By Mary Frances Mcspadden © 1988
Issue: December, 1988
Christmas comes and goes one year after another, and for different reasons some are more memorable than others. White Christmases seem particularly memorable for people who live in regions where December snowfalls occur more often than rarely, but less often than always. Southwest Virginia is such a region. Most longtime residents of Southwest Virginia can remember the specific years when snow graced their Yuletide Season and they will agree that the snow added a special something to their holiday cheer.
On December 24, 1924, the residents of a small Southwestern Virginia community, called Palmertown, were dreaming of a white Christmas. Dreams of a white Christmas were particularly legitimated that year by the weather conditions, cloudy, cold and near 28 degrees.
As darkness fell upon Palmertown, residents were merrily engaging in their respective holiday activities. Some were settling in for an evening of family fellowship while others had gone to various festivities in Saltville, about a half mile away. At 8:00 pm, a white Christmas came to Palmertown with stunning velocity. While this white Christmas is memorable, exceedingly memorable, the memory is not one which Palmertown residents could ever cherish. In fact, memories of the white Christmas of 1924 were, and are, for Palmertown residents, regrettably unforgettable and painfully haunting.
The cause for such a lamentable memory of woe can be summed up in one word, "muck." The white blanket which covered the Palmertown country side was not snow, but a thick tenacious substance of causticity consisting of the residue of 16 years worth of accumulated alkaline waste. Since 1908, the viscous refuse had been deposited behind a makeshift dam built by the Mathieson Alkali Works. The wall of the dam was, technically, nothing more than a solidified version of the liquid which it retained.
According to Saltville historian, William B. Kent (1955-69), "the retaining wall had gradually heightened without the proper thickness until a great volume of immense tonnage was retained by an inadequate shell." That restraint came to an end on December 24, 1924, when the wall of the dam collapsed, allowing a 100 foot high, 300 foot wide, and 30 acre volume of demonic fury to spew forth, inundating the community of Palmertown below. The substance which comprised the deadly white wave had always been referred to by Mathieson employees and local residents as "muck." The dam itself had informally been christened the Muck Dam. Hence, Christmas 1924 has come to be known as the date of the Muck Dam Disaster.
Prior to giving a descriptive account of the disaster, based on newspaper articles and personal interviews, it is necessary to review some of the local history of Palmertown and its surrounding area. Along with Henrytown, Allison's Gap and Chinch Row, Palmertown was actually a suburb of Saltville. Most residents of this suburbia usually referred to the entire area as Saltville.
Saltville was, and is, located in the heart of Southwest Virginia. Nestled among the foothills of the Clinch Mountain Range, the town is positioned in a valley which came to bear the name of its patron town. Hence, the Saltville Valley came to be the geographical designation of the area. In recent years, the valley is more commonly known as Rich Valley. At any rate, the valley is laterally traversed by the North Fork of the Holston River.
"The geological formation of the Saltville Valley is what may be termed a synclinal of calcareous stratification or in simpler terms, a cradle of limestone layers, in which rock salt has accumulated from the evaporation of salt brine." Subterranean water, flowing through the salt laden strata of limestone, has often surfaced in and around the Saltville Valley. "As late as 1800, the lower half of the valley was a lake in which poured both salt and fresh water." On one bank of the lake, salt encrustation's were known to have accumulated. The deposits served as a popular salt lick for animals and provided Indians of the region with a convenient source of meat preservative. This natural abundance of salt earned the area an evolving array of names, among which were Buffalo Lick, Little Lick, Salt Lick, Salt Works, and finally Saltville.
The earliest human ingenuity put to work for salt recovery in the Saltville Valley came in the late 1700's when several enterprising individuals dug wells and tapped into various salt water springs flowing within the water table underneath the valley. In the early 1800's, William King introduced industrial technology to the region and steam-operated pumps began functioning to pump salt brine out of the wells.
