Nelson Mine Explosion Dayton Tennessee

Mine Explosion Claims 29 Lives in Dayton

December 20, 1895

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The morning dawn, clear and beautiful and the bright rays of the sun shed their refulgent influence over the community.  But while the whole face of nature wore a smiling aspect this thriving little city was about to be shrouded in a pall of the deepest gloom. The most appalling catastrophe that ever darkened the history of East Tennessee was that at the Nelson mine, two mile west of here on the morning of, December 20, 1895. Twenty-nine persons were known to have been killed in an explosion in the mine.

The whole town and surrounding community were convulsed in horror and grief.  The tragic event came so suddenly and was so horrible in its details that the people were dazed and wander aimlessly about like madmen, crying and moaning and wringing their hands. Scarcely an eye was closed in sleep that night. The grief of the relative and friends of the unfortunate victims was heartrending in the extreme, and moves to tear the most callous and indifferent hearts.

Engineer Gibson was lying in a precarious condition at the home of Cashier Perry Johnson. Mr. Gibson led the first force of rescuers into the mine and was overcome by the deadly gas and was carried from the mine unconscious.

The heroism displayed by the rescuing force is noteworthy. The men worked in relays all day, and as soon as a party was driven back by the suffocating gas others were prompt to take their places and risk their lives in the work of rescuing the bodies of the unfortunates.

Vincent Ferguson, general superintendent of the Dayton Coal and Iron Company, in who’s mine the horrible explosion occurred, was in Bronco, Ga. at the time of the accident. He returned on the 8:45 Cincinnati Southern train, having been apprised by telegraph of the terrible affair. Mr. Ferguson of course knew nothing of the deplorable occurrence, and when he arrived here, he was overcome with emotion and wept like a child when the story was recounted to him by Mr. Johnson. Both Johnson and Mr. Ferguson left about 10 o’clock on an engine for the mine.

The point where the explosion occurred was in entry K, No.10, about two miles from the mouth of the mine.  This entry is about 1 ¼ miles long, and the explosion swept the whole length of it.

There were two theories as to the cause of it. One is that someone of the miners crossed the “danger line” with an open lamp and the accumulation of stagnated air formed a dangerous gas, exploded immediately, enveloping the whole entry in a mass of flames. The other is that a leak was sprung in a vein of natural gas, which soon spread and filled the whole entry.

A witness J.T. McIntyre, a colored miner had just entered mine #7, within 300 feet of the fatal spot, when the explosion occurred. His attention was first drawn to a hissing sound like escaping steam. Glancing toward the scene, he saw the flames burst forth enveloping the whole entry. Almost instantly a deep rumble ensued, and a heavy concussion shook the mountain to its very foundation. The concussion from the explosion was so terrible; it snapped the roof of the mine like straws. The force of the explosion threw McIntyre down. Being slightly dazed he quickly recovered to his feet and rushed toward entry K. Other miners who had hastily left their rooms met him. They attempted to reach the victims of the explosion but could advance only a few feet before they were driven back by the heat and suffocating gas. McIntyre stated that he had no idea what caused the explosion, but it all happened so quickly.

Elder Morgan

During the recovering of the bodies it was learned that the concussion from the explosion caused several tons of slate to fall and cover part of the victims. It required several hours to remove the slate. Rescuers worked in shifts throughout the night, and by noon the next day all twenty-nine bodies of those killed were recovered. The condition of those killed were burned, bruised, and mangled.

As the whole community tried in their own mind to decide what had happened to cause this terrible tragedy, it was learned that the night shift inspector Sam Umbarger, had made the rounds of the mine and pronounced it safe at 5 o’clock, just two and a half hours before the explosion occurred. F.P. Clute state mine inspector was here and inspected the mine just three weeks prior and reported it to be in a safe condition.

