Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Salt In the Wound

Image taken by my grandmother
Hazel Holley Crabtree 1924

The story of Saltville VA (or as some of us call it now “Saltvegas”) is dotted with cultural and ecological importance, disaster, battle, harshness, history, and simple beauty. The people there are rugged and good-natured. They adapt to the sharp slopes of the hills around them and the swampy waterways of the valley. Saltville is tucked away in the backwoods of Southwest Virginia and to go there usually means that you go back in time. Over the past centuries Saltville has become a national historic landmark with the past battles of our own Civil War and a world treasure with the discoveries of artifacts and animal specimens ranging back to before the Ice Age. The importance of Saltville for all researchers is the salt deposit in the earth’s crust. Salt has always been a vital ingredient to our way of life. This deposit allowed many cultures and animals to thrive. But, to remain connected to this fertile land meant that most had to guard what they had with their lives. Some of the residents of Saltville were, prehistoric mammals including the mammoth, several tribes of American Indians, early American trail blazers, Spanish Conquistadors, Confederate and Union troops, mining companies, and my own ancestors. My mom’s family lived in and around Saltville. My grandfather worked on the 9th level (800 feet below the earth) with the United States Gypsum Company. That is another story. The gypsum company owned The Locust Cove mine which opened it’s first mine in 1961 and remained opened for almost 40 years. It was shut down in 2000, along with the plant after several mines collapsed causing major damage to farmland, roads, and some of it people. I could go on and on about the history of Saltville but I want to talk about one incident, the 1924 Christmas Eve Muck Dam Disaster. I do want to say that you can still see the holes left from Civil war cannon balls in the abandoned railways going in and out of Saltville. I used to go looking for them as a boy.
Image taken by my grandmother
Hazel Holley Crabtree 1924

On this night the town of Saltville did stir with the sound of it’s large Muck Dam exploding and breaking. At the start of 1908 the Mathieson Alkai Works plant started pumping waste into a pond at the North Folk of the Holston River. By Christmas of 1924 the amount of caustic muck that resided in that pond covered 30 + acres with a 100-foot dam holding one side of this stuff from escaping. When the Muck Dam broke the pressure of waste went running down the valley and destroyed the small town of Palmertown. One of these houses was my family’s farmhouse. Nineteen people died in the flood. Large pieces of the explosion blocked the North Fork and flooded the smaller community of Chinch Row. See witness stories here.
No one really knows why or how the dam broke and speculations of recent rain loosening the muck caused the dam to break. Other speculations were of an angry factory worker who wanted a job set explosives in the dam. He was later cleared by jury because lack of evidence.

Saltville lives with salt in its wounds. The history is tragic yet the importance of its survival is a testament to time, from muck one can find life springing. This town’s history is a history we should never forget. As William Faulkner said “The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.”

Museum of the Middle Appalachians
Virginia Museum of Natural History
Saltville VA

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