The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Crane Creek Washout At Pinnacle Mine

By Ernest F. Reynolds © 1989

Issue: February, 1989

During the spring rains of 1925, the streams were loaded to capacity with the usual debris and winter ice. In the Pinnacle coal camp on Crane Creek, in the McComas area, of Mercer County, West Virginia, the water became trapped behind a huge mountain of mine waste known as a bone pile. When the mountain moved, it swallowed seventeen family homes.

At about nine o'clock at night the local telegrapher intercepted a message on his railroad wire "Send help, all houses destroyed, all believed dead, looting." The agent read aloud in the Justice of the Peace's office, assembly center of lawmen in the hills.

My papa, W. S. "Bill" Reynolds, a deputy sheriff of three months standing and Charles William James Walker, the first white man born in Matoaka were there. Pa and CWJ Walker were arch enemies. It was quickly decided that the new deputy was obliged to go. The wire implied urgency.

As Papa suited up for the wild ride, through dark mountain gaps, across a red-dog road, and hazardous streams, his old enemy came forward. He was a commanding old gent, of nigh eighty years, six-feet, seven-inches from ground to scalp, and his snow-white mustachio equaled the spread of a long-horn steer's rack. He put both arms around my Pa and said, "Bill, we may never meet on this earth again, but I want you to have every chance of reaching there safely."

Buckling his yellow slicker, and opening the buttoned vent that permitted it coming down over the pillion to keep a horseman's back and legs dry, Papa answered, "Charles, I hope to discuss this again, duty calls."

Before Pa had time to mount, the Great White Father of our town unhitched his huge roan gelding and said, "Bill, take my horse, he's sure footed, he can see in the dark, and he's trained to stay with his rider. He will ford or swim any stream you head him into." It was Pa's turn to hug someone and he did, amid shouts and jeers from pigs, stool pigeons, and the toothless old gaffer who fired the jail's stove in exchange for his lodging.

There was no word from Pa for several days. Many feared that he was lost to the swirling waters which were long in receding. I cut my fourth grade class, kept watch with the hangers-on at the jail-office. Mr. Walker put his boney hands under my arms and elevated me to the stocks, where offenders received their traveling music. "When you hear Old Roan's hoof beat, you'll see your Pa; Old Roan won't come back without him," he said, pointing schoolward.

Next morning my Mommy shook me, saying, "Time for school, don't wake your Pa, he's all tuckered out. That roan horse will rouse him if it's not tied t'other side the barn."

Eight years later my younger sister came home agog. A new girl in her school room, the young lady had been the sole survivor of the Pinnacle disaster on Crane Creek, back in 1925. Drucilla Burge finished high school at Matoaka, and became the wife of Ernest Ratcliff, distributor of Rock Cliff Ginger Ale, Rock, West Virginia.

In lawsuits resulting from the Buffalo Creek Disaster in Logan County, West Virginia, in the late '60's the search for incidents to equate the moving waste piles by floodwalls found only one: The Crane Creek washout at Pinnacle Mine.

Last week in the "Bluefield Daily Telegraph", an old friend surfaced. She said that in sixty years, she had heard no good word about her forebears, the miners. I found that Drucilla Burge and Jean Donahue were in the same High School class, and more. Jean had emigrated to Harlan, Kentucky.

The same Jean Donahue had lived in more than twenty world capitals. She taught school in Bartley when that West Virginia mine explosion snuffed out the life of more than sixty bread winners. Throughout the world are the progeny of half a million mountain people, whose life was not all butter churns and pound cake. Am I the only voice of these forgotten children?