As the evening of this second day approached, a force a strong men were busy digging graves, while one by one all the bodies were being laid out at Bailey’s, Pearcy’s, and Donaldson’s the undertaking establishments in town. Mayor James F. Johnson issued an appeal to the businessmen of the city to close their places of business for the day. In nearly every instance the request was complied. The sole, all-prevailing topic that is engrossing every mind, engaging every tongue and appalling every heart, is the fearful calamity that has befallen this little city. The next day would prove to be the saddest day of all here. Friends and relatives will look for the last time upon the remains of those dear to them, after which their bodies will be laid to rest.

The events of this week, in December of 1895, which brought such heartache to the community proved to fade away in time, and the true reason for this awful tragedy remains a mystery buried deep within the Nelson Mine.

Nelson Mine as it looks today.
The Nelson Mine as it appears today. The entrance was caved in years ago to prevent people from entering the dangerous environment. (Photo by Dean Wilson)

A list of those miners killed in the  Nelson Mine Explosion

The Author of this blog post means no disrespect in listing the victims race information.

The information listed was obtained from public sources and listed as found.


Lannie Walker

August 27,1874—December 20, 1895

Abel Cemetery, Dayton, Tennessee

White, age about 22 years old. He was a driver in the mine and was unmarried and worked for the company for several years.



Henry Elder Morgan

January 29, 1883—December 20, 1895

Buttram Cemetery, Dayton, Tennessee

Was about 14 years old and worked as a trapper in the mine. He was the son of Ex-Postmaster John D. Morgan.  He was a bright intelligent and respected boy. His parents and sisters Misses Della and Lena, both of who are employed in Chattanooga are almost overcome with grief at the sad fate of the son and brother.


Willie Roddy

September 9, 1877—December 20, 1895

City Cemetery, Dayton, Tennessee

Colored, age about 18. He was a laborer for J.A. Ivester, who was also killed in the mine. He had only been working a short time in the mine.



John Abel

December 9, 1875—December 20, 1895

Abel Cemetery, Dayton, Tennessee

Age about 20, single, and was a driver. He was the son of J.P. Abel, a well-known citizen of Dayton. The right leg being broken in two places, the left leg broken in one place, and his neck broken.


Charles Washburn

December 29, 1874—December 20, 1895

French Cemetery, Dayton, Tennessee

 Age about 21, was a single man. He was a driver and was one of the company’s most trusted employees. Young Washburn was quite popular in the community. Washburn had a brother that worked in the mine also; he was overcome in the work of rescue. His body was taken to Pearcy’s Undertaking, in Dayton.



William M. Henderson

January 5, 1856—December 20, 1895

Cranmore Cove Cemetery, Dayton, Tennessee

White, age about 40, he was an old and trusted employee. He leaves a wife and seven small children, the youngest but 4 years old. His sister Martha Houths, who lives at Whiteside, was telegraphed about his death.


John Leach

Polk County, Tennessee

Colored, he was a miner and had been in the company’s employee for several years. He was married with five children but separated from his wife. Leach and Sam Wilson worked together. His body was removed by way of the connecting shaft from the Dixon mine. His body was taken to Pearcy’s Undertaking, in Dayton.


John J. Manass

May 13, 1859—December 20,1895

Abel Cemetery, Dayton, Tennessee

White, age about 40, he leaves a wife and seven children. He had been employed in the mine for several years. His body was taken to Pearcy’s Undertaking, in Dayton.


John Westfield

Colored, age about 30, he leaves a wife and two children. He was a very faithful employee. His body was removed by way of the connecting shaft from the Dixon mine entry. His body was taken to Pearcy’s Undertaking, in Dayton.


William J. Alexander

January 18, 1871—December 20, 1895

French Cemetery, Dayton, Tennessee

Age 24, he was the most prominent of those killed. He held the position of extra foreman and was very popular and highly esteemed. He leaves a wife and two children.


Thomas E. Lane

June 10, 1855—December 20, 1895

French Cemetery, Dayton, Tennessee

White, age about 40, leaves a wife and four children. Lane was a highly respected citizen and was a member of the Vine Grove Lodge, I.O.O.F. of Dayton.



