By the time the waters were receding along the Ohio and Mississippi, the WPA had achieved near ubiquity across the country. Its rolls were down to 2.2 million in February, below the 1936 peak of 3-million-plus, but there was not a county in the United States that the agency had not touched in some way, and scarcely a possibility for work that had not been exploited.
WPA workers in Boston had made fish chowder for welfare recipients. New Hampshire’s WPA had started a medicinal herb farm where digitalis, lemon balm, peppermint, chamomile, and hyssop were among dozens of plants raised for sale to pharmaceutical companies. In Denver, WPA workers restored fabrics and jewelry found after the death of the notorious “Baby Doe” Tabor, widow of the Leadville, Colorado, mine king Horace Tabor, for display in a museum, thereby burnishing the legend of their affair, silver’s boom and bust, and the thirty-five years of impoverished widowhood she spent living in a shack outside Leadville’s Matchless Mine, which had given up its riches long before. Another legend was Bobby Jones, retired from golf after winning thirteen majors as an amateur, who was brought in by Hopkins as a course consultant; no fewer than 600 municipal golf courses were being built or improved with WPA labor in 1937. The WPA put stonemasons in Rochester, New York, back to work hand-cutting curbstones. In Skagit County, Washington, elders of the Swinomish Tribe were conceiving a plan under which the WPA would pay Indian wood carvers to depict the tribal history on a cedar totem pole. Gilford, New Hampshire, was ready to host an eastern ski jumping competition at a winter sports complex built by the WPA, and plans were under way in the upper Michigan town of Iron Mountain to build the world’s highest ski jump using WPA labor.
In the Appalachian foothills of eastern Ohio, burning necessity drove a project employing teams of coal miners assembled by the WPA. They were fighting a fire that had been raging underground for more than fifty years, consuming a vast fortune in coal. The fire at New Straitsville had defied all previous attempts to put it out.
New Straitsville told the hard story of American coal as well as any place in the country. Prospectors had discovered a “Great Vein” of bituminous coal running through the Hocking River Valley during the Civil War, coal so valuable it was referred to as “black diamonds.” In 1869 a speculator named John D. Martin rode through the valley with gold in his saddlebags, looking to buy land. He bought a few thousand acres south of the town of Straitsville, started mining operations, built a railroad spur to take the coal out, and New Straitsville took off. Other booms followed—iron ore in the late 1870s and oil after the turn of the century—but they were short-lived. It was always coal that was the town’s pride, and its chagrin.
Mining New Straitsville’s coal was child’s play, relatively speaking. It was soft and lay just below the surface of the hills. Strong men swinging pickaxes was all it took to get it out, and there were a lot of those. Men from mining regions in the British Isles—Welshmen, Irishmen, Englishmen, and Scots—came to work the veins, married, had children, and stayed on. The plentiful coal brought others, Germans, Italians, Scandinavians, eastern Europeans, and African-Americans. They inhabited not only New Straitsville but also Shawnee and other hamlets that were contained in a section known as Coal Township.
The Coal Township mines, as mines did elsewhere, exploited the miners who worked them. Hourly wages were unheard of. Men were paid for each ton of coal they dug, and veins that were easy to work paid less than ones that were hard. The miners lived in company houses and shopped at company stores, where they inevitably fell into debt for groceries and equipment. The stores were so profitable that mine owners brought in more miners than they needed, which meant less work for each miner and, as a consequence, more debt. For each man, every ten-hour day and six-day week involved a race to fill the tipple cars with coal faster than rent and groceries ate away his earnings, so that he would have something left at the end of the month.
Slumps in the economy, mild winters, the summer letup in the use of coal: all made this precarious existence worse. Owners paid the miners less when demand dropped and prices softened, but prices at the company stores stayed the same. The year 1884 began with a worsening recession. Owners cut the prices they paid miners from $1 a ton to 80 cents in March, then to 60 cents in June. The miners continued to work. But that October, when a crew of coal-smudged workers emerged from the number four shaft of the New Straitsville Coal Company, they were greeted by a sign that read, “Due to economic conditions, hereafter workers will be paid 40 cents per ton instead of 60 cents.”
The miners reacted with a wildcat strike that closed the mines around New Straitsville. A small minority, however, was bent on further action. A group of angry men—there were six of them, by most accounts—loaded mine cars with oil-soaked kindling, coal, and lumber, lit them with torches, and pushed them down the shafts at several of the mines.
