Project Description

On December 8, 1981, Mine 21, one of several underground coal-mines operated by Grundy Mining Company in the unincorporated area between Palmer and Whitwell, Tennessee, exploded and killed thirteen miners. While not on the same scale as the disasters in Fraterville (May 19, 1902, in which 216 miners were killed) or Cross Mountain (December 9, 1911, in which 84 died), Mine 21 was the worst mining disaster in Tennessee since the introduction of modern safety precautions. The Department of Labor would eventually rule that “a cigarette lighter taken into a coal mine in violation of Federal regulations touched off a methane explosion,” but “accused the Grundy County Mining Company, the mine’s operator, of failure to evacuate workers from a methane-laden shaft, to adequately ventilate the shaft and to enforce a Federal regulation prohibiting smoking materials in a mine” (New York Times, May 5, 1982). The next year, Grundy Mining agreed to pay 10 widows and their children $10 million in damages, a fraction of the $60 the families had originally sought (New York Times, February 19, 1983).

In 1997, Tennessee Consolidated Coal closed the mines in Grundy, and with that, the only real venue for work in the region. Many of those former coal miners came to work in maintenance or buildings and grounds for the University of the South. The disaster of Mine 21, a local version of all the mining disasters that have taken place across the country for over a century, is an event that binds many who work at Sewanee together in a way that is utterly invisible to many others who work at the same institution.

This project aims to produce a documentary film that recognizes, shares, and preserves some of the stories of Mine 21—a local event with national resonance and policy implications.

Project Impact

Traumatic events like this one bind a community; if we who live in Sewanee feel a sense of estrangement from our fellow communities on the plateau, it is in part because we do not know their stories. This is one of the most important ones. The proposed documentary will be about a half-hour long, for use in a diverse set of classrooms (certainly history, sociology, and the humanities more generally) and perhaps museum use; it is not inconceivable that it might be appropriate for public television.