William H. Lane

August 16, 1876—December 20, 1895

French Cemetery, Dayton, Tennessee

Age about 20, son of Thomas Lane, worked in the room with his father. Lane was married. He was a member of the Vine Grove Lodge #20, I.O.O.F. of Dayton.



Joshua W. Bennett

November 2, 1864—December 20, 1895

College Hill Cemetery, Dayton, Tennessee

Aged about 30, he was a native of Whales, having been born at Cardiff. About five years ago he returned to his native land to choose a wife. He leaves a wife and three children, the youngest of who is but 4 months old. Bennett possessed many of the sturdy traits of Welsh character. He was a member of Hope Lodge, #57 Knights of Pythias, of Dayton.



Irvin Arthur McMillen

 July 26, 1880—December 20, 1895

French Cemetery, Dayton, Tennessee

Age about 15, he was a highly esteemed young man and had many friends. He was a laborer for Lon. T. Ferguson.



 Cyrus Alexander

December 6, 1877—December 20, 1895

Lone Mountain Cemetery, Graysville, Tennessee

White, was about 18 years old, and single. He was employed as a driver. His parents live at Dayton, Tennessee. He was a sober, steady, and industrious young man, and had worked in the mine for some period.



Floyd Jewell

August 30, 1873—December 20, 1895

Buttram Cemetery, Dayton, Tennessee

Age about 22, he was the son of Samuel Jewell and cousin of Robert Jewell, also killed in the mine. He was a laborer for Robert Hamilton, who was also killed. He leaves behind a wife.



A. Ivester

December 25, 1856—December 20, 1895

French Cemetery, Dayton, Tennessee

Age about 40, he had worked in the mine for several years. He leaves a wife and two children behind.



Norris Small

Savannah, Georgia

He was a colored laborer employed with John Westfield. He came here from Whiteside, Tennessee just a few weeks before his death. His home is in Savannah, Georgia



Thomas Hawkins

Rockwood Tennessee

White, age about 30, He was married. He was an old employee and an Odd Fellow.



William H. Davis

Rockwood, Tennessee

 White, age about 40 was an old employee. His body was not mutilated, and the gas probably suffocated him. His body was taken to Pearcy’s Undertaking in Dayton.



Lon T. Ferguson

White, age about 30, he was one of the best-known miners employed by the company. He leaves a wife and two children. Ferguson’s father was killed in a similar explosion in the same mine about two years ago.


James Johnson

White, age about 22, unmarried, and was a driver and had been with the company for several years.



Sam Wilson

Colored, age about 22, he was a miner and unmarried. He came to Dayton from Chattanooga, Tennessee about ten days before his death here. His home is at Boyce. His body was removed by way of the connecting shaft of the Dixon mine entry



G.W. Brotherton

Age about 23, recently came to Dayton and began work for the company. His mother and brother came up from Soddy last night to take charge of the remains. Brotherton was unmarried.



W.J. Miller

White, was a laborer for W.J. Alexander. He came to Dayton from Kentucky a short time ago.


H.B. Williams

He was recently married. He was a member of the Dayton Lodge #2 I.O.O.F. and was a highly respected man. His sister, Laura Williams living in Denning, Ark. And his brother A.J. Williams of Coal Creek Tennessee, sent telegraphs inquiring about the fate of their brother.




B. Hamilton

White, age about 30, came to Dayton about a year before his death from Yellow Creek, Georgia. Hamilton was an Odd Fellow and a Mason. He was unmarried.



Robert Jewell

Age about 18, He was a laborer for Thomas Riddle, who was not at work when the accident occurred. Mr. Riddle was at home with an attack of rheumatism. He was the son of James Jewell.


1 Unknown Colored Miner Killed-No Information



Published byDean

Born and raised in Dayton Tennessee, I have served in various public service positions in the past. I have a great interest in the History of our town. This site is a way for me to share some of the great history of the area.

1 Comment

  • Linda Robinson Earles

    December 21, 2019 at 4:02 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article.

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