Final Reflections

*I say “final” knowing that I have a whole year left ahead of me.*

It is astounding and almost beyond the capabilities of this post to adequately convey how I feel about my experience and development as a historian over the past year. For that reason, I will focus on just a few (probably the most significant) points or areas of development.

If there is one way to describe my development as a first-year Master’s student, I believe it would be: amplified. Not to be dramatic, but I came into this program with a VERY specific idea of what a historian does, what I would do, and what the end result would be. Obviously I knew there would be some aspects of the experience that I couldn’t predict or prepare for, but I came in with a few preconceived notions that I did not anticipate would change.

First, I though the historian had a single, primary role: Gatekeeper. This is not to say that I thought the role of a historian was simple prior to this program. On the contrary, I thought it was of the utmost importance–protecting and keeping the historical record and conveying the discipline to whom the magic was veiled. In ways, this romanticized view I had was not necessarily untrue. However, I was wrong in thinking that all of those who sought to experience history needed to come through the historian. Is it our responsibility or duty to convey or interpret history to the public? Absolutely. But rather than being the one and only avenue to receive that information, more and more historians are working on ways to make history accessible to anyone and everyone, whether they are recognized for making said information available or not (As a public historian, you would have thought this would have been my understanding all along). So my understanding of the role of the historian has in this way, and certainly in others, been amplified. And perhaps I am a bit less selfish or expectant of recognition than I was a year ago.

Along the same line, the other area that I saw the greatest amount of development  is in my understanding of the realm of historical practice and networking. Though I came into this program with the intention of being a public historian who worked to make history available in thought-provoking and accessible ways, my understanding of the disciplines and individuals that historians interacted with to collect this information was certainly flawed. Over the course of a year I have gone from seeing the historian and the practice as an “island” of sorts to one node in a network or series of networks. These networks connect with other disciplines and professionals, new areas of study and new methodologies within and outside of history, and new, innovative “ages” for history to enter. My semi-isolationist perspective upon entering this program has since been shattered entirely, and I could not be happier (I mean, how did I ever think I could become a disaster/environmental or public historian without active interdisciplinary networking?!)

Obviously these developments do not cover half of what I’ve learned about methodology or the history of history or how to write a historiography–all of which have been extremely beneficial and hopefully successful–but they do offer a glimpse into the massive changes that have occurred in my line of thinking about my role as a historian and the discipline as a whole within my one year here thus far.

Dr. Mollin told me at the end of my Senior Year of undergraduate that I would look back on each semester of graduate school and be absolutely astounded by the amount of information I had collected and learned. At the end of year one, I am happy to report that she was absolutely right.



Andrew Kahrl: “The Price We Pay: The Overtaxation of Black America”

Guest Lecturer—Andrew Kahrl: “The Price We Pay: The Overtaxation of Black America”

Andrew Kahrl, Professor of History at the University of Virginia and author of The Land Was Ours: African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South, presented a talk on March 6th, 2015. The topic of his lecture was the overtaxation of African Americans throughout history and modern day, and his primary argument/main contention was that African Americans pay disproportionate property taxes and additionally have not been able to receive the services that are supposed to be supplied by said taxes, resulting in one form of systematic, institutionalized discrimination. Kahrl supplemented his analysis of overtaxation with other examples of exploitation or inequality, including white flight to the suburbs, the inability of African Americans to win elections for tax assessors, predatory tax buying, and perhaps most shocking, exploitation that has resulted in African Americans actually paying for the unjust system within which they have been trapped. Ultimately, Kahrl provided an excellent argument and evidence as to why the claim, “Blacks pay no taxes” holds absolutely no weight.

Kahrl’s research is actually part of a large-and-growing Digital Humanities project that boasts an interactive website that reveals discriminatory property dealings such as overtaxation, redlining, etc.

The lecture encouraged me to consider critically the ways in which a historian’s research and findings not only can be conveyed to a public audience, but also can be used to effect change. As a presenter, Dr. Kahrl was very passionate and presented a compelling, relevant case. Because of the pervasiveness of these systematic forms of discrimination, research that highlights the inequalities has the power to actually incite change on a political level. A Youtube video, “The Big Business Wall Street Won’t Discuss” is already in circulation, focusing on the very institutions that Kahrl’s research focuses on. As a historian, obviously it is my hope to convey my research to the public in a thought-provoking and engaging way, and I believe the interactive website effectively does that. However, I am sad to say that in comparing what I perceived as my research’s realm of influence with the work of Dr. Kahrl, I have become quite shortsighted. This is not to say that each and every project I—or any of us—undertake will become an exposé that reveals and works to alleviate the ills of modern society. However, Kahrl’s project demonstrates that such a goal isn’t outside of the realm of possibility. As a historian and person, I should certainly mimic Dr. Kahrl and attempt to see the big picture and the potential reach and value of my work.

