Like many Logan Countians who grew up in coal camp communities, we often referred to our little coal camp areas as numbers. For instance, when I was growing up and a school teacher or someone else asked me where I lived, I would answer by saying “16 Mud Fork.” It was never unusual to hear someone say that they were from 15 camp, 7&8 Holden, 20 Whitman, etc. The reason, as many readers may know, was because of the coal companies numbering their coal mines in various sections of the county. Island Creek Coal Company, which owned mines in different parts of the area, was especially known for its numbered mines.
Entire communities were formed around the mines and houses were built there for miners to reside in, although rent was paid by miners to the various coal companies. In some areas, company owned stores were the center of the neighborhood, while some other locations even provided their own movie theaters, as well as company paid doctors, and even dentists. Main Holden, which was created and organized by Island Creek Coal Company, was once said to be a model coal mining community for the nation. What many people may not know is that the property at Main Holden, including the mineral rights, was sold to Island Creek by the parents of a Hall of Fame boxer—Jack Dempsey, whose personal body guard at various times was none other than legendary sheriff Don Chafin, who often traveled with Dempsey and bet huge sums of money on him in every boxing match.
Starting at Lorado at the head of Buffalo Creek to its mouth, coal camp communities came into existence as more people, particularly immigrants, entered the coal fields to eke out an existence for their families. Whether at Mallory, which is near Man, or places like Monaville, Omar, and every unincorporated area in between, coal camps came into existence, particularly after the railroad reached those areas. Many of the coal camps were named after mine owners’ wives or daughters, but some areas already were named prior to mines opening there; Peach Creek being one such example.
What people in that community may not know is that Don Chafin played a key role in the building of the coal camp houses, most of which still exists there, just as they still do in other communities. Chafin was co-owner of the Chafin-Jones-Heatherman coal company that operated in that area at Peach Creek.
There are very few mines now operating in any of the former coal camp areas and the former existence of others has been covered up in one way or another. For instance, the Logan Wal-Mart location is built where a coal mine (Island Creek’s No. 15 operation) once mined the coal that helped fuel the steel plants that provided the needs for various wars and automobile manufacturing, as well as much of our nation’s infrastructure. Holden Grade School, like many places, is built over an abandoned coal mine site.
Once thriving areas—like Sharples and Dehue—are now near desolate places with very few residents that live there. It is probably difficult for some people to imagine that Sharples once had its own movie theater, or that places like Dabney, Cham, Chambersburg, Orville, Macbeth, Hutchinson, Slagle, Arguille, or Yolyn were populated areas located on Rum Creek, and that the area also featured a movie theatre.
However, there is one such community that no longer exists, but its ghostly history needs to be told; particularly this week, as we remember the 18 coal miners who lost their lives March 8, 1960 at the Holden No. 22 mine. I dedicate this story to those miners, their families and all of the hundreds of coal miners who over the years lost limbs and lives; and to those who died from coal industry related diseases, such as black lung, silicosis and emphysema. For even as we remember the miners today, there are forces at work to deny miners’ families the benefits that were originally promised to them. The following 1927 newspaper account tells how the community of 22 Holden came into existence, prospered, and then disappeared.
“Within the next year there will arise in one of the remote and inaccessible regions of Logan County, a new town,” was the opening line of a Logan Banner report headlined Island Creek Co. Plans Building of New Town. “It will have a population of approximately 2, 000,” the story relayed, adding that also planned for the new settlement was a Y.M.C.A, a community church, modern homes, paved streets, its own water system, electric lights—in fact “all of the modern conveniences.”
“It will be connected by hard road with Logan, Holden and the grand world beyond the mountains,” was the report that came in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. “At present, it has not even a name. The new town is to arise at operations No. 22 of the Island Creek Coal Company,” wrote Wiatt Smith for the Huntington newspaper.
It was reported in March of 1927 that the mine would be the “largest in southern West Virginia” and that contracts would be let for the erection of tipples, the building of houses, and the paving of streets, while hard surfaced roads were being constructed to connect the area to Holden via what today is called 22 Mountain, but back then was referred to as Trace Mountain. Pete Minotti, a local contractor, had already finished the grading of three miles of the road from Holden to the mine site.
An extension of the C&O Railroad would be a four-mile stretch through Pine Creek to provide an outlet for the coal that was to be produced from the mine which featured two 400 foot shafts, according to one news release. The extension would connect to Omar and from there to Logan. Experts estimated that there was between 50 to 60 million tons of coal to be removed from the new mine and would require about 50 years to be completely mined out.
Mine officials and workers would reach the work site via the mountain road that still is the route to the former town. All expenses for the construction for the road were handled by Island Creek and the work was described as an “engineering adventure.” The road followed the ridge for three miles then it dropped sharply to follow the mountainside, hollow and creek to the mine operation. It was said that at points on the ridge it afforded magnificent views which compared favorably with the most famous in West Virginia. The winding road remains even today.
