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.