By the 1880's, a railroad had been built through the Saltville Valley. The presence of rail, river, and natural resources elevated the Saltville region into prominence as a feasible area for extensive industrialization. This feasibility culminated as reality in 1893 when a merger of American money and British technology eventuated in the establishment of the Mathieson Alkali Works. Relying upon abundant natural deposits of salt as the primary raw material, the new corporation began producing bicarbonate of soda under the brand name of "Eagle Thissel."
Throughout almost eight decades of production and three corporate name changes (Mathieson Chemical Corporation in 1848 and Olin-Mathieson Chemical Corporation in 1954) the plant progressively diversified becoming a primary manufacturer, not only of bicarbonate of soda, but also of soda ash, and caustic soda. While these materials were not ready consumer products, they were widely used as the base materials for the manufacturing of a host of consumer items such as medicine, glues, soap, textiles, paper and a variety of industrial chemical compounds.
Eventually the plant installed the technology necessary to produce a line of finished commodities including baking soda, bleaching powder, and dry ice. For the Saltville area, the Mathieson plant became the economic mainstay of life. Saltville was the Mathieson Alkali Works and the Mathieson Alkali Works was Saltville. The inseparableness of town and industry is aptly demonstrated in the slogan which both came to endorse - "Serving America With The Salt Of The Earth."
Description of the Saltville Valley
Due to the growth of Saltville and the demise of various towns and villages in and around the Saltville Valley, it is difficult to reconstruct an accurate picture of the area affected by the tragic events of December 24, 1924. A best estimate places Palmertown at the hub of a circle one to one and one-half miles in diameter. Within this circular area, all of the immediate impact of the disaster transpired.
Palmertown was located on the south bank of the North Fork of the Holston River. Straight across the river on the north bank was the Muck Dam into which the Mathieson plant pumped waste alkaline residue. Since the plant was located on the south bank of the river, one-quarter of a mile upstream from Palmertown, the muck had to be pumped across the river and downstream in large pipes.
Halfway between the Mathieson plant and Palmertown, also on the south side of the river, was a very small village called Chinch Row. This village consisted of a few rental boarding houses which belonged to the Mathieson plant. One-quarter to one-half mile, downstream from Palmertown, but on the north bank of the river, was Henrytown.
Saltville was the largest community in the valley. Located on the south bank of the river, Saltville was positioned one-half mile south and slightly right of Palmertown, Chinch Row and the Mathieson Alkali Works. Such was the appearance of the Saltville Valley in 1924.
Today the region has considerably changed. Saltville proper has extended its boundaries to the north side of the river, and upstream to the Mathieson plant, which is now closed. Henrytown still exists. Situated on the surface of the old alkaline reservoir, now a dried muck lake is a small unincorporated community called Perryville. The permanent closing of the Mathieson plant came in 1972 and 1973.
Due to the deep sense of community existing throughout the Saltville Valley, it can be safely said that the death list contained at least one acquaintance of every resident in Saltville. Hence, none were without a sense of loss and personal bereavement during that Christmas season. In addition, fourteen received emergency hospital treatment and many more treated themselves for minor cuts, bruises, abrasions, and skin irritations. This accumulation of human tragedy was further multiplied by the loss of personal and community property. Needless to say, no merry Christmas came to Saltville in 1924.
"All were unconscious, as were their forebears, of the huge black wall that faced the town [Palmertown] across the river and held in leash the ferocious monster that was so soon to destroy them. With demonic fury, at a few minutes past eight o'clock, it suddenly broke and a wave of muck nearly a hundred feet high and over three hundred feet wide swept into the river and over a hill and through the village, sweeping houses, barns, trees, and everything in its path, or else burying them to a great depth under its white slime. So great was the force of the bursting of the dam, backed up as it was by around thirty acres of muck and water, that great boulders weighing fifteen to twenty tons were hurled across the river and over the hill on the opposite side, a distance of over two hundred and fifty yards."