Days passed before the underground fires were discovered. The frantic owners assembled mine crews who bulldozed dirt into the shafts, flooded them with water, and built clay firewalls called bradishes, but none of these measures worked. Soon the awful realization dawned that the fires could not be extinguished. The coal’s high quality and its accessibility, the very characteristics that created the town’s coal boom, kept them burning. Fed with air through mine tunnels, ventilation shafts, and innumerable surface fissures, the fires slowly ate away at New Straitsville’s “black diamonds” and the work of mining. By the 1920s, many areas were impossible to work because of smoke, heat, and poisonous gases called “black damp.” The workable mines that remained had to dodge the fire’s advance in order to find new seams of coal, but there were not enough of these to sustain the population. New Straitsville’s reliance on coal was largely over. Mining families packed up their households and left to search for jobs elsewhere, leaving empty houses and shuttered storefronts. New Straitsville had lost some 500 citizens between 1880 and 1920. It lost 500 more in the next ten years.
Of the fewer than 2,000 who remained, many found opportunity in Prohibition. The terrain around New Straitsville, with its deep woods, concealing hollows, and abandoned mineshafts, favored the making of moonshine whiskey, and the smoking hills provided cover of their own. Federal agents couldn’t be sure whether they were closing in on a bootlegger stoking the fire under his still or a plume rising from one of the underground fires through a crack in the earth. At the depths of the depression, when Prohibition was still in force, some 175 stills operated in the New Straitsville area. “Straitsville Special” rivaled bonded Canadian whiskey for popularity in Chicago speakeasies and was widely known for quality.
Although the moonshiners prospered during Prohibition, few others did. The town’s only bank closed its doors on December 17, 1930. Two brickmaking companies shut down, along with the A&P, two meat markets, a men’s clothing store, the citizen-owned cooperative store, and the drugstore. Only the oil companies, Ohio Oil and Gas, Chartiers Oil, Greendale Minerals, and Kachelmacher Oil, kept workers on the payroll.
The underground fires advanced through good times and bad. One winter’s day in 1933, the janitor at New Straitsville’s only school went to the basement to stoke the furnace. Before he pitched a shovelful of coal into the firebox, however, he realized the basement wall was heated from outside. The school straddled a coal seam that had been kindled by the heat of the furnace, and the students watched from their classroom windows as bulldozers arrived to tear away at the seam behind the school. Workers set dynamite blasts to break the seam, and the explosions hurled rocks against the back wall of the building.
Work crews were successful in quenching the school fire, but the main fires burned as before, creeping along the network of old mine tunnels. After Prohibition ended in December 1933, New Straitsville became less a haven for moonshiners than a magnet for the curious. People came from all around southeast Ohio on weekend outings. Ruth McKee, who lived in nearby New Lexington as a little girl, remembered riding to New Straitsville with her parents in their car. “You could tell when you were getting close,” she said. “You’d look out and see smoke coming out of holes in the ground.”
Even before the WPA, local and state officials had begged the federal government for help trying to put the fire out. The first response came in November 1934, when the U.S. Bureau of Mines sent its district engineer, Ralph M. Geiser, to New Straitsville to assess the possibilities. Geiser filed his report on November 23, and he was pessimistic. To one mine operator’s suggestion that the fire could be stopped by drilling holes into the burning coal and pumping water into them, he noted “the terrible expense.” Such an operation would take years of work and might never be completed, he wrote. And even if successful, “the amount of coal saved would be too small to even pay for a small percentage of the cost.” Geiser’s conclusion was to let it be: “I would recommend that the fire be allowed to burn its natural course. This might require several hundred years but at the present price of coal there is nothing that could be done profitably to either put the fire out or head it off.”
But by the time the WPA entered its second year in 1936, new thinking had emerged: if the fire couldn’t be extinguished, it could at least be isolated within the thirty-six-square-mile area where it now burned by cutting off the seams that extended to the west, northeast, and southeast. The last of these ran down the Hocking Valley all the way to the Ohio River, a path that exposed perhaps $1 billion worth of coal. Preserving that much coal plus work for several hundred miners made a strong case, and the allotments committee in Washington granted the project $360,000. Early that fall, Bureau of Mines engineer James Cavanaugh arrived from Pittsburgh to assemble crews and start the work. His first hire was Adam J. Laverty, a local mining expert, to supervise the project. When hiring was complete, 340 men stood ready, most of them ex-miners. They would receive the WPA’s pay rate for skilled labor in the New Straitsville region: $63 a month.
The WPA was already well established in the town by then. New Straitsville had never had a water or a sewer system. Cisterns fed water to the business section and the firehouse, but residents used wells and outhouses. Age and weather had rotted wood and rusted hinges, leaving the outdoor toilets tumbledown, and WPA workers had been replacing them with sanitary privies built of concrete, too solid for pranksters to tip over, with pitched roofs and ventilation. For the long term, the town was drawing plans for a water system free of acid-laced mine water that it hoped the WPA would be around long enough to build.
