To every thing there is a season …
A time to be born … a time to die …
A time to weep … a time to mourn …
Ecclesiastes: Chapter 3
On Wednesday, January 10, 1940, the Pond Creek No. 1 Mine at Bartley, owned by Pocohontas Coal Corporation, exploded at exactly 2:30 in the afternoon killing ninety-one men. Two men standing outside in the cold drizzling rain witnessed a cloud of black dust and bits of paper shoot out of the mine entrance. In the blink of an eye the explosion made bereaved widows of fifty-one women, and orphans of one-hundred and sixty-nine children. The mine shaft was a depth of about 600 feet. Families lived in company-owned houses near the mine. One-hundred and thirty-eight men were in the mine at the time of the blast. The west side of the mine was not affected, and thirty-seven men escaped injury. Another ten men at the bottom of the mine shaft also cheated death. The mine foreman and others near the bottom of the shaft felt a strong rush of air that sounded like a fire siren. The area was instantly with filled thick dust. Jack Tickle and Fred White’s fathers were two of the victims. Their families lives would never be the same.
Top mine officials were holding a safety-meeting near the mine at the time of the explosion. They began organizing rescue workers immediately which entered the mine at three o’clock. They traveled in fresh air to the explosion area, and extinguished some small fires. Seven hours after the first blast as men replaced brattice curtains, a second explosion occurred. The crew quickly returned to the surface. Bartley Mine was a gassy mine, so extreme precautions were necessary.
Relatives spent an anxious night gathered around the Bartley Mine waiting for the fate of their loved ones, and as dawn broke rain turned to snow. They tried to keep warm from bonfires, and makeshift stoves made from barrels . How many tears could the people of Bartley shed? It had only been three months that a tragic school bus wreck took the lives of the bus driver and six Big Creek High School students. On October 11, 1939, news of the wreck spread like wildfire through the community. Hundreds of people rushed to the site. Miners left their jobs at the Bartley Mine as soon as they were notified leaving the mine almost at a standstill. At 8 o’clock in the morning, a spindle on the bus snapped plunging the bus from the highway down an eighty-three foot embankment onto the railroad tracks below. A high school student waiting for news of his brother’s fate entombed in the Bartley Mine said he would always dread the second Wednesday of every month. Both the bus wreck and mine disaster struck on a Wednesday.
It took more than an hour to free the bus driver and children from the wreckage. Herbert Belcher was a much loved and respected driver. Charles Flanagan and Maxine Beavers were standing behind the driver sharing peanuts. Shortly before the bus went over the mountainside, Mr. Belcher told them they’d have to clean the bus because they were throwing shells on the floor. Mr. Belcher’s legs were caught underneath the engine and one leg was so badly mangled it had to be amputated. Death claimed Mr. Belcher and six students.
LIST OF THE DEAD
Herbert “Hull” Belcher – age 39 – bus driver
Lucille White – age 16 – valedictorian of her Bartley Junior high school graduating class
Maxine Beavers – age 18
Lucille Mullins – age 17
Ernest Woody, Jr. – age 15
Charles Colvard – age 16
Ralph Earls – age 17
LIST OF STUDENTS IN CRITICAL CONDITION
Jessie Mullins – age 14 – internal injuries (sister to Lucille)
Claude Runyon – age 16 – head injuries
James White – age 16 – internal injuries
Charles Flanagan – 18 – internal injuries
Virginia Logan – age 16 – fractured pelvis
Pauline Jessie – age 16 – fractured pelvis
Fifty-one others, including Jack Mullins, sister of Lucille, remained in the hospital for treatment. Now Mrs. Mullins waited at the Bartley Mine for news of her husband Marion and her young son Charles who where working when the mine blew up.
A frenzied crowd gathered quickly after news spread that the mine had blown. Only one phone to the outside world was working after the blast, and it took two hours to restore service. This added to the chaos, because police could not be called for crowd control. Men were running around searching for equipment, and cursing the events and the weather. Screaming women and children rushed to the mine shaft getting in the way of workmen. School buses soon began arriving unloading high school and elementary school children, and some of them went to the scene before going home. Agnes Monaghan, age fifteen, stood vigil for her widowed mother. Her brother, Pat was one of the victims, but brother Joe was spared as he was not at work. It was estimated that a crowd of almost two-thousand people congregated by nightfall on the first day.
Frightened wives, some half-crazed with grief, set up a relief station in the lamp house to serve free coffee and sandwiches to rescue workers and waiting relatives. Spectators and curiosity seekers were not allowed in that area. Mrs. Alonso Barnett, a twenty-one-year-old mother of four children said she couldn’t stay away knowing her husband was trapped down there. She later learned he was one of the victims.
Mrs. Floyd Combs, a young bride helped out. Her husband was among the missing. In the early morning hours, she could no longer hold up. She broke down sobbing and started home only to collapse in the snow. Friends took her home. Her husband was among the dead.
