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.

3 thoughts on “Interrogating Primary Sources”

  1. “Local or statewide papers will reveal the impact on both the community and the state of Virginia.” What strikes me about this sentence and also the problems you see with news sources might be in what you want from them. One question that come to mind: In the sentence I quoted, are you sure the papers are revealing “the impact” or someone’s “perception” of the impact? And asking that question might lead you to consider how news reports travel sort of like rumors, and how those d are shaping the impact rather than describing “what actually happened?”

  2. Dr. Jones,

    I definitely believe that newspapers might reflect “perceptions” of the impact, and will definitely have to take that into consideration, as these perceptions reveal how certain individuals or perhaps the nation at the time related to such disasters. However, the papers also indicate the actual impact by noting the names of those hurt or killed. However, I will have to be meticulous in working with these papers, because as you say, they may have been shaping the impact in certain ways, rather than relaying the exact details of what occurred.

  3. I like your source — I thought about using a newspaper article myself! I’m curious to hear what lenses you’ll look at for this in class. I agree with the directions of the sources you’ll look for “around” this particular one. It’s vital to having a full picture of the event and I’m looking forward to seeing what you find!

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