More on Peer Review…

To build upon last week’s post I thought I would summarize what seems to be the biggest critique and the most effective aspects of my proposal based on feedback thus far.

The primary critique I have received seems to be in regard to readers struggling to get a clear understanding of what I am trying to do, when reading my proposal. This is understandable since, when reading back over my proposal and comments, there seems to be a tension in the writing between wanting to tell the narrative of the Saltville Disaster and wanting to use it at a case study in disaster culture in Appalachia in the early 20th century. What I WANT to do is the latter. This is an area of my proposal that I immediately need to fix both in mind and on paper–it is imperative that readers (and myself) have a very clear sense of what I am trying  to do. By fixing this issue, hopefully the topic, argument, and questions flow together more smoothly and logically.

The section(s) of my work that I have received the most positive feedback on are my Historiography/Methodology sections and placement. This seems ironic, because these are the sections that took me the longest to write and that I probably felt LEAST confident about. However, I am thankful to see that my efforts to place myself in historical discourse have not been entirely in vain (and that professors’ efforts to teach me how to write a historiography have not been entirely in vain), and that I at least have a sense of the scholarly conversations that I will be joining. Hopefully I will be able to continue to build upon these sections as I expand my Historiography to include a few other subjects or “petals”.

Overall, the peer review process has been a bit frightening but very insightful. My hope is that by the end of the semester, I will have a very clear sense of what my project is and how to progress it over the summer in terms of research and writing.

Peer-Review Reflection

Taking part in the peer-reviewing process this past week has challenged me once more to critically consider my own project and the areas in which I can improve—this is part of the benefit of peer reviewing, no doubt. I believe this task absolutely built upon the personal reflection from last week—it is one thing to look back upon your own work and imagine what you might have done differently, it is another thing entirely to review another’s proposal and be enlightened or inspired about areas in which the author succeeded or struggled and how that compares to your own work.

In reviewing Kate’s proposal this week, I noticed one major strength that I feel as if my paper was lacking—true narrative. This is, of course, something our cohort has discussed in-depth in a variety of classes. The narrative aspect of our work becomes the hook that prevents our scholarship from joining the ranks of dry, uninspiring, historical discourse. As Cronon would say, “Don’t get (be?) bored.” By that same token, I believe our duty is in part to ensure that our readers don’t get bored, if we can help it. I certainly was not bored reading Kate’s introduction. While I wrote a rather brief introduction, Kate’s was lengthier, laying out the context within which her project and topic took place. In fact, she was even able to create a narrative in her Historiography section—in my opinion, the densest aspect of the entire proposal. She was able to concisely state what each area of historical discourse was covering and the ways in which scholars were treating those areas.

While I will save the bulk of my comments regarding the peer-review for the actual author (and Dr. Jones), I am definitely coming away from this process more aware of the narrative (or lack thereof) in my own work and have been inspired to make some changes and consider other options for my proposal. All in all, I would certainly say that this assignment was conducive to producing better second drafts for both the peer-reviewer and the reviewed.

More Reading…

Mathieson Alkali Works (Saltville, Va.). 1942. Fifty Years of Chemical Progress, 1892-1942. New York, N.Y.: Mathieson Alkali Works.

This week I read a book I had received through Illiad (the upcoming return date was part of the motivation to get through it). I was hoping the book would provide some information regarding how the company functioned within Saltville and how the town was shaped as a result.

Rather than providing any sort of narrative, the book was highly scientific and focused heavily on the methods of production and the chemical composition of the materials being extracted from various Mathieson sites, including Saltville. Though the book may provide a bit of contextual information and was produced soon after the dam disaster, I am not sure that it will be of much help. It does not reference the dam disaster whatsoever, and the prose itself is extremely technical. It does, however, contain several great period pictures of Saltville, which may or may not be of use.


The process of producing my first proposal draft was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, not to be overly dramatic. Certainly, this particular project was one of the highest-pressure products I have worked on to-date, and the process of writing revealed how far I have to go before I really have a polished proposal.