Twenty-year-old William Fultz rushed from his college classes at West Virginia State College near Charleston to the blast site. He said,”I worked in that mine all summer, and from what I know of it I’m certain some will come out alive.” The optimistic hoped some of the men would barricade themselves in “rooms” off the main entry to hold out until a rescue team could reach them. William’s father and uncle died in the blast.
As dawn approached, four bodies had been located. Roy Evans was the first body discovered. Later, Roy “Red” Hyatt, Charlie Moffitt, and an unidentified man were found. Hope was fading for the other entombed miners.
Officials first set the number of victims at ninety-two. P. B. Atwell didn’t know that his name was on the list of those who were believed to be dead until Sunday. The paper issued a corrected list of the names of the dead. They had listed him as P.D. Atwell. By a quirk of fate, Atwell, a young single man, reported for work that fated day only to find no loading checks on the board for him. Assuming there was no work for him that day he returned home. After reading the paper, he appeared in person before mine officials to prove he was very much alive. He was scheduled to work in Main 6 which was the center of the blast.
Forty years after the mine disaster, Homer Barnett of English still vividly remembers that day. He was a thirty-eight-year-old coal-cutter at the mine who worked the evening shift. Preparing to enter the mine, he heard the explosion, and watched in horror as the lids on the ventilation fans blew off. Barnett said some of the men were found in a crouched position. Rigor mortis had set in, and we didn’t want the family to see them like that. So, we broke their legs in order to put them on a stretcher
Evidence proved most of the men died instantly. However, at least one of the victims lived long enough to pen a farewell note to his wife. The note was written on paper torn form a rock dust sack, folded carefully, and placed in his hard-hat. Ernest Hoops note read: “If we don’t make it out, darling wife, please take my body down home and have Rev. Spears to preach my funeral. Ernest” His remains were taken to his hometown in Jackson, Ohio. Rev. George Spears who preached his funeral was working in another part of the mine, and was one of the forty-seven men who escaped death.
Some of the bodies were buried under slate, and it took several days to recover them. Each body was then carried to the bottom and laid out side by side. No one was brought to the top until all the men were recovered, so decomposition had set in and bodies had to be sprayed continuously with formaldehyde. Each rescue man carried a can, but the spaying did not fend off the odors. Five days after the blast all the bodies were removed by ambulances to a temporary morgue in Welch and additional morticians were brought in to prepare them for burial. Caskets were lined up everywhere as people stumbled through the line to claim their loved-ones. Jack Tickle’s, Uncle Kent Sutphin admonished a director who was trying to rush the people along. He told him that these were human-beings and needed time. There was no mass funeral. Each family planned separate funerals. The majority of interments were in Iaeger Memorial Cemetery near Roderfield. However, so many were laid to rest on the same day it appeared to be one big, mass funeral.
Joe Tickle grew up on a farm in White Plains, North Carolina in a family of ten children. Joe’s father was an abusive alcoholic who worked hard, but had little to show for his effort. In his early teens Joe’s mother died, and his father farmed all the children out to anyone who would take them in. At age sixteen, Joe stole a car and headed for the West Virginia coalfields hoping to find employment. He made it as far as the state of Virginia where he made a quick stop. He looked out the window, and saw a policeman checking out the car. Joe escaped out the back door, and thumbed the rest of the way to Coalwood, West Virginia. A cousin, Fred Tickle helped him find employment in the mine where he worked.
Joe married Gladys Salyers, whose mother ran the boarding house in Coalwood. By 1938 Joe had moved his wife and three children, Phyllis, Ronald, and Jack to Bartley Hollow where he was employed by Bartley No. 1 mine. In August of that year Gladys gave birth to their last child, Allen. They lived in a company house with no electricity or indoor water or plumbing. Joe’s, stepfather, John Coldiron helped with the recovery of the miners. He was the one who found Joe’s body, and said a timber was blown completely through Joe’s badly burned body.
The Tickle family lived about a mile up Bartley Hollow. Jack said shortly after his dad’s death he was riding a sled with his sister when an elderly colored lady called out to them asking if they were Joe Tickle’s kids. When they said yes, she invited them in for hot chocolate. Jack was only three, but his sister remembers the ladies house being the warmest, cleanest house she had ever been in. The lady said she always knew when their dad passed by her house on his way to work, because he was always whistling. Shortly after that, Gladys Tickle settled with the company for one-thousand-dollars, bought a new Chevrolet, and moved the family to English.
