"Oh God, For One More Breath": The Fraterville Mine Disaster | The Appalachian Project

“Oh God, For One More Breath”: The Fraterville Mine Disaster

The letter Jacob Vowell wrote to his wife shortly before he perished.
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The little community of Fraterville in Anderson County, Tennessee, experienced the darkest day in its history on May 19th, 1902, when an explosion rocked the entire town. The blast was caused by a methane gas explosion that took place inside the Fraterville Coal Mine leaving 216 miners dead and left the entire state grieving. In the end, only three adult males were left in the entire town with over a hundred widows and close to one thousand fatherless children.

Jacob Vowell and his daughter, Lillie.

A handful of miners survived the initial blast only to perish due to a lack of oxygen that slowly stole their lives one by one. Two of these miners were 35-year-old Jacob Vowell and his 14-year-old son Elbert. As their fate became clear, Jacob wrote down a note to his wife, Sarah Ellen, that is both heartbreaking and touching at the same time.

A coffin carrying a victim of the Fraterville mine disaster.

It is surprising that words written over a century ago can still stir such powerful emotion. I’m not talking about the works of William Shakespeare or a speech by Abraham Lincoln; rather, just a few sentences written down on scratch paper by a simple coal miner. If you read the letter of Jacob Vowell to his wife without getting a lump in your throat then you’re a hard person to move.
Here are the words written on the note:

The letter Jacob Vowell wrote to his wife, Ellen, shortly before he perished.

“Ellen, darling, goodbye for us both. Elbert said the Lord has saved him. We are all praying for air to support us, but it is getting so bad without any air.
Ellen I want you to live right and come to heaven. Raise the children the best you can. Oh how I wish to be with you, goodbye. Bury me and Elbert in the same grave by little Eddie. Godbye Ellen, goodbye Lily, goodbye Jemmie, goodbye Horace. We are together. Is 25 minutes after two. There is a few of us alive yet.
Jake and Elbert
Oh God for one more breath. Ellen remember me as long as you live Goodbye darling.”

Jacob’s wife Ellen Webb Vowell with her children
Lillie & James Vowell and her father James R. Webb.

Those few words touch on so many things – faith in God, love and concern for family, fear, sense of loss, etc. I have teared up every time I’ve read it – which, I might add, is tough for a man to admit. I have no personal connection with anyone that went through the disaster but the human aspect is so powerful. It is hard not to put yourself in Jacob Vowell’s shoes and think how he must have felt – guilt for his young son’s death, fear of dying himself, wishing just one last time to kiss his wife and children goodbye. I suppose it makes for a good reminder to us all to make every second count and tell people you love them but, dear God, I hope we don’t get any more reminders like this one… – Shane

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3 Comments on "“Oh God, For One More Breath”: The Fraterville Mine Disaster"

  1. Richrd Bowers | August 5, 2017 at 2:53 AM |

    A very moving letter, what a very sad way to pass on. Very sad, even now over 100 years later.

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