It was described as a "night of hysteria and heroics, followed by a day when Christmas was lost in disaster." However, much more than Christmas was lost in 1924. The accumulated loss of friends and loved ones, property, and peace of mind took a toll which defies calculation. No official population count of Palmertown seems to exist, but best estimates range from forty to sixty residents. While a considerable number of these residents, during Christmas 1924, were away visiting relatives, many visitors had come to Palmertown for the same reason - hence, more than replacing the number of missing holiday travelers. Whatever the count of those residing at Palmertown on that fateful Christmas Eve, it is quite certain that nineteen of that number lost their lives in the deluge.
"The whole landscape was covered with a thick coat of muck which gave an appearance not very unlike that of a great snow field. Houses stood halfway up in the white alkali; debris strewed the surface, while drowned animals were lying on every hand of what had once been a fine apple orchard; nothing remained except a few trees which were completely white-washed by the flying muck-spray to their topmost branches. Others could be seen farther down the bottom, dragged out by the roots as one might pull weeds from a garden. Huge masses of the wall of the dam, as large as a barn and tall as a church spire, stood where once had been the homes of men, while the great yawning gap of the dam itself, beyond the river, gave awe inspiring evidence of the death-dealing monster it had held in leash."
The greatest personal loss of property, at Palmertown, was sustained by J.H. Scott. His loss included "two barns, hay and grain supplies, a car, garage, a large apple orchard, a tenant house, and poultry house, not to mention his personal residence, as well as large tracts of prime farm land," poisoned by the causticity of the alkaline-laden muck.
Damage was not confined to Palmertown. While the greatest profusion of muck traversed the river to inundate Palmertown, two more waves took alternative routes. One wave literally went upstream. The resistance of the natural river current was not enough to prevent the muck from destroying the greater portion of Chinch Row, one-quarter of a mile upstream. No lives were lost, but the property damage was so severe that the entire community was permanently abandoned. A second wave of the muck did not immediately pursue its course. Instead, it accumulated in the river as if to produce a second Muck Dam. The accumulation grew to a proportion so large that the river began backing up.
A second wave of fear gripped Palmertown as the river began to rise. At the same time, Henrytown residents, about a quarter to a half mile downstream, evacuated their homes for higher ground as the growing mound of muck loomed like a dormant tidal wave waiting to unleash its fury. According to Eskridge (1924:11) about 3:00 am the obstruction collapsed due to the pressure of the river. The wave of muck dispersed itself gradually, so the river only momentarily ebbed just a foot or two beyond its normal banks.
Secondary Effects of the Muck Dam Disaster
Evidence was detected and effects of the disaster were felt as far away as Knoxville, Tennessee. In the December 30, 1924 edition of the Kingsport Times News, appeared an Associated Press article, entitled "Muck Dam Debris Reaches Knoxville." According to the article, the drastically increased alkalinity of the Holston River had doubled the alkalinity of the water on the Tennessee River. Knoxville health officials monitored the water conditions for several days in order to insure public safety.
In Kingsport, one hundred miles northeast of Knoxville and forty miles southwest of Saltville, more dramatic effects of the Saltville catastrophe were felt. In the December 28, 1924 edition of the Kingsport paper this appeared, "From the morning hours yesterday until toward nightfall, men and women occupied the banks of the stream [Holston] with their gigs taking in the thousands of fish unable to live in the alkaline waters. Just a few miles above Kingsport, at the Gate City Bridge, a pair of trucks are said to have been loaded down with the fish, blinded and suffocated by the alkali, and hauled to the Big Stone Gap Market. Country folks sought for a "mess" from the river banks, and the more industrious of them poled out over the white foamy water to get a greater catch. They had been told that the fish could be made "eatable" by a fresh water washing. The labor was not hard, for the object of their search was plentiful. Fish, thousands of catfish, redeyes, dogfish, and suckers, in all sizes, rewarded their efforts. The more fortunate of the gigging fishermen rejoiced over their catch; one man proudly boasted of a catfish of 41 pounds. And while aid societies and hundreds of people are seeking to alleviate the suffering in the flooded area, hundreds more are rejoicing over their catch and vie of the comparison of their reward.
