It was about 7:20 a.m. on May 19, 1902, when an explosion ripped through a coal mine in Fraterville, Tenn. The powerful blast instantly killed most of the 216 miners who had just started their shift.
There were 26 men and boys who survived the blast, but they were trapped underground as their meager air supply ran out.
At least 10 of the miners were still alive seven hours after the explosion, but all of them suffocated before help could reach them. A few of those men wrote notes to tell their loved ones goodbye.
Jake Vowell was one of those men. He was trapped with his dying 14-year-old son, Elbert, who was also a miner. As the air ran out, Jake wrote to his wife, Ellen, adding more thoughts — in increasingly shaky handwriting — about what he was thinking and feeling.
Jake knew that he and Elbert were about to die.
All of the miners seemed to know that they were going to die. Some left brief messages for their loved ones. One man encouraged his sons to never work in a coal mine. Another told the world that he had found salvation in Jesus. You can read excerpts from some of the notes here.
But I can’t quit going over the text of what Jake wrote to Ellen. This was a man who dearly loved his wife and “my little children.” Here’s how he started his letter to Ellen around noon:
We are shut up in the head of the entry with of little air and the bad air is closing in on us fast and it is now about 12 o’clock. Dear Ellen, I have to leave you in bad condition. But dear wife, set your trust in the Lord to help you raise my little children. Ellen take care of my little darling Lily. Ellen, little Elbert said he had trusted in the Lord. Chas. Wood said he was safe if he never lives to see the outside again, he would meet his mother in heaven. If we never live to get out we are not hurt but only perished for air. There is but a few of us here and I don’t know where the other men is. Elbert said for you all to meet him in heaven, All the children meet with us both.
About 90 minutes later, Jake’s tone is more bleak when he adds more.
Ellen, darling Good Bye for us both. Elbert said the lord had saved him. Do the best you can with the children. We are all praying for air to support us but it is getting so bad without any air. Horace, Elbert said for you to wear his shoes and clothing. It is now half past 1.
In his next entry, Jake seems to know it’s time to say last goodbyes. He asks his wife to take care of the children and he makes a request that he and Elbert be buried next to their son, Eddy, who had already died.
Ellen, I want you to live right and come to heaven. Raise the children the best you can. O how I wish to be with you. Good Bye to all of you Good Bye. Burry me and Elbert in the same grave by little Eddy.
Good Bye Ellen
Good bye Lillie
Good bye Jimmie
Good bye Minnie
Good bye Horace
At almost 2:30 in the afternoon, Jake signs the letter — for both himself and Elbert.
We are together. Is 25 minutes after Two. There is a few of us are alive yet
JAKE & ELBERT
At some point — in the shakiest of handwriting — Jake adds one final heartbreaking entry.
Oh God for one more breath. Ellen, remember me as long as you live. Good Bye Darling
The deaths of 216 men is a tragic footnote in history, but one man’s grief is personally heartbreaking to me. And I can’t help thinking about the things I would want to say — and who I would want to say those things to — if I knew my death were approaching any minute.
If I knew I were about to die, I would wonder what could have possibly kept me from the love which I needed — the love which I needed to express and the love I needed to receive. I would feel anguish at leaving this life without finding what I had needed most. And I would be crushed by the senselessness of the things which humans allow to keep them apart.
If you were going to die and you knew it, who would you need to say goodbye to? What would you need to express or put right? What love would you need to express — love that you always thought there would be another day to express?
The town of Fraterville lost almost all of its men that day in 1902. Ellen and their children lost Jake and Elbert. But for me, the most powerful part of their deaths more than a hundred years ago isn’t what it said about their lives, but about what it says about my life and your life.
Death is stalking all of us. Love won’t always be there waiting. All of us need to live and love while we still can, because we never know when death will catch up with us.
Note: You’ll find the last page of Jake’s note to Ellen below. The photo above is Jake with his baby daughter, Lilly.