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.

Focusing on the Argument

My second attempt at a focus statement, this time, argument included:

My research project is about the Saltville Dam Disaster of 1924 and the impact it had on the surrounding community. More specifically, I wish to discover if any specific socioeconomic or minority group within the community was disproportionately vulnerable to this event and if so, what contributed to their vulnerability. I contend that those in the path of the flood faced disproportionate vulnerability for two reasons: First, because their socioeconomic standing determined and/or limited where they could live, and second, because they did not perceive their homes to be in an area at risk of disaster. These two factors, though seemingly unrelated, actually uncover a connection to a broader disaster culture that exists within the United States in which the socioeconomically or racially marginalized face the greatest susceptibility to disaster. I plan to use company records of Mathieson Alkali Works, newspaper articles about the local, state, and national response to the disaster, maps of Saltville and the Alkali Works plant, and census records to glean a better understanding of the demographic composition of the community, the role of the company in the town, and the response in the wake of the disaster.

While I intend to make this argument about the Saltville Disaster as long as I can find substantiating evidence, I do wonder if my argument follows to closely to the one being made by Ted Steinberg, and therefore will have to consider the ways in which my argument will differ from or build upon his own.

Interrogating Primary Sources

For the primary source assignment for this week, I chose an article from The Bee, Danville’s primary newspaper during the early 20th century. The heading of the article is, “VA. Dam Burst Claims Heavy Toll. 13 Known Dead, Seven Missing at Saltville.” The article was published on Friday, December 26, 1924, only two days following the disaster.

This source is signifcant because, while there are a number of newspaper articles that refer to the dam disaster in the days following the event, most of those that I have come across up to this point have been from cities across the nation—Los Angeles, Chicago, New York—and even Ontario, Canada. While the presence of these international articles highlight the severity of the disaster and will be helpful in determing the broader impact of the event, I am currently most interested in those papers within a closer proximity to Saltville. Local or statewide papers will reveal the impact on both the community and the state of Virginia, and in comparing the articles I find, I will be able to determine what questions were being asked in the wake of disaster, what discrepencies or similarities appear within different coverages, etc. Additionally, this article provides the names of the first known casualties. This article is one of a handful that serve as the first accounts of what occurred in the Saltville Dam Disaster of 1924.

The problem with this type of source, or at least, this source in particular, is that major disaster events are widely covered (as I am finding out about this event) over a broad geographical space. This distance suggests that many of the papers covering the disaster are getting their information by word of mouth, and if too many mouths get involved, the story can quickly be taken from the best understanding of what occurred to something entirely different. This particular article states that the information is coming from “The Associated Press,” and therefore I will need to track down the original article in order to determine how the information was collected and then reported. I want to be able to get as clear of an understanding of the response to this disaster as possible, and so I will have to closely examine this article and others like it to determine where the information is coming from prior to printing.

In order to confirm, complete or compliment this source, I will need to first compare a large crosssection of newspapers, noting the bias and geographical/chronological disatance from the event. Additionally, I will look up the names of those said to have been lost to the flood in the federal census, and hopefully in doing so find out a bit more about the households of those affected.

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“VA. Dam Burst Claims Heavy Toll. 13 Known Dead, Seven Missing at Saltville.” The Bee, December 26, 1924.