The 22 Holden community was a small establishment hidden in the hills with tight knit families, many of whose descendants are scattered throughout the country—as now a road cuts right through where houses used to stand, and where children once played. Today, only wonderful memories remain for former residents; people, who never even locked their doors at night, much less need to be concerned with illegal drug activities. It was a small world totally different than the Logan County of today. What still remains the same is that a mining operation continues at the 22 location.
While the entire Holden 22 community has long been demolished, a solemn memorial to the former physical environment and to the 18 miners who silently perished from carbon monoxide asphyxiation was dedicated last year with the intent of memorializing the lives that were lost. Seventy two children were left fatherless and 16 wives left as widows, as a result of the 22 mine fire.
For this writer, I can remember as a seven-year-old, the cold and snowy weather that accompanied that disastrous day that affected several families who I knew personally. It was the first time I had ever seen my mother cry when her good friend, Gracie Sargent of 16 Camp, discovered that her husband, Orville, was one of the deceased miners. But, as in the many mining fatalities of the past, the entire county mourned in its own way.
Mamie Thurman’s murdered body was located on 22 Mountain just five years after the road was opened, and some people still swear they have seen her ghostly figure still roaming through that area; but what we know for certain is that there is a true invisible “ghost town” that once was a vibrant little community which should not be lost in the annals of Holden history. After all, “22” is means more than just a number.
BITS and PIECES
Now that you’ve been familiarized with 22 Holden’s existence, what would you think if I told you that the mining disaster and the loss of all those lives was not an accident?…..a friend of mine now living in Texas, but originally from Mud Fork, has supplied me with 110 pages of evidence that could paint an entirely different version of what led to the fire…..I will keep you posted on what just may become a book…..in another interesting twist of local history, it seems that a long lost newspaper article regarding Princess Aracoma says that what was believed to be her burial grave was uncovered during the construction of the former Abdoney Building in Logan…..however, my research shows that the Abdoney building was not located on Main or Stratton streets, but in fact was located exactly where the Logan Nazarene Church is now on Dingess Street…..the property was purchased for the church from descendants of the Abdoney family…..while last year saw injuries take its toll on Logan Magistrate Court, 2017 seems to be off to a bad start for our local police departments…..the Logan state police detachment has lost men to other areas of the state, while trooper Josh Honaker, will be off work for at least a month with a medical condition…..also, the Sheriff’s department has its share of medical problems with both Chief Michael Mays and deputy Robert “Cruise” Johnson battling cancer issues…..as a cancer survivor myself, I certainly wish these guys the best…..with the continuing drug problems in Logan County, we need all the police protection possible…..QUOTE OF THE WEEEK: “I would love to have the tree that produces all the nuts we have in this county.”—Logan Court Marshall, Jeff Farmer, following a recent court hearing…..while on the courthouse subject, I worked in the sheriff’s department before the regional jail was built at Holden and inmates were housed on the 4th floor of the courthouse…..I was reminded the other day by veteran deputy Dennis Brown of how the jailers had to take care of certain “winos” or other alcoholics who were incarcerated…..deputies kept a few bottles of liquor available and dispensed liquor to certain inmates to keep them from going through withdrawal periods in which the inmates could have died without the dispensing of the liquor…..along with the food that I recall being prepared, no wonder nobody ever tried to escape from the place…..as I recall, there were a few men who tried to break into the place, especially during winter months….. I also recall that inmates that were called “turn-keys” were allowed to go to a local cab stand, purchase the liquor and bring it back to the jail…..at one time, every cab stand bootlegged liquor in Logan, and nobody even cared…..I know of two judges that had it delivered to their homes by taxi…..DID YOU KNOW that the West Virginia men’s basketball team is a 28 to 1 longshot to win the upcoming NCAA tournament?…..got to be proud of Huggy Bear’s squad and my underdog Marshall Thundering Herd, and especially former Logan basketball cager, Stevie Browning…..FINAL NOTE: As I write this piece on a Friday evening following a “full moon” crazy day in magistrate court, my thoughts are with the state’s financial predicament. I just can’t see a 20 cent increase on gasoline and other tax increases that will hurt the common person. As I have traveled all through the Appalachian coal fields, one can’t help but notice all the beautiful hills and mountains that have for many years released its black bounty to numerous coal producers. The fact is that West Virginia is basically owned by absentee land owners. Therefore, although I’m sure there are those persons way more intelligent than myself that could do the economics, I say, add a nickel tax per acre to these landowners, most of which do not even have corporate offices in West Virginia. No more exonerations either.
Dwight Williamson is a contributing columnist and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.