Response to Disaster
When the people of Palmertown heard the great noise, many rushed to the doors or out into the streets, and some were killed outright by flying debris or swept off their feet by the torrent. Some thought the noise a great wind until they felt their houses moving downstream. The noise of the torrent, the crashing of wrecked buildings, and the screams of terror-stricken women and children made a scene that will always be remembered by those who escaped, as a horrible nightmare. The tide carried struggling bodies with it and their cries for help out of the darkness of the night was echoed from the mountains and cliffs that wall the river valley on either side."
At the community level, Christmas activities were totally abandoned and forgotten because the disaster demanded the development of a new priority of functions. This new priority was also responsible for the evacuation of the Mathieson plant and the theater in Saltville. Immediate concerns were reduced in priority because the disaster demanded attention. The new priority was the alleviation of acute trauma. This alleviation took the form of medical attention, survivor rescue, and body recovery. Immediate medical attention was indeed a first priority in the disaster zone. Cuts, bruises, abrasions, concussions, hypothermia, skin and eye burns and physical and emotional shock were the primary afflictions of the Palmertown survivors.
Disaster and Emergency Relief
Since no hospitals existed in the Saltville Valley in 1924, a temporary medical center was established in the upstairs lodge rooms located over the general store owned by the Mathieson Alkali Works. The Mathieson plant donated beds, chairs, food and various other supplies out of their store. Several doctors and nurses were called in to the disaster site to treat the injured. "Dr. Staley of Bristol, Dr. McKee of Plasterco, Dr. Hughs of North Holston, and Dr. Walcott of Clinchburg, assisted Dr. McKee and Dr. Early who were company physicians for the Mathieson plant" (Eskridge, 1924:12). "The nurses were as follows: Miss Wright of Marion, Miss Helen Wright of Abingdon, Miss Louise Wright of Saltville, Miss Shannon of Bristol, Miss Ross Turner of Smithfield, Miss K. Boyd of Saltville, and Mrs. J.H. Hamilton of Saltville". Carl Eskridge notes that "so many volunteered to help in the work at the clinic that some had to be turned away."
Survivor rescue also emerged as one of the primary needs of the hour. To meet that need, there was a glaring display of altruism, or "helping behavior" among Saltville residents. Of this behavior, Eskridge wrote, "Into the area of muck, men plunged, heedless of the imminent danger of another wave coming down and carrying them away. Onward they went, through the slimy, treacherous muck waist deep, disregarding the danger of being sucked down underneath or swept away by another wave." Later on in his work, Eskridge evaluates the display of courage and self-sacrificial behavior as a manifestation of "the spirit of Christian love."
Recovery of Bodies
One of the greatest difficulties that confronted the workers was the intense darkness made denser by fog and a slow drizzling rain. Lanterns were scarce and inadequate. The men fired some nearby shocks of fodder in one place, while in another; a wrecked house was set afire to give light. Bales of excelsior and cotton waste and many gallons of oil were rushed from the Mathieson Alkali Works store. These were put in place along the bank and ignited to give light to the searchers. If automobiles could have been brought close, their headlights would have aided in piercing the gloom, but the road to the place was destroyed by the flood, and prevented this. However, a few automobile headlights were brought later in the night and connected with storage batteries. As soon as daylight came Thursday morning, the search for the missing bodies was begun with renewed vigor. Men waded into the muck with long hooks probing the bottom or overturning wreckage in search for the dead.
By December 27, eleven of the nineteen victims had been found. The remaining eight were discovered over a course of four weeks. The recovery of these eight victims was prompted by the Mathieson plant's offer of $25.00 to anyone who found a body the rescuers had been unable to locate.
