Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Cross Mountain Miners’ Circle is located just south of the unincorporated township of Briceville, off State Route 116 in north-central Anderson County. Situated on the western slope of Walden Ridge within the Coal Creek Valley, the Cross Mountain Miners’ Circle is a discreet site within the larger Circle Cemetery, the latter established sometime after the internment of the miners. Miners were transported to this location for burial after the fatal 1911 explosion at the Cross Mountain Mine, located a short distance from the town of Briceville. The Miners’ Circle is a distinctive, self-contained site within the larger cemetery. CROSS MOUNTAIN MINE DISASTER: www.coalcreekaml.com/Legacy5.htm.
The most conspicuous unifying features of the site are the circular burial pattern/grave marker arrangement, the inscribed date of 1911 featured on every marker therein, and the central commemorative obelisk. The twenty-one gravesites within the cemetery are arranged in a full, though irregular inner circle and a partial outer circle. Marker types vary greatly and include simple pedestals; pedestals with cable molding and open and closed books; arched and simple tablets; woodmen of the world markers; and a few distinctive markers. All of the monuments are of local Tennessee marble, likely processed and dressed in Knoxville. At the center of the circle is a large commemorative obelisk erected by the United Mine Workers of America shortly after the internment of the miners and manufactured by the Tennessee Marble Works of Knoxville.
Three of the flat surfaces of the central obelisk feature the inscribed names of all eighty-four miners who died in the Cross Mountain mine explosion of December 9, 1911, indicating which are buried here and which at “nearby” cemeteries. Inexplicably, the inscription on the central obelisk lists the names of thirty-one miners here interred, though only twenty-two are evident (of the twenty-one stones, one marks the resting place two brothers). The face of the monument features a crossed pick and shovel, the material symbol of occupational identity and solidarity, and an epitaph that reads: “In memory of the miners who lost their lives in Cross Mountain Mine Disaster Dec. 9, 1911.” Funded by the United Mine Workers of America, the exact date for the obelisk’s erection in unknown, but it is presumed to have been very shortly after the burials.
The individual grave-markers and mortuary symbolism are typical of early 20th century grave markers in form, though several feature initials identifying them with the UMWA, or United Mine Workers of America.
In addition to a few singularly distinctive markers, the cemetery also contains two Woodmen of the World markers with their characteristic tree stump form. In their arrangement the graves herein represent a distinctive kind of symbolism adopted and executed to commemorate and memorialize a collective tragedy within this singular occupational culture.
The Cross Mountain Miners’ Circle of 1911 has a local antecedent and sister site in the Fraterville Miners’ Circle near Lake City (NR 1/5/05). The latter commemorates the first mining disaster in the immediate area (in 1902) and the worst in Tennessee mining history. The Fraterville Circle provided the immediate prototype from which Cross Mountain was likely conceptualized. Circle cemetery formations, however, have been utilized in other commemorative contexts as well. In Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Nashville confederate soldiers are buried in a circle formation. In Calvary Cemetery in Memphis, a circle of markers memorializes a group of priests who died during that city’s ravaging yellow fever epidemics of the 1870s.
Thus circle cemetery formations in general are used in the memorialization of a shared fate brought about by tragedy, hardship, or disaster. Additionally, the Miners’ circles of Anderson County are said by some to symbolize solidarity and equity—all the miners lived and worked together as equals and would remain so in death. Other accounts, especially those referencing the Fraterville Circle at Leach Cemetery, suggest the circle arrangement was employed simply for the purpose of saving space in the cemetery. The former account of the symbolism of the miner’s circle seems more likely considering what is known about occupational solidarity among historic coal mining populations. Furthermore, in the case of Circle Cemetery, the Miners’ Circle graves are in fact the first interments within the larger cem tery, thoroughly discrediting the space saving theory.