Perhaps the most helpful aspect of writing my proposal draft was considering all of the elements of my historiography section (or the petals of my bedraggled daisy) and then attempting to organize them in a coherent order. This process revealed a number of things: first, there are MANY more books written on disasters and vulnerability than I initially realized (a double-edged sword), and I had difficulty determining which books would be most useful for my project or which books most informed/took part in the historical conversation I am attempting to join; second, that I do not necessarily have a good sense yet of the most logical way for my paper to proceed—I definitely struggled when attempting to determine my chapters and what each would include. Even a week after having to turn in the draft—having had time to reflect—I still am unsure about how to organize the different parts of my project in a way that would convince my audience that my argument is both credible and significant; finally, building upon my attempts to organize the various aspects of my project, I grew increasingly worried that my topic/argument has too many working parts. Having read the second years’ proposals and referring back to them several times throughout the writing process, I could not get a good sense of where the fine line was between “enough” working parts, or too many—I do not want to take on a project that is too broad, and I certainly don’t want to overcomplicate it to the point of confusing myself and my audience. I noticed this issue particularly when I tried to add in a comparison between the dam disaster and the shutdown of the company town—two completely unrelated events that had entirely different impacts on the town. While this comparison could be useful for the point I was trying to make, I do fear it is too much or too unrelated to add into my project.

I believe the most difficult aspect of writing this first draft was having to turn something in that I am not particularly proud of. I recognize that releasing a draft and getting feedback is a critical and helpful part of the proposal-writing process, however, I never like to release my work to the public unless I believe it is my best work (or at least very close to it).

This process has been exhausting—and it has only just begun—but I can definitely see the benefit of having to produce a first draft. I formed my own critiques of my work during the production process and I have had time to consider different approaches I would like to take or certain areas I would like to focus on, and I think these things, coupled with critique from a committee and peer reviewer, will result in a better formulated and more cohesive second draft.

Research Methods

(I am thankful I chose to answer questions of methodology AFTER we had class discussion. I am also thankful to be in the company of a number of other cultural historians.)

I see myself primarily as a cultural historian, as I am focusing on the ways in which people perceive of and understand disasters in the United States. Moreover, in this particular project, I am making an argument regarding a larger disaster culture in the United States, and how that culture in turn shaped how individuals and communities react to and remember disaster. My research also seems to fall at an intersection with social history, because class relations certainly shape the ways in which people make sense of disaster. This class analysis will be useful in combination with a spatial perspective, as the region in which the Palmertown Tragedy occurred has a very specific class demographic in comparison to the nation as a whole.

The theory of cultural hegemony could prove considerably suited to my research because I will be analyzing news media—local, national, and international—and the ways in which news from outside the region reports on/describes Saltville and the disaster will certainly be shaped by dominant cultural ideas.

Additionally I will consider the Four Theories of Disaster, as FEMA has laid out in their Emergency Management guides, and as other historians have used in their works on disasters. These theories include: Acts of God—or Fate; Acts of Nature—Physical Events; Intersection of Society and Nature; Avoidable Human Constructions. These theories are most often cited as the causes of disaster, and one or more of these theories no doubt informs perceptions of disaster. Furthermore, these theories have not been accepted simultaneously, but rather, have been modified as greater understanding and information of disasters have evolved or been discovered over time. Discovering which of these theories were accepted at the time and by the observers or reporters of the Palmertown Tragedy is imperative to better understanding the ways in which public perceptions were formed.

This methodology shaped the questions I want to ask by providing the framework to look at culture through public perceptions to disaster events and dominant cultural ideas about causation, blame, and vulnerability.


After an interesting trip to Saltville and a roller coaster of confusion and discovery regarding my project, I have not only revamped my focus statement, but my project as a whole. While this almost feels like being back at square one, I look forward to getting helpful feedback that will assist me in moving forward in this new direction with my project.

On the evening of December 24, 1924, Palmertown, a small community in Saltville, Virginia was engulfed in a flood of water and alkali muck. Houses were lifted from their foundations, many torn apart in the process, and by the time all of the bodies were pulled from the wreckage, the death toll had reached 19—an immense loss for a small, tight-knit community. The dam, owned by Mathieson Alkali Works, loomed approximately 100 feet above Palmertown, keeping at bay the chemical muck produced by the company plants. However, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, the dam broke on Christmas Eve and would go down in infamy under names such as “The Saltville Muck Dam Disaster,” “The Christmas Eve Disaster,” and “The Palmertown Tragedy.”

