Palmertown Disaster Discoveries: A Break Well Spent?

With this project (and work for other classes) in mind, Spring Break definitely felt less “break like” than any I have had before. However, it did provide an opportunity for me to take a trip down I-81 (accompanied by soon-to-be 1st year MA student, Rebecca Williams!) to visit Saltville, Virginia and the Museum of the Middle Appalachians. As I have actually had a lot of difficulty getting any information on the Saltville Dam Disaster of 1924 other than various news reports from the days following the disaster—mostly reprints of The Associated Press, I’ve found—I felt that my next best step was to take a trip to the scene of my study.

Luckily, the museum manager, Harry R. Haynes, was available to talk with, and he proceeded to give Rebecca and I a long but very informative history of Saltville, making sure to spend a little extra time on the event of December 24, 1924. He referred to the disaster as the “Palmertown Tragedy” and the small space afforded to commemorate the event in the museum also used this title, so I assume that is the most appropriate title to use.

Mr. Haynes, from what I collected, is somewhat of the local historian, having grown up and lived in Saltville his entire life. On one hand, this was very beneficial, as he has a wealth of knowledge concerning Saltville. On the other hand, much of what he conveyed to me in the form of “facts” from the disaster have no resources (at least within the museum) to back them up. Toward the end of the visit, when we were finally taken into the research library, I asked Mr. Haynes what resources were available through the library that would be useful for my project. He notified me that the only resources that were available were a number of pictures taken from immediately before or after the flood and a copy of “The Great Saltville Disaster” by Carl Eskridge, the local historian, written in 1925. While both the book and pictures should be incredibly useful, they in no way provided any information on half of what Mr. Haynes told me—and a number of the things he told me were quite significant in terms of building my project.

For instance, I was told:

  • The company towns of Henrytown and Palmertown were not company towns at the time of the disaster; rather, the Olin Corporation bought out the towns, which already existed, in the 1950s-60s.
    • Along this line, the houses destroyed by the disaster were privately owned, but Mathieson employed most of the homeowners.
  • The Mathieson Alkali Works was not a part of the Olin Corporation that was placed in Saltville; rather, it existed first, and then was eventually bought out or brought into the larger Olin Corporation, which expanded its industry to include a number of chemical works.
  • Mathieson must have known the dam was on the verge of collapse, as they bought out several of the houses closest to the plant in the months leading up to the disaster. Of the houses, only one family chose to remain, and they were killed in the flood.
  • Mathieson initially blamed the dam breakage on a man, who was subsequently held in a jail in Marion, Virginia, until the corporation decided that the true cause had been unstable dams and unusually heavy rains, and the man was acquitted.
    • Along this line, the dams were built in such a way that water was supposed to drain out from two drainage pipes (visible in pictures), but heavy rains in the days before the disaster overwhelmed the dam and drain pipes, causing the break.
  • Mathieson paid for all of the damages and paid for funerals, cemetery services, and for the families to rebuild, and did so without a lawsuit or any judiciary action, as the town did not have a lawyer.
  • The dam was 100+ feet high and built in a terraced fashion, and the break was approximately 300 feet across.

 

These are just a few of the many bits of information I collected from Mr. Haynes, and while they certainly affect my project and the questions I will be asking/how I will frame it, I am going to have to be very creative and thoughtful in tracking down evidence to back this information. It is certainly significant that the towns were not company towns at the time of the disaster, but rather owned privately. Hopefully looking at deeds or some similar resource will help illuminate the owners and town structure. These pictures are all the more helpful because I found, much to my dismay, that the Olin Corporation eventually rerouted the river and extended the dam overtop of both Henrytown and Palmertown. In other words, they no longer exist. When visiting the site, the only thing that can be seen is a large hill/dam where the towns used to be.

The personal photos and aerial photos of Saltville and the two towns will absolutely be helpful, especially if I am to take more of a spatial approach to this project. The photos show the location of the ponds and dams, the locations of the towns and homes within them, and the geographical landscape and position of the river in relation to the plant and the homes. I will have to purchase these photos from the museum in order to use them, as I will have to do with Carl Eskridge’s book (unless I can convince Emory and Henry College to loan it).

I am currently trying to get in contact with the Smyth County Historical Society to see if they might have any resources I can access, though they have been slow in responding to my several attempts thus far. I will also contact Emory and Henry College to see if any professors have any information or suggestions that might be helpful in creating and researching my project, or if their library has any resources I might access—my brother is an alum of E&H, so he is sending personal emails and trying to put in a good word. I intend to meet with my advisor this week to discuss how these revelations might affect or reshape my project.

4 thoughts on “Palmertown Disaster Discoveries: A Break Well Spent?”

  1. Sounds like Faith’s earlier suggestion that business histories might be useful seems right on target! But what I found so interesting about this interview is how it represents “local memory” of the event. Facts not readily traceable, yet part of the lore of the local historian. I wonder if there’s a way to use this interview not for its factual value but for as an example of how disasters are remembered. Is there any sort of historic marker in the town about the disaster? The local museum exhibit is also an expression of memory. For a public historian, the way te exhibit was created and how it is put together might be something to explore.

  2. Holy crap that’s a lot of info, even if it is difficult to decipher at the moment!! What a cool trip!

    I’m with Dr. Jones about the “local memory.” I think this trip was a good opportunity for almost “community involvement” “facts” rather than a true fact-finder, if that makes sense? I think it will be very helpful, and I’m wondering if you have plans to make another visit and speak to more townspeople to add to the historian’s information?

  3. Dr. Jones,

    I think business history should certainly be helpful–I have a book on the history of Mathieson waiting for me at the library, so hopefully that will reveal a thing or two about its influence within Saltville.

    You’re absolutely right in saying that local memory is a large component of this project. I guess I had not considered this as much of a possibility, seeing as the event is now several generations removed, and even the local historian is recounting information from the recollections of others. However, I think it might be worth looking into how I might incorporate local memory into my project, especially if some of my main sources of this information will be from individuals like Mr. Haynes.

  4. Hi Carmen,

    Along the lines of Dr. Jones’s suggestion, I think that it would be interesting to look at the local folklore surrounding the event and see if you can glean anything about “disaster culture” from this. I am disappointed that you could not find any oral histories from people who were alive at the time of the disaster, though!

    Claire

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