Jack Tickle’s grandmother, Beth Sturgill first married John Salyers, but the marriage didn’t work out. After her marriage fell apart she moved from Lousia, Kentucky to Coalwood where she ran a boarding house. In the 1920’s Beth came down with the deadly flu that killed many people, and a boarder, John Coldiron helped nurse her back to health. They later married, and moved to English. Most of his life, Jack’s step-grandfather was fondly referred to as “Uncle Jack.” John worked at the Bartley Mine when the explosion occurred, but was not working that day. They lived frugally having only the bare necessities. His grandmother kept an old black purse hanging on a hall tree behind the bedroom door that held a small silk change purse. She always had a quarter or fifty cents for us. For twenty-five cents Jack said they would catch a movie and buy popcorn and pop. Jack has his grandmother’s silk purse that held the change that gave him so much pleasure.
A newspaper account stated that thousands of dollars would be paid out by the State Compensation Commission from their fund with the coal company bearing the brunt of the expenses over a long period of time. At that time, under West Virginia law the maximum judgement to be obtained in case of accidental death was ten-thousand-dollars. Based on previous cases the article said each death as a result of the Bartley Mine explosion would cost five to six-thousand-dollars with beneficiaries receiving the full benefits. However, it is doubtful any of the victims loved ones sought the advice of an attorney.
The United Mine Workers of America erected a granite monument with all the men’s names that perished in the Bartley Mine inscribed upon it. It was first located at Atwell Park, but in the 50’s the park began to deteriorate. So, it was moved near the Bartley Methodist Church where it still stands today. Jack Tickle is standing beside a marker near the explosion site. Bartley is located on Dry Fork about a mile west of English, and was closed and sealed up long ago.
Bonnie Ethel Kesterson worked at the White Springs Hotel. Her wedding to Jasper White was held at the hotel. They were the parents of nine children: J.T., Virginia, Alma Lucille, Norman Randolph, Clifford Lee, Charles Robert “Bob,” Lola Joan, Frederick E., and Charlie John.
Jasper White served in World War I. All six of his sons entered the service. Charlie John, Norman and Bob joined the US Navy, Clifford and J. T. the Army and Fred the Air Force. Fred, Norman,and Clifford served their twenty years, and received a military pension. Bob doesn’t think of his family as being patriotic. He said “I believe that mostly, we just wanted to get out of those damn mountains and see what else was beyond those hills. After high school, we had a choice of working in the mines if they were hiring, or joining the service with hopes of learning something about the outside world.”
Jasper White was the last body to be recovered. When they picked him up to place him on a stretcher, he was in such an advanced stage of decomposition one of his arms came off. Bonnie did not sleep for five days waiting for news of her husband. She sat in a chair staring at the wall. She did not weep or eat. When news came that they had found his body she went to bed. She later lost the son she was carrying.
Bonnie lived through so much grief in her lifetime. Her daughter, Lola drown in a creek behind their house when she was four-years-old. She lost Lucille in the school bus wreck only three months before her husband was killed. After the death of Jasper a seer read Bonnie’s palm. She told her that she’d had a hard life and had lost many loved ones. She said she’d never have to witness another death in her family. She never did. However, four of her sons have died since Bonnie’s death in 1964. Virginia, Bob and Fred are still living.
According to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, nothing was overlooked by the coal company in caring for the families of the dead. When payday rolled around the Company delievered the fallen men’s paychecks to the widows or beneficiaries. It was said food and other necessities were distributed regularly and generously. However, the Jasper White’s family received an eviction notice soon after his death stating his widow did not have a family member working for the company, and was no longer authorized to live in the company house at Bartley. It was a cold and inhumane thing to do. The Company needed housing for men who would replace the dead. Bonnie White had received a settlement from the Board of Education for the loss of her daughter, Lucille. She used the money to move the family to English. Her eighteen-year-old son, J.T. joined the Army and made a thirty-dollar allotment to help out. Bonnie took in “boarders” to make ends meet.
Clifford, Jasper, Bonnie holding Charles, Virginia, Norman leaning on his aunt, Lucille, & JT. An uncle and aunt standing in the background
An investigation was held from January 24 to February 2 by the Bureau of Mines. Ninety-one men died of burns, violence, and asphyxiation. They concluded the source of ignition was probably an electric arc. Rock dust had been applied over thick accumulations of coal dust, but back entries had not been treated, so coal dust was ignited causing a violent gas explosion. The Bureau of Mines ruled out smoking as the cause even though two cigarettes were found in a miner’s jacket pocket. Chief D. Harrington, of the Health and Safety Branch said it was unfortunate that smoking was ruled out as the original ignition. Smoking was strictly prohibited, and miners were searched before they entered the mines. Still, they smuggled cigarettes into the mine. Even though no matches or burned cigarettes were found in the Bartley Mine, Chief Harrington felt there was good reason to be suspicions. He asked for a formal inquest which was granted, but a conclusion was never reached.