While Cavanaugh and Laverty were assembling their work crews, the WPA rented a downtown storefront, nailed up a sign designating it Uncle Sam’s Fire Rescue Station, and launched a round of first-aid courses. Fighting the fire was going to be dangerous. Experienced mine rescue crews would be standing by in case of cave-ins or explosions, but local students would make up a second rescue tier. WPA nurses and medical technicians taught them mine safety and rescue basics. Students bandaged their fellow trainees, strapped them to wooden splints with their heads braced, and learned resuscitation methods. The entire town was preparing to wage war against the fire.
On October 10, 1936, as Cavanaugh and Laverty and a group of town officials looked on, a worker at the controls of a large steam shovel broke the earth at a section west of town called Plummer Hill. The plan devised by the Bureau of Mines was to cut across the veins in the same way a firebreak is used to stop a forest fire, but using open trenches and tunnels instead of controlled burn. The miners would remove the coal and replace it with a non-flammable mixture of clay, mud, and rock. The engineers projected three of these firewalls, twenty-five feet thick and ranging in length from 525 feet to almost a mile and a half. When the fire reached them, so the thinking went, it would not be able to burn through to the coal on the other side. This approach had been tried before and failed, but new earthmoving and drilling machines increased the odds of success.
Plummer Hill was a desolate stretch of denuded hillocks west of town where the fire had parched the earth and stunted and killed most of the trees, and smoke boiled from cracks in the earth. Two families still lived there. Parts of David Rush’s farm had collapsed into pits excavated by the burning coal. The garden behind his house had gotten so hot from the approaching fire that potatoes baked in the ground. Still, these families felt a strong sense of attachment to their homes. The Rushes and the Willard Andrews family argued that they were used to the fire and didn’t want to move.
The Plummer Hill firewall, “Barrier C” in the Bureau of Mines firefighting plan, was designed to be the shortest of the barriers. The coal veins were shallow there, and the power shovels could attack from the surface. But the big machines left traces of coal and oil shale that only men with hand tools could remove, so through the Christmas season of 1936 and the winter of 1937, WPA mine crews followed the machines along the lengthening trench with picks and hand shovels, scouring it free of anything flammable. Other WPA workers sorted useable coal from the scrap and delivered it to families on relief.
The smoking hills, the destructive onslaught of the fire, its unquenchable force, and the danger of the work attracted nationwide publicity. The WPA’s information service had a juicy story, and the publicists peddled it adroitly, using fact laced with hyperbole: the fire had been an unstoppable monster. It already had destroyed some $50 million worth of coal and might destroy a billion dollars more if it broke into rich coal fields to the south. If that happened, only the Ohio River stood in the monster’s way. Fighting it involved both scientific ingenuity and the sweat and muscle of courageous men. “Theirs is a race against time to determine whether they can reach their objective before the flames eat up the remaining distance and leave their work for nought,” reported the St. Louis Star-Times on October 26, 1936.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Toledo News-Bee, the Dayton Daily News, the Columbus Dispatch, and the Charleston (West Virginia) Daily Mail all ran sensational picture spreads in early 1937. The stories polished local legends, such as that of the murderer on the gallows who was about to reveal the names of the miners who started the fire when the hangman silenced him forever. And they created new ones, such as the one about the farmer who was driving his horses home from pasture when a fiery crevice opened and swallowed his prize mare, roasting her alive. With each new article, more people within driving distance of New Straitsville got into their cars to have a look at what the Plain Dealer called “the ferocious fire demon.”
By the spring of 1937, men working three shifts around the clock had completed the Plummer Hill barrier and sealed it at each end with thick rock walls. The flames consuming the coal vein were fifty feet from the barrier in April when Cavanaugh proclaimed the fire “whipped” and turned his attention to the two remaining firestops.
These were deeper and more dangerous jobs. The barrier at Lost Run, to the southeast, would extend for a mile with several doglegs. To the northeast, near Shawnee, the miners would work 200 feet underground to build a firewall 1.4 miles long, also with several ninety-degree turns. The deep tunnels required extreme caution. Moving foot by foot and removing old timbers as they went to take away flammable material, the miners were creating the potential for collapses and cave-ins. Their safety equipment was limited and primitive. The gear included gas masks and oxygen packs that would let them work in the poisonous, methane-laden air, though these in themselves were risky—the packs, which they carried strapped to their backs, weighed thirty-six pounds, and the outfits included battery-powered headlamps from which a loose connection could spark an explosion in the volatile methane. The job to this point had been accident-free. To ward off the chance of a disaster, Cavanaugh and Laverty assembled rescue crews of five men each, equipped them with masks and oxygen, and directed them to stand by around the clock as the action moved to the new barriers.