Whitwell (formerly the town of Cheekville) was established in 1877 as a mining community. The town was home to the largest mine in Marion County. Immigrants traveled here from Great Britain and Europe hoping to strike it rich in coal mining and coke production.
In the late 1880s, John Frater built Bethel Church for the coal miners and farmers in the area. When a British company bought up the mines, Queen Victoria of England donated a bell for the church. The church bell is now housed at the Marion County Coal Miners Museum, located just down the road from the old mines and coke ovens on the side of Cumberland Mountain. The museum preserves this significant history that gave the community its beginnings and defined it for generations.
In December 1981, one of the worst mining disasters in the coal industry took place at the Whitwell mines. A cigarette lighter apparently touched off a methane gas explosion in Grundy Mining Company / Tennessee Consolidated Coal’s #21 mine, killing 13 men. Danny Shirley of Confederate Railroad wrote and released the song Whitwell Mine about the tragedy that happened that day. Coal mining remained a significant industry in Whitwell until 1996, when the mines went bankrupt.
Today, Whitwell is renowned for the Paper Clips Project, a Holocaust memorial and educational project carried out by Whitwell Middle School beginning in 1998. Visitors from all over the world come to honor the memory of the 11 million people who were murdered during the Holocaust in Europe. The memorial is housed in sacred ground – the school was able to obtain one of the last-remaining railcars that transported victims of the Holocaust to Nazi concentration camps.