When I interviewed Jewell Lewis Ross and Earl Lewis in 1991 it brought back vivid memories to them of the Fourmile Mine disaster that occurred the day after Christmas in 1945. They were the children of W. E. Lewis, the owner of the mine at Fourmile.
The senior Lewis was also the son of a miner, Joe Carl Lewis of Campbell County, Tennessee, who was killed in a gunpowder explosion in 1911 at an earlier mine in Fourmile Hollow.
A youthful W. E. Lewis, suddenly the head of his family following his father’s death in 1911 toiled hard and saved his money before going to Louisville to get an education. He returned to Bell County with a degree in business.
“Daddy didn’t mind hard work,” Jewell told me in 1991. “After returning from college he invested all the money he had to buy property. He and W. E. Campbell would rise at 3 a.m. and walk to the head of Four Mile Hollow and worked there all day. He kept buying increments of property and was realizing his dream prior to the explosion in 1945.
“The mines were working good and the men were making a good living. Daddy was pleased with his workers and they like him, in fact many of them called him Uncle Bill.
“It was a tragedy for many families and it was for Daddy and our family too. He lost his health because of the heartache and pain from going through it. He also lost his best mine and hid best workers that morning.
Earl Lewis, superintendent of the mine at the time, pointed out that much of the machinery was lost in the explosion and fires and or by being sealed up in the mountain.
“Wd had 51 miners and those 31 that were working that morning were probably our best,” Earl said. “I would have been in there with them but I was on the phone with Ben Brown in Middlesboro ordering some switches.
“That explosion and aftermath nearly killed my Daddy,” Earl continued. “Things were just going so smooth and the bottom just fell out. Daddy was good to those men. He knew every one of them well. If they needed something they knew where they could get it. Often when one of them married Daddy would set them up with some furniture.”
The mining tragedy at Fourmile also affected local native Paul Ross who married Jewell Lewis, daughter of W. E. Lewis. Ross was an Air Force pilot in World War II before returning to Fourmile with plans to enroll in medical school at the University of Kentucky.
“When the tragedy happened I stayed in Fourmile to help instead of enrolling in school,” Ross said. “My most vivid memory of the accident is carrying those heavy oxygen tanks up the hill on my back. Later I was recalled into the reserves and flew in the Korean War and Vietnam War.”
The jet Ross was flying was shot down over north Korea but he was rescued from the Yellow Sea. He served later as a member of the USAF Thunderbird precision flying team before retiring.
“Mr. Lewis went through much stress and strain following the explosion,” Ross continued. “He loved those men. The explosion and aftermath were difficult for him to contend with. It led to his death just a few years later.”
Jewell explained that it took several years for her father to work through all the legal claims.
“He had to borrow money but he settled all claims regarding the miners and their families,” Jewell related. “Daddy personally visited the widows and families of the men. Many advised him to take bankruptcy but he absolutely would not. He wanted to stand by his miners and did every way he could.”
Jewell explained that when her father died on January 19, 1952, Ken Sulfridge, an electrician at the time of the explosion, led the miners on a 2-mile march from Fourmile Hollow to Riverside Baptist Church for his funeral.
Ken Sulfridge had been the first to notice smoke coming from the mine fire on the morning of the explosion,” Jewell explained. “He ran down the hill and told me and Louise Elliot. Earl (Lewis) was on the phone but immediately began calling the necessary officials and then he and another man ran back up to the mine.”
Louise Elliott was the bookkeeper for Kentucky Straight Creek Coal Company and Jewell Lewis Ross assisted with the bookkeeping and issued scrip to the miners.
Joe Hatfield was the final survivor of the Fourmile mine disaster. He was among eight miners who were rescued before perilous conditions forces officials to seal the mine. It remined sealed for nearly three years before being reopened and the other miners removed and buried.
“Mr. Lewis and my husband talked about the explosion and events that followed,” Eliza Hatfield, widow of Joe Hatfield, said in 1991 at the Wallsend home where she and her husband lived at the time of the accident. “Joe liked Mr. Lewis. Neither of them were pleased with the way the media covered the tragedy.”
Thanks for the assistance of Jewell Lewis Ross, Paul Ross, Earl Lewis and Eliza Hatfield in completing the series on the Fourmile Mine Disaster.
The mine where the tragedy occurred is quiet today except for the sounds of vehicles passing nearby and youngsters that can be heard swimming in a distant stream during hot summer days.
But for a time in late 1945 and early 1946, Fourmile Hollow gripped the attention of the entire nation.
Copyright 2019 Gibson Productions
Editor’s note: Jadon Gibson a native of Eastern Kentucky, is a free-lance writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings, From the Mountains, are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read weekly at bereaonline.com. Don’t miss a single release!