By Larry Hypes
March 11, 2019 - March remains one of the most auspicious months in the history of Pocahontas, Va. As local historians know – and I think of several who researched the area extensively, including scholars like the late Dr. Stuart McGehee, along with long-time town residents who have also passed, Edna Drosick and Tom Childress, among others, many of whom are no longer living or who have moved from the area.
One young man, Dr. Tom Brewster, who is now doing great things at Bluefield College, was a principal at the “former” Pocahontas High School and he is now among those most well-versed in the storied history of the town. Tazewell County tourism director David Woodard, now a school board member, is another individual who is a very good authority on the area. Here in the city, Craft Memorial Library director Eva McGuire, who also oversees the incredible treasure trove of material stored in the Eastern Regional Coal Archives, is yet another expert regarding more than a century of developments in the legendary town.
Pocahontas was the reason the coalfields opened up and the original mine which prompted the Norfolk & Western Railway to expand its line from Radford into the area. Bluefield was incorporated some seven years after the Pocahontas Post Office opened in 1882. The city, which eventually became the largest urban area in Four Seasons Country, was designed as a supply center to serve the area and the location of the huge N&W distribution yard only accelerated and maintained the distinction.
Still, it was Pocahontas that started the expansion and March seemed to be a key spot on the calendar, as many who have studied the town are well aware. The noted explorer and engineer Dr. Thomas Walker began to review the great coal deposits in southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia in March 1750, a generation before what is now the United States fought for and secured its freedom from England.
At that time, our grand area was a virtual wilderness with several Native American tribes alternately living here, with the Shawnee among the most prominent. The banks of what was later called Laurel Creek which flowed over the massive coal beds formed eons earlier was a trickle in the endless Appalachian forest. Virginia (and what became West Virginia in 1863) were generally covered with trees and early explorers said the forests were so extensive that a squirrel could jump into a tree at Norfolk and not have to touch the ground again until it reached the Mississippi River.
Nevertheless, eventually, the coal seam was found and the Southwest Virginia Improvement Company – officially organized in March 1880 – started the mining operation with funds generally coming from absentee owners and investors from Philadelphia, New York and Pittsburgh, not including various railroad officials, to start the first coal camp.
By March 1882, the primitive town was taking shape. According to early records, a sawmill began operation not only to provide lumber to build houses, stores and shops, but of course to provide timbers to hold up the top in the tunnels being dug into the giant coal seams. Those amazing coal seams were among the largest in the bituminous region, routinely being as much as 10 feet high and sometimes soaring to 20 feet. The coal was also famed for its high quality which made it an ideal fuel for the growing steel industry which was making possible what would become known as the American Industrial Revolution in the early years of the 20th century.
Providing supplies, as revealed in the early company records and based upon research by writers such as Jack M. Jones, was a brutally hard task. With no railroad or good highways anywhere near the new mining, whatever came in had to be hauled by horse and wagon across and through the mountains from Wytheville and Saltville. As if that were not hard enough to imagine, most of the pay for the workers was in cash so the paywagon employees must have felt like the stagecoach guards of the Old West trying to protect their valuable cargo.
In fact, the “Old West” was not old at all in those days. It was in full bloom at almost exactly the same time that Pocahontas and the surrounding area was developing.
The saddest of all days in Pocahontas was March 13,1884, when at least 114 men and boys were killed in a massive explosion. Equipment was blown out of the tunnel, buildings were destroyed and the stricken miners no doubt never knew what had hit them. Townspeople asleep in their beds that awful Thursday morning around 1 a.m. were soon roused as everyone began to make their way to the scene.
The mine had to be flooded to extinguish the fire. Later, a “funeral pyre” to burn the mules and some equipment was built. A town cemetery was laid out and the nation kept up with the news of the terrific tragedy. Some thought the disaster might destroy the company but it did not.
The first N&W train had reached Pocahontas on March 10, 1883 and two days later the first car of coal was on its way to Norfolk. Millions of tons and millions of dollars made the difference. There were other explosions, among the many obstacles, but the giant coal seam at Pocahontas operated for 72 years, not closing officially until 1955 and produced some 44 million tons of coal, much of it hand loaded.
Part of the original mine became the Pocahontas Exhibition Mine, the first such venue that could be toured either on foot or in a car. It remains open to this day for several months each year.
As the local ATV riders maneuver through Pocahontas, Boissevain, Bramwell and other local areas, one wonders how many of them know what happened around them and under their wheels during the month of March over the past century.
Larry Hypes, a teacher at Bluefield High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.