CLARKSBURG – Any region is shaped by the events that occur within its boundaries, and north-central West Virginia is no exception. However, some historical events are so significant that they affect not only local residents, but the entire nation and sometimes the world.
One of these events was the Battle of Philippi. Civil war shook the nation and affected many corners of the world. In its early days, what was then West Virginia had strategic value to both the Union and the Confederacy, said Jason Phillips, Eberly Professor of Civil War Studies at the University of West Virginia.
The area bordered the Ohio River and was home to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which both connected the American west to the east, “forming a vital transportation network that both sides hoped to control for their armies and supplies,” said Phillips.
“In May 1861 the Confederates captured the B&O line at Harpers Ferry and Grafton. The Union responded by sending an army across the Ohio River later this month, ”he said. “Led by People. George McClellan and William Rosecrans, this army of new recruits from Ohio and Indiana marched towards the Confederate force that occupied Grafton.
The Confederates withdrew to Philippi, but the Union Army marched through night and rain, arriving in the city on June 3, 1861.
“McClellan’s battle plan, a pincer attack that hoped to envelop and capture Confederate defenders, failed, but the outnumbered rebels fled to Beverly,” Phillips said.
The event has been dubbed the Philippi Races to make fun of the Confederates. It was the first organized land battle of the Civil War, and Union victory helped them reopen the B&O line to Washington, as well as bring McClellan to “Napoleonic status at the time.”
“Rosecrans deserved more credit for the military’s success in West Virginia, but McClellan was quick to claim credit for the campaign,” Phillips said. “Within months, Abraham Lincoln promoted McClellan to command of the Army of the Potomac, the Union army tasked with defending Washington and capturing the Confederate capital at Richmond.”
When the Civil War began, everyone assumed West Virginia would be a major battleground.
“After the early victories at Philippi and Rich Mountain, Union military control over the region was decisive and the theater of operations shifted to eastern Virginia, where many of the most important battles took place. most terrible of war, ”said Phillips.
This battle not only affected the course of the Civil War, but also directly contributed to the creation of the Mountain State.
“The victory at Philippi and other West Virginia battlefields protected the Unionists in the region and enabled them to reconvene the Wheeling Convention and pass an ordinance for a separate state in August 1861,” said Phillips. “West Virginia’s political independence was based on the Union’s military occupation of the region.”
Another major event in north-central West Virginia was the Monongah mine disaster. West Virginia had been a state for just over 34 years when disaster struck the small town of Marion County.
It was December 6, 1907, when what is often referred to as the worst industrial accident in US history occurred at the Fairmont Coal Co No. 6 and No. 8 mines.
There were officially 367 men in the mines, but the number was probably much higher (maybe up to 700 people). Workers often took their children or other family members into the mine to help them, said Eliza Newland, collections and program manager at the Royce J. and Caroline B. Watts Museum at the University of West Virginia. .
“At 10:28 am, an explosion occurred which instantly killed most of the people in the mine. The explosion caused considerable damage to the surface and to the mine, ”she said. “Rescuers could only stay in the mine for 15 minutes at a time due to the dangerous fumes that had accumulated in the mine after the disaster.
In the end, only one minor was rescued while four others escaped. The official cause has never been determined, but investigators believe an electric spark or one of the miners’ open flame lamps ignited coal dust or methane.
The disaster virtually wiped out the town’s men, said Dora Grubb, a member of the Marion County Historical Society.
“Women were not allowed in the mines. If they weren’t doing the laundry or some other job, they had no way of making a living unless they had other sons to take care of them, ”said Grubb. “All families have more or less deprived themselves of money to live. The Wheeling Catholic Church collected a fundraiser and donations from all over the world to give to families, but it simply devastated the area at that time.
Many of those involved in the disaster were immigrants, especially from Italy. Coal companies often handed out professional postcards to potential workers, presenting the opportunities that would be available in America.
“What they would do is (the company) would pay their way, and then they had to work until they pay off (the company), and of course you could never make it up. It was just another form of indentured bondage, ”Grubb said. “It wasn’t allowed, but people were so eager to come to America that they did it under the table.”
This continued with the company’s store, where families often had to continue paying in this form of debt slavery to have the materials they needed to live.
“It’s like the song says – 16 tons and what do you get?” Another day older and more in debt, ”Grubb said. “That’s why they brought in their sons. It was not the number of days you worked. This is the amount of charcoal you brought. The boys (as young as 9 or 10) would be scrubbers, so they would weigh pure charcoal at the end of the day.
Two years after the disaster, Congress was forced to establish the Bureau of Mines, a research and education organization with no police power.
“During the first half of the 20th century, the risk experience of modern mining, in addition to the research and education work of the Bureau of Mines, increased knowledge; However, the potential benefits of this knowledge have proven to be unable to overcome the long-standing risk-taking habits of managers and miners, ”Newland said.
It is 61 years later, almost to the day, that another mining disaster has rocked Marion County and the rest of the world. At 5:30 a.m. on November 20, 1968, an explosion rocked the Consol No. 9 mine in Farmington. The explosion was so powerful that residents said they could smell it in Fairmont, 12 miles away.
“Passers-by witnessed a fire that quickly spread with flames projecting 150 feet into the air,” Newland said. “In a few hours, 21 miners rose to the surface, but 78 remained trapped underground. “
The fire continued to burn for a week and rescuers were forced to give up nine days later after air samples from boreholes showed the remaining air was unable to support human life. The mine was sealed with concrete on November 30 to starve the fire of oxygen. It was almost a year later, in September 1969, that the mine was unsealed in the hope of recovering the bodies.
“Progress has been slow and recovery efforts have continued for almost 10 years,” Newland said. “In April 1978, 59 of the 78 bodies had been found. “
The official cause of the explosion has never been determined, but “several contributing factors may have caused the explosion: inadequate ventilation, inadequate control of explosive methane and coal dust, and testing inadequate for methane, ”she added.
Mine workers often participated in unsafe practices to increase production, such as connecting plastic cables to live overhead cables or driving nails into high-voltage leakage cables, Grubb said.
“It was getting faster and faster. They knew it was dangerous, but they wanted their jobs and needed the money, ”she said. “When some of the alarms started going off, they just turned them off because there was only one leak. People think it’s not that bad because it only happens very often. They think, ‘This is not going to happen to me.’ “
The Farmington mine disaster gave impetus to the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, Newland said. This helped to strengthen safety standards, impose federal inspections, and minors were able to obtain specific rights in matters of safety and health.
Deaths and injuries in mines were so common throughout the 20th century that they became part of the cultural expectations of coal mining communities. Newland hopes that this way of thinking will one day change and that, as mines are regulated and held responsible for creating safe conditions, there will be no more historic mining accidents anywhere in America.
While there have been many other notable mining disasters in north central West Virginia and across the state, the Monongah and Farmington tragedies directly led to mine safety legislation that has saved countless other lives over the years.
While no one knows what the future holds for North Central West Virginia, these historic events from its past continue to shape and affect the region and the world.