Awhile back I wrote about Dear, Pretty Fairmont, the next major town south of Morgantown, and promised that eventually I'd return to the issue of my family's connection to coal, always a troublesome topic in West Virginia.
In that post, I described the Heinz History Museum's exhibit about the 1907 Monongah mine disaster that Tom and I had seen in Pittsburgh in March, just the week before the deadly explosion at the Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, WV.
In fact, a conversation about that exhibit was what prompted my mom to show me the scrapbook about my grandfather, her father, that I mentioned previously. I'd told Mom how surprised I'd been to discover how close Monongah was to Morgantown. Monongah is, in fact, just outside of Fairmont. Mom reminded me that my grandfather had worked as a mine surveyor in that area, and not long after the time of the explosion--probably sometime in the decade between 1910 and 1920.
And there, in the scrapbook, were a couple of photos of him on the job as a surveyor, with a caption—in my grandmother’s very distinctive handwriting—noting that the mining company he worked for was based in Fairmont, the closest “big” town to Monogah.
Mom told me stories about her father that I’d never heard: that he lost both parents before he was 17, and lived with an aunt and uncle; that he worked as a mine surveyor during the summers to raise tuition money to study at WVU.
And she reminded me of a story that I had heard before: that when he died in 1966, he wanted to be cremated, although that was hardly ever done, and was even considered sort of blasphemous in conservative Christian circles. But he explicitly said he never wanted to be buried underground because of his experience working in the mining industry. She wasn’t sure whether he’d ever actually been down in the mines—his job as a surveyor, of course, was all above-ground—but clearly he’d seen and heard enough about it to know that he didn’t want to spend eternity there.
Given his geographic and historical proximity to the Monongah disaster, it's no wonder he didn't want to be buried. In those early years afterward, the whole area must have been haunted by the shadow of that event.
All of this motivated me to set out on a little fact-finding mission. Though I’ve been to Fairmont countless times, I’d never gone there with the express purpose of seeking out history and family connections to it. Tom and I went in search of a memorial about the disaster that we’d seen photos of at the Heinz exhibit. We passed through Monongah--essentially just a turn in the road--once, twice, three times on US 19 and saw nothing even faintly resembling a memorial.
But we did find a flea market we’d been to once before, so we stopped in and asked the woman at the front if she knew where the memorial was.
She directed us, in classic West Virginia fashion, to turn right at such-and-such a landmark, and to go down the hill and over the bridge and we’d find it. Turns out the "Monongah" on Route 19 isn't the actual heart of Monongah, the old coal-camp town, which was built down in the river valley below the "big road."
Monongah is a strange little place; the memorial (a plaza encompassing a statue of the "Heroine" and an elaborate cast-bronze bell) and a very 1950s town hall are about all that now hold its center together.
Tom and I walked down the two blocks of the main drag, and the architecture told the story of a place that had clearly been bustling at the turn of the last century. It was almost European in feel: a narrow street shadowed by two-story buildings that are separated from the road by only the narrowest strip of sidewalk.
These were buildings designed for commerce on the ground floor and residences above. Precarious looking second-story balconies (or empty spaces where they’d once been) conjure images of immigrant Italian wives hanging laundry, leaning on railings, being careful not to look too far up or down the street in either direction for fear of breaking the illusion that they were still in their home villages in Molise, the region of Italy that most of the miners migrated from.
At one end of the street stand two substantial brick buildings bearing the impressive carved-stone names of "David Levy" and the "Blumberg Bldg." So clearly, there were probably Jewish merchants plying their trade here, too. All of these buildings are now empty, or nearly so.
The memorial incorporates two fascinating bits of folklore that I'd learned at the museum: The day of the explosion was the feast day of St. Nicholas, and many of the miners had taken the day off for the observance.
Consequently, they weren't in the mine when the explosion occurred, and were spared. The devout claimed that St. Nicholas had spared the miners. The bell--designed and cast in Molise and dedicated in Monongah in 2006--commemorates this miracle, asking for St. Nicholas' intercession.
The statue of the "Monongah Heroine" tells an even more interesting story. The inscription below the figure says "In the excess of her sorrow, brave beyond words." These words are meant to honor the many women who were widowed on that day, but especially one named Caterina Davia, whose story I first encountered at the museum exhibit.
After her husband's death, Caterina seemed to lapse into deep grief bordering on madness: for the remaining 30 years of her life, she made several trips a day to the collapsed mine, each time loading a burlap sack with coal and carrying it back to her home, where she deposited it in a pile.
By the end of her life, she had hauled several tons of coal from the mine to her home. The pile towered over the house. Talk about a concrete way of measuring your grief. According to the story, a newcomer to town looked at the coal pile and accused Caterina of stealing it for her own use. She replied, "I'm not stealing it. I'm lifting the weight from my husband."
Jo Ann Dadisman, a colleague here at WVU who's a professional storyteller, is developing a story about Caterina, and I was privileged to hear an early version. It is incredibly moving. Jo Ann also offered a different take on the "St. Nicholas miracle": while the official version suggests that piety kept the men out of the mines on that day, Jo Ann contends that in fact, most of them didn't show up to work because they'd gotten too drunk celebrating the feast day the night before. In fact, it's likely that many of the "men" killed in the mine that day were, in fact, women: wives who'd gone in their hungover husbands' stead, because you only got paid for the coal you brought out on any given day.
For the same reason, many men also brought their young sons into the mine to help. So, the estimate of 361 men killed in the Monongah disaster is probably a gross underestimation. Or rather, there may have been that many men killed, but an unknown number of women and children likely died in the mine, too.
It's chilling to think of my own grandfather standing above ground near Monongah, undoubtedly wondering himself about the countless dead that lay below the surface he was surveying.
This area continues to haunt me, and I welcome its ghosts.
Photo at the top of the post is of Monongah as it appears today, down in the river valley below Route 19. In the surveying photo, my grandfather, Harry F. Toothman, is the man on the right.