Due to the loss of loved ones, friends and personal property, individual and collective trauma persisted in a chronic way among Saltville residents for some time to come. Medical attention, survivor rescue and body recovery were only partially successful against the emotional scars that remained deeply etched into the memories of victims for years to come. Some relief from this chronic suffering was provided by an emergency rescue fund administrated by the American Red Cross. The first round of contributions totaled $2,865.00. Among these contributions were the Mathieson Alkali Works ($2,000.00); the Saltville Chapter of the American Red Cross ($250.00); the Lynn Commandery No. 9, Marion ($15.00); Mr. and Mrs. E.M. Allen ($350.00); and Mr. E.A. Hulte ($250.00), general manager of the Mathieson Alkali Works.
In addition to this financial help, the Mathieson Alkali Works offered extensive material help. New homes, furniture and clothing were provided for all those who had suffered a catastrophic loss of personal property. New garments were also donated to those who had ruined their clothing in the intensive rescue and recovery efforts.
In addition to this material aid came aid in the form of emotional support. Virginia Governor, Lee Trinkle, sent a telegram to Mr. E.A. Hulte, general manager of the Mathieson Alkali Works. The telegram read: "Accept my deepest regrets at the sad catastrophe at your plant. Please convey to the stricken families my sincere sympathy in their hour of need." In addition, the mayor of Glade Springs and the superintendent of state roads offered to make themselves and their resources available if called upon. On December 31, 1924, Saltville Mayor, M.S. Dunham, published a note thanking the people of Saltville for all their help in the recent disaster.
Determining The Cause
Perhaps the only thing left to consider is the cause of the Muck Dam Disaster. According to all sources, that is newspaper accounts and personal interviews, six theories have been offered over the years. Two of the reasons are based on several reports of an explosion heard about eight o'clock on the evening of the disaster. One theory is that a gas formed underneath the muck and exploded for some unknown reason. A second theory is that some misguided vagrant maliciously and intentionally planted explosives on the wall of the dam, either as a practical joke or as a way of taking out vengeance upon the Mathieson plant for some perceived act of injustice. Neither of these theories were ever very popular. More popular and more feasible theories speculate that the dam structure experienced a severe weakening as a result of heavy precipitation, accumulating gasses in the substructure, disturbances in the subterranean strata or stress fractures produced by years of consistently applied and consistently growing pressures exerted by megatons of "muck."
In the midst of all this theorizing, it is surprising that the finger of responsibility has never been pointed at the Mathieson plant. The disaster relief and service offered by Mathieson was, at least ostensibly speaking, voluntary. It apparently was not intended as a strategy to squelch bitterness and animosity which might have been harbored by area residents. In this day of intense concern over determining the parameters and jurisdictions of responsibility, it is difficult to imagine a disaster situation characterized by a seeming lack of concern for engaging in an aggressive inquiry regarding the negligence and/or guilt of potentially responsible parties. Perhaps it should be said here that determining responsibility has limited value from the angle of "hindsight."
Christmases have come and gone since the Muck Dam Disaster, so it is befitting and timely to recall those tragic events which transpired in the Saltville Valley on Christmas Eve, 1924. It was indeed a white Christmas, and it was most certainly memorable, but the memories are not ones which can be appreciated or cherished. Instead memories of Christmas 1924 bring white-knuckled grimace to the countenance of those living survivors whose homes, friends, and family were obliterated in the white wave of muck, which so ferociously intruded upon the Yuletide Season in Palmertown.
In closing, it should be noted that the reader of this disaster, who was and/or is separated from the tragedy by virtue of distance or by reason of youth, can walk away from the memory of his/her reading of the event until next Christmas, or until he/she decides to read it again. For some who were there and/or experienced loss related to the disaster, however, the memories are not so easily dispelled. On that October 21, 1984 personal interview with Mrs. Dorothy (Jackson) McCracken, whose mother and sister perished in the disaster as they were away from their family's Meadowview, Virginia home, visiting in Palmertown for the holiday, a distinct note of trauma can still be detected. Mrs. McCracken said, "I still think about it, not only at Christmas, but every night at 8:00 p.m."