Jack Tickle still lives in McDowell County. Occasionally he drives over to English where he grew up. He likes to walk slowly down those dusty roads so full of memories. There’s not much left of the town as he remembers it. Most of it has been burned down, torn down, or it is decayed beyond repair. Some people would wonder why he goes there. Jack said, “It is because of the friendly ghosts.”
English wasn’t a mining town, so many of the women made widows by the Bartley Mine explosion more than sixty years ago moved there when they were evicted from their company-owned houses. Like Jack, most of his friends were fatherless. “The people of English were simple folk of limited education, and modest achievements who set examples of goodness for me that still blesses me today,” Jack said. He often wonders what his life would have been like if not for those loving people. Most of them have been dead for years so he can’t express to them what is in his heart.
So, that is why Jack sometimes drives over to English to visit his “friendly ghosts.”
LIST OF THE NINTY-ONE VICTIMS
|Thomas Claude Anders||40||wife and 5 children|
|Concetto Avanzato**||63||wife and 4 children|
|Alonza Barnett||37||wife and 4 children|
|M.L. Beavers||47||wife and 6 children|
|Will Benjamin*||45||wife and 4 children|
|Hobert Branscome||34||wife and 4 children|
|Peyton Crockett Branscome||36||wife and 2 children|
|Willie Busbee||26||wife and 2 children|
|Ernest Cole||27||wife and 1 child|
|Jessie L. Cox||?||?|
|Millard Stanley Crisp||25||single|
|William Albert Crouse||?||?|
|Chester Davidson||29||wife and 1 child|
|Judy Donald Dixon||?||?|
|Roy H. Evans||41||wife and 4 children|
|Earl Claude Fletcher||25||wife|
|Lee R. Flood||?||?|
|Sanders Fultz*||45||wife and 2 children|
|Malcom Garner, Sr.||45||wife and 8 children|
|Malcom Garner, Jr.||20||single|
|William Arvel Garner||25||wife|
|Garland Woodrow Griffith||?||?|
|Lee Hall||45||wife and 2 children|
|William Handy||39||wife and 5 children|
|Ernest Harlow||31||wife and 5 children|
|Felix Harper*||40||wife and 5 children|
|Crumbly Hess||27||wife and 3 children|
|Dexter Hess||21||wife and 1 child|
|John Hess||30||wife and 4 children|
|Ernest W. Hoops||41||wife and 5 children|
|Roy C. Hyatt||32||wife and 4 children|
|Newton Keene||55||wife and 9 children|
|James Kester||35||wife and 1 child|
|Mike Lazar||53||wife and 3 children|
|Luther Lester||35||wife and 2 children|
|Autice Littleton||32||wife and 2 children|
|John H. McGlothin||?||?|
|Wash McGlothin||27||wife and 2 children|
|Gilmer Floyd Meade||25||wife and 1 child|
|James Emmett Meggison||31||wife and 4 children|
|Mitchell Levi Mercer||?||?|
|Marion Garfield Mills||29||wife and 1 child|
|Virgil Mills||28||wife and 2 children|
|James V. Mitchell||?||?|
|Charles Mullins (son)||20||single|
|Marion Mullins (father)||45||wife and 4 children|
|William Robert O’Quinn||25||single|
|Clev Owens||35||wife and 7 children|
|Clarence W. Perkins||37||wife and 1 child|
|Thomas Howard Pruitt||?||?|
|Miles Ray||31||wife and 5 children|
|Tazewell E. Sigmon||39||wife and 2 children|
|William C. Simpkins||?||?|
|Lee Smith||36||wife and 4 children|
|Alfred Sparks||29||wife and 2 children|
|Gentry L. Spence||43||wife and 5 children|
|C.C. Stair||57||wife and 7 children|
|Claude Stiltner||19||wife – married 6 months|
|Joe Tickle||30||wife and 4 children|
|Harry S. Underwood||?||?|
|James Robert Underwood||25||wife and 2 children|
|Robert L. Vance||?||?|
|Tommy Wallace||30||wife and 4 children|
|Ernest E. Waters||26||wife and 3 children|
|William Pershins Wheeling||22||single|
|JasperWhite||47||wife and 8 children|
|Carlos Whited||23||wife and 2 children|
|James H. Wingo||28||wife|
|Charles G. Wyatt||?||?|
|Robert York||?||wife and 3 children|
** Concetto Avanzato is also listed as Jim Vance. It was common for immigrants with hard to pronounce names to Amercanize their names.
* A list of negro men who died. Victims names were often listed under nationality when huge mine disasters occurred.
Source: Information sent to me by Archivist Jane DeMarchi who is employed by the Beckley, WV Mine Safety and Health Administration. The Bluefield Dailey Telegraph newspaper. Book by Lacy A. Dillon called They Died In The Darkness. Special thanks to Jack Tickle and Fred White who shared their memories and pictures. Also thanks to Bob and Virginia White. – Dolores Riggs Davis