Despite being the greatest disaster—technological or otherwise—to ever hit Saltville, Virginia, scholarship on the event is incredibly limited. Furthermore, Palmertown and neighboring Henrytown were quite literally wiped off the map in the mid-twentieth century, as the Holston River was rerouted and the dam, rebuilt right overtop of the town sites. Though the disaster is immortalized in the memories of many local residents of Saltville, as stories of the event have been passed down for generations, no historical marker exists to memorialize the tragedy. The town’s Museum of the Middle Appalachians does have a small exhibit in tribute to the disaster; yet, it hardly does justice for the most infamous event to ever strike the area.

Why, for generations, have residents of Saltville, Virginia, chosen not to commemorate the Palmertown Tragedy of 1924? In order to answer this question, others have to be asked: What were the public perceptions of the disaster at the time of the event, whether local, national, or international? How has the event been written about or remembered in the time since the disaster? How did/do perceptions of this disaster compare to perceptions of other flood disasters? Throughout history, perceptions of disaster have reflected common understandings of the causes of these events—acts of God, natural disasters, or technological calamity wrought by man. Different theories of causation are accompanied by different sources for blame and different understandings of vulnerability, and these factors partially determine the ways in which communities either embrace or repress their disaster history.

In this paper, I will argue that perceptions of events such as the Palmertown Tragedy of 1924 reflect a larger disaster culture that exists in the United States, in which understandings of the causes and risks of disasters determine how and why these events are memorialized—or why they aren’t. I will utilize an abundance of contemporary news media to determine the local, national, and international perceptions of the Palmertown Tragedy and similar events of the time. I will also consider the ways in which scholars have considered and defined disaster culture and theories of causation. While many scholars have discussed perceptions of disaster culture in history, few have considered how these perceptions impact community memory. By examining perceptions of this disaster, I am adding a much needed perspective to the conversation on disaster culture. The ways in which communities understand and remember disasters certainly influences the ways in which they prepare for or react to future disasters. While it has been nearly a century since the dam failure in Saltville, Virginia, my hope is that this study will provide greater insight to the connections between disaster culture and memory, and therefore a new framework for understanding community preparation for and response to disasters.

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.

Theories and Methods…

When first reading the blog prompt I got a bit nervous—though I think I am beginning to get a better understanding of the theories that scholars use in their work, I still struggle to completely understand what is meant by “methodology” (and from reading a couple classmates’ posts, it appears I am not alone). However, this post is an attempt to pin down both of those components of the article I chose, Dr. Sally Ward Maggard’s, “Cultural Hegemony: The News Media and Appalachia.” After our class on primary sources and discussions of perhaps including an analysis of news coverage of the “Palmertown Disaster” (considering renaming the event—see other post), I decided to spend some time over break looking into any sources that discuss how news is covered in Appalachia and/or during the early 20th century in America.

Sally Ward Maggard was the Assistant Director of the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky at the time this article was published in 1983, and eventually became Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology and Adjunct Assistant Professor of History at West Virginia University. Her extensive background in Appalachian Studies certainly qualified her to write a piece on the ways in which news media has traditionally portrayed Appalachia, and this article has provided a useful theoretical framework for my project.

Within the first two pages of the article, Maggard introduces how the processes involved in shaping identity or consciousness and defining knowledge are a part of what is known as “cultural hegemony” or, the power to shape definitions of reality (68). The theory of cultural hegemony frame Maggard’s article, as she discusses the ways in which media in part has had the task of “producing and disseminating the content of the dominant culture” in America, and in doing so have portrayed a certain image of Appalachia (72). She discusses how news coverage of Appalachia either occurs only in the event of an extraordinary occurrence (good or bad—mostly bad), or fails to provide the context within which these events occur. Maggard explains the negative consequences of this selective coverage:

“Defined as moonshiners or miserable people, residents of Central Appalachia face great odds in trying to use the national media to interpret their needs and problems to the general public. Deeply embedded stereotypes affect the way the news media perceive, and define for the general public, protest from the mountains” (78).

By introducing and detailing the theory of cultural hegemony, describing the process through which it was established and then applying the theory to a case study of news media coverage in Appalachia, Maggard provides an effective illustration of the use of a theoretical/methodological framework. I believe this article and cultural hegemony will prove useful for my project, and I look forward to applying this theory to the case study of the Palmertown Disaster.