community of Bon Jellico (referred to by residents and on this web site
as ‘Bon’) was located on 1500
acres along Briar Creek about two miles west of Williamsburg, Kentucky on
Highway 92. Bon Jellico Coal Company started mining coal in 1912 and closed
down in 1937. The word ‘Bon’ means good and ‘Jellico’ came
from the seam of coal on the mountain. The Bon Jellico coal-mining town was
incorporated in 1911 by two men from Knoxville, Tennessee (Arthur Groves
and William Everett) and some local investors from Williamsburg. The land
and mineral rights were purchased from Mike Richardson and others “from
mountain to mountain and beyond that formed Bon Hollow as it is today”.
Early in 1911, Maynard King, who lived at
the old farmhouse on the ‘Gus Fritts farm’ just west of the intersection
of Main Street in Williamsburg and Highway 92 West, was brought in as a construction
worker. The railroad was built by hand and one-mule scrapers going up Bon
Hill (also called ‘Apple Tree Hill’). The Lovitt family, who
lived at the base of the hill, had a lot of “close calls come their
way as the rail bed was graded and blasted out of the cut. A blast killed
one milk cow and barely missed Mr. Lovitt who was standing in the yard. They
would yell, “Fire in the Hole” and the kids would run and hide.” The
railroad from the L&N (Louisville and Nashville) line from Savoy, Ky.
was completed in 1911, and W.T. Smith from Kensee, Tennessee built the houses.
During the 25 years that the
mines at Bon Jellico operated, some 350 different men and their families
worked at Bon
and lived either in the camp or near-by. The little mining town on Briar
Creek affected some 3,000 lives.
A powerhouse, making
electricity for the mines (but not for the houses, school, or store) was
built in 1912-1914
and operated by Mr.
Ova West. Before the powerhouse was in operation, the company used small
mules to pull the little one-ton mine cars out of the mines. To keep the
mules from going blind in and out of the mines, a blindfold covered one eye
as he entered the dark mine, and they changed it over to the other eye as
he came out into the sun light. Canaries were kept in the mines to detect
presents of toxic gas. A tipple (tip house) was built and operated by Mr.
W. A. Green and Mr. Alex Nunley. This is where coal was weighed and graded
into Blue Gem Coal and into three grades: block, egg, and steam. An incline
up the mountain 490 feet long was built to let the six one ton loaded mine
cars down and the six empty cars up. A drum house was built with a large
drum for the large rope used on the cars. Mr. Melton G. Lovitt worked in
this area of the mining process for most of the Bon Jellico mine operation.
The mines had its own blacksmith shop where repairs were made. A Mr. Brown,
Mr. Smith, and Mr. Bunch worked at the shop.
During normal times
about 125 men worked at Bon. Usually, the number of 40-ton/50-ton-railroad-cars
was 6 to 10 cars (500 tons)
per day. During World War I up to about 175 men worked at one time. During
the war the mines operated ten-fourteen hours per day and loaded as many
as 17 railroad cars each day. In 25 years only 11 men lost their lives in
the Bon Jellico coalmine; that is one man for each 300,000 tons of coal mined. “That’s
too many but a lot better than many mines in the area.” Some of
the men who lost their lives in the mines at Bon were Andy Walker, Frank
Sam Smith, Leonard Smith, Fuller Peace, Jim Huddleston, Bill Cornelius, Sherd
Stanaford, and Brad Patrick.
Each man who loaded
coal into the little cars in the mines had a number to match his name.
To make sure the
men at the weigh station
and the tipple knew who loaded that particular car, he would hang his number
on a nail on the inside left hand corner of the car. Mining the Jellico seam
of coal at Bon Jellico was not without its problems. The seam of coal was
only from 24 to 40 inches thick; so miners were always standing on their
knees or sitting to load the coal in the small cars. Most of the work was
done with pick and shovel, “but the Bon coal loaders were tough
and ready to work.”
Money was scarce.
An average day’s
pay for eight hours was $2.50 - $3.60. Bon paid employees only on the 15th
of each month. If
you ran short of cash, you could sign a paper slip and get some cash on the
30th day of the month.
There were 75 houses
in the camp. The camp was divided into three areas (#1, #2, and #3 or the Colored
Rent for the small houses
was $4.00 per month, and for the larger ones rent was $6.00 per month. The
houses were located along the creek and along the hillsides with little wagon
roads and paths running along by the houses. There was no electricity. There
was no plumbing; so they used the little two-hole house, complete with a
Sears & Roebuck Catalog, at the end of the path. There was a well with
a pump located about every 6 or 8 houses, and water was a problem in freezing
weather. A fireplace fitted with an 18 or 20-inch grate heated the houses.
A fireplace was located in every room except the kitchens, which were heated
with the cook-stoves.
In 1912 a company
store, called a commissary, was built. The company began to use their own
scrip. That simply meant that
you were set up with a charge account in the office. The metal scrip, good
only in the company store, was charged to your account and collected before
you received your paycheck. Groceries were cheap: coffee $.15 per pound,
soft drinks $.05 each, postage stamps $.03, all can foods $.10 and $.15,
$.15 per gallon for gasoline, $.15 for 2 pounds of sugar and $.10 for a pound
of pinto beans. The first storage manager was Mr. Charlie Owen and the first
office manager/bookkeeper was Mr. Forman. Another bookkeeper was Mr. John
Copeland; he later moved to Turley, TN. and was bookkeeper at the mines there.
The other storage managers (commissary managers) were Ernest Freeman, George
Tye, Earl Lovitt, and Mrs. Celia Thomas. The store manager was also the postmaster.
You could mail a first class letter for three cents; postcards were one cent.
The postmaster’s pay was determined by the number of letters that were
mailed—about ½ cent per letter. (Local elections with the associated
political mailings were true political patronage.)
and wagon driven by Mr. Jim Pemberton made deliveries to Bon Jellico residents of
coal and groceries.
There was another grocery store
near-by, which was owned and operated by Mr. L.B. (Bird) Stanaford. The
Stanaford store was cash or credit and did
not accept Bon scrip.
There was a two-room school in
1912–1926 and a three-room school built
in 1927. The school was the “heart of the community” and also
served as the church. In 1912–1913 there were
about 160 students. So each teacher had his hands full. There were no school
buses, and after the
8th grade you had to walk two miles to high school in Williamsburg. Rain
or snow didn’t bother the students, and there were no paved roads.
Many never missed a day of school. Mud-covered shoes were left at Mr. Joe
Lawson’s store, located on North 11th Street in Williamsburg, for a
cleaner pair. Cumberland College, a two-year Southern Baptist affiliated
college specializing in teacher education during the time of Bon Jellico,
was located in Williamsburg; many children and grandchildren of Bon Jellico
miners graduated from Cumberland College. Cumberland College was renamed “University
of the Cumberlands” in the early 2000’s.
The coal-mining town of Bon Jellico
was an asset to Williamsburg and Whitley County. “Yes, Bon Jellico
was a peaceful beautiful little mining town with the best people in the
world. We went
to school together. We know each
This information was largely taken from interviews with Earl Lovitt by Williamsburg
Grade School project, circa 1984.
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