than just an academic pursuit. There is such passion in the items that have been donated and displayed. This is best expressed in some of the more personal artifacts. There are rows of pictures of locals–passed and still among us–who worked in the mines. There are hand carved coal miniature statues or coal workers and other subjects. In a place of honor and focus is a church bell gifted from Queen Victoria, herself, when the early coal mining community constructed its first Methodist church.
The Marion County Coal Miners Museum is a testament to the passion and relevancy of every small industrial town and how community members can actively collaborate to protect their heritage. It has become a gathering place for locals. Pews from the old church are lined up for presentations to students and a card table in the back has a half finished puzzle. Take an hour to inspect the displays and allow time for locals to wander in and happily reminisce about the town, mines, and community that they all share.