Boiler explosion

A boiler in a locomotive hauling mine workers at McDunn in Fayette County exploded in the early morning hours, resulting in the death of eighteen miners.

Dec. 27, 1934, — A boiler in a locomotive hauling mine workers at McDunn in Fayette County exploded in the early morning hours, resulting in the death of eighteen miners. The Koppers Coal Company ‘s subsidiary, the Elkhorn Piney Coal Mining Company, was hauling a four-coach train to Mine No. 5 of the Koppers Coal Company where the miners worked with nearly 350 men on board. It puffed into the little town of McDunn, miners talking and laughing as they waited for the locomotive to gain stream for the upward climb when suddenly there was a big explosion and “the front of the locomotive was thrown in to the coach.” A minute later, another explosion caused the coach to be torn to pieces according to accounts at the time. The huge boiler flew high in the air, turned over and crashed on the top of the wooden car. It literally tore away the roof and one side, crumbling through the straw-matting seats. Ambulances and private cars from the entire section, from all the mine towns scattered along Armstrong Creek, were pressed into service to carry the injured to a Montgomery hospital. Terrific force of the blast killed some. Others were scalded to death as live steam roared into the coaches. Mangled beneath a locomotive boiler that exploded and crashed through the car in which they were riding, 16 men were instantly killed at Powellton with two passing away from injuries they received later on. Representatives of the Interstate Commerce Commission, after investigating the explosion of the boiler, reported that “an overheated crown sheet on account of low water” caused the blast. Three inspectors for the Bureau of Locomotives of the commission said that a formal report to that effect was to be submitted to the chief of the bureau in Washington.

Dec. 28, 1972 — The John Henry statue at Talcott, commemorating the “steel drivin’ man” who participated in the construction of the Big Bend railroad tunnel, was erected. Immortalized in song and the story passing on as legend, it was work on the C&O, at the Great Bend Tunnel in Summers County, that made John Henry a West Virginia folk hero. His fame rests on a single epic moment when he raced the steam drill during the building of a West Virginia railroad tunnel. That moment has captured the imagination of balladeers and storytellers for the last century, and in their songs and tales they have woven for John Henry a whole life. He worked between 1870 and 1872 as a hammer man or steel driver during construction of the Big Bend (or Great Bend) Tunnel, on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad near the Greenbrier River in Summers County. These men used sledge hammers to drive long steel bits into treacherous red shale to bore the holes for the explosives that would open the tunnel. Capt. W. R. Johnson, contractor for Big Bend, hoped to import the Burleigh Steam Drill to replace human steel drivers. He may have organized a contest between the drill and his best human driver. Declaring, ‘‘A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,’’ John Henry took up the challenge. He won the race, but overexerted himself and died. Over 100 years later, thanks to the efforts of the Talcott Hilldale Ruritan Club and many others, after many delays and obstacles encountered, the 750 pound bronze statute of the legendary steel drivin’ man arrived in Hinton late Monday afternoon from Michigan without fanfare or advance notice to the press on a trailer in the custody of the sculptor Charles O. Cooper. A mobile crane furnished by the Chessie Lines was used to lift the eight-foot statue on to a flat car, and the special train made the run from Hinton to Talcott through Big Ben Tunel, and stopped at the east portal. The statue was lifted from the flat car onto a truck, and made the trip up route 20 where the crane lifted the statue onto the stone pedestal that had been waiting at the overlook. In 2012 the statue was restored and relocated closer to the tunnel entrance as part of the future John Henry Historical Park in Talcott. The park will celebrate the legend of John Henry and local railroad history.

Dec. 29, 1861 — The town of Sutton was burned by Confederate raiders. The Civil War is often referred to as a struggle of “brother against brother” and “neighbor against neighbor.” Nothing better illustrates this than the burning of Sutton in 1861. Braxton County was sparsely populated at the outbreak of the Civil War but presence of the Weston and Gauley Bridge Turnpike made Sutton an important military crossroads. Union troops occupied Sutton during the early months of the war. But they fled December 29, when Captain John Sprigg led about 100 Confederates to a hill overlooking Sutton. Convinced they were outnumbered, the larger Union force evacuated. Because Captain Sprigg lived just north of Sutton, a false sense of security fell over the town. Sprigg took some of his men to pursue the retreating northern troops and left Jack Tuning in charge of the remaining soldiers. Tuning and his brothers Al and Fred, who were also from the area, tried to extort money from the townspeople. When they refused, the Tunings set fire to a frame house. As the flames spread quickly to other buildings, John Camden, a hotel proprietor and southern sympathizer, pleaded with Tuning to stop the destruction to no avail. Finally, Sprigg returned to town and ordered his men to put out the fire. The Confederates had to dash from Sutton after 400 Union troops from Summersville began pursuing. After an argument over strategy, Sprigg and Tuning split up their forces in Webster County. Sprigg’s men were defeated in a skirmish near present-day Cowen. However, Tuning’s Rangers escaped and continued to terrorize Union troops and northern supporters for the next two years. Considered the scourge of central West Virginia, a bounty was placed on the Tunings. Two of the brothers were gunned down in 1864 but the leader, Jack Tuning, was never killed or captured. Guerrilla raiders such as Jack Tuning’s men operated thoughout West Virginia but were most active in regions where loyalties were divided, such as Roane, Calhoun, Gilmer, Braxton, Webster, and Pocahontas counties.

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