There are just some things in history, especially local history, that simply cannot be allowed to be forgotten. So, as we approach the March 8 anniversary of one of the worst coal mining disasters in Logan County history that occurred 61 years ago at Holden, we must also acknowledge the Feb. 26 Buffalo Creek disaster that claimed 125 lives almost instantly.
One can only imagine a wall of over 130 million gallons of water 20 to 30 feet high collecting everything in its path as it roars down a narrow valley destroying 16 communities on its way to finally reaching the Guyandotte River at the mouth of Buffalo Creek at Man, a small but historic community in Logan County. Somehow, a reminder of that catastrophic day has been overlooked this year and I feel compelled to bring that event and the Holden mine disaster to a deserving forefront.
Thick, choking black water caught mostly women and children off guard that winter day some 49 years ago when a massive coal refuse pile that dammed a stream near the head of Buffalo Creek simply broke loose after heavy rains pressured the still-burning ash to relinquish water that would destroy at least 1,000 homes, taking with it railroad tracks, splintered telephone poles, automobiles and nearly everything else in its path.
At the time, coal company officials declared the devastation to be the result of Mother Nature’s bidding, or just an “act of God,” yet those persons in the real world of coal knew it was indeed a man-made catastrophe.
Since the beginning of the coal business in Logan County dating back to the early 1900s, men and even children had strived to make a meager living by mining coal under the harshest conditions imaginable. The number of people who lost limbs, suffered broken backs, and the hundreds who died in the mines over the years cannot adequately be accounted for since at one point in history deaths were not counted unless four or more men died at the same time. Injuries and such diseases as black lung and silicosis took massive tolls on the health of coal miners over the decades, long before any benefits were available.
However, the Buffalo Creek cataclysm was much different from the normal coal mining setbacks that people had learned to deal with on a regular basis — often, strong, able-bodied men being crushed to death, asphyxiated, or even burned while trying to mine coal — a once heavily needed commodity in American manufacturing.
This time, on that fateful Saturday morning, it was the miners’ families, defenseless wives, and their children, some still in bed, who were caught off guard with nowhere to go. The 30-mile per hour tidal wave of sludge showed little mercy to the people who only strived to make a better life for themselves in the hills of Appalachia in a 17-mile valley known simply as Buffalo Creek.
As a student at Marshall University in 1972, I watched the nightly news as nearly every television news station showed pictures of bodies covered with black water and people crying as they told their stories to interviewers; some of them not sure if their loved ones were dead or alive. The pain of these people was clearly evident in their forlorned faces, and I remember my heart hurt for them.
Knowing I was from Logan County, many fellow Marshall students approached me concerning the terrible news, some thinking perhaps I had family who may have been involved. Thankfully, I did not, as I actually lived on the northwestern side of the county, a good 20 miles from the town of Man, which is a southern community then separated from the county seat of Logan by one of the most dangerous roads in America.
I was raised in a coal camp, and I am familiar with the smell of burning slate dumps. It was considered a normal part of life for me and other kids growing up before the word “reclamation” was ever uttered in Logan County. The smell of sulfur was intensified when the rains came, causing way more smoke than was normal. At night, one could see the glowing embers from a nearby hollow where I lived at Island Creek’s No. 16 coal camp at Verdunville. Luckily, there was no stream of water that could be dammed at the slate dump in our little community.
By 1960 when the Holden 22 mine claimed 18 lives that left 16 widows and 72 children without a father, and certainly 12 years later when the dam broke at Buffalo Creek, most miners had purchased the coal camp houses in which they once had to pay rent — the result of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) stopping the coal companies from being able to raise rents on the miners. Throughout the county, especially in the 1950s, companies started selling their coal camp houses, most of them usually consisting of four or five rooms, many still with outdoor toilets.
Miners and their families took pride in their homes, often making electrical repairs and fixing them up in other ways, such as adding a bathroom or making them more desirable in some other manner. This was true at Buffalo Creek, as well as Holden, Whitman, Omar, Sharples, Ethel or any other coal mining community in the county. What remained the same was the names that had been given to the communities by the coal companies.
So, it was and so, it remains that such places as Middle Fork, Saunders, Pardee, Lorado, Craneco, Lundale, Stowe, Crites, Latrobe, Robinette, Amherstdale, Becco (Riley camp), Fanco, Braeholm, Accoville, Crown, and Kistler still exist today in the remaking of Buffalo Creek.
On the other hand, the community of 22 Holden, once bristling with vitality and excitement, is long gone. No movie theatre, no doctor’s office, no company store. In fact, no community.
I was a youngster in 1960, not quite the 18-year-old I was when the dam broke 12 years later, but it was a downcast feeling that I could do nothing about. It was the first time I had ever witnessed my mother cry, the result of her friend, Gracie Sargent, losing her husband (Orville) in the mine at Holden.
Rescue efforts to save the men trapped underground at Holden were broadcast by local radio stations, as people were traumatized by what had happened. Food and bedding were supplied next to the mine shaft for rescuers who worked day and night hoping to find men still alive. It was with great sadness on a snowy day when the last men were finally located almost 500 feet below the mountain surface, the result of a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas — carbon monoxide.
Unlike Buffalo Creek, the community of 22 Holden is gone, the area no longer even recognizable. Nonetheless, from 1961 until 2012 families held memorial reunions to honor the families that once enjoyed the mountain liberties afforded them in one of the many somewhat hidden coal mining valleys of Logan County.
In 2016 a permanent monument was placed atop Holden 22 Mountain to honor those men who perished in the Holden mine. It, like the memorial at Buffalo Creek, and the life-sized statue of William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield near Sarah Ann, are separate but important parts of local history that should never be forgotten or not taught to a younger generation.
Perhaps, in a 1972 interview with ABC-TV News, Pug Mitchem, a member of the “Buffalo Creek Citizens Committee,” said what aptly applies to much of Logan County even today: “What was here is gone and will never be again.”
May we always remember to ignite the torch of remembrance.
Dwight Williamson serves as magistrate in Logan County. He writes a weekly column for HD Media