Historic Mine Fire Marker Dedicated
Release Date: Jul 20, 2012
Wayne National Forest
Local historians, community members, and partners from New Straitsville, Ohio gathered on June 30th to dedicate an unusual historic marker on the Wayne National Forest. The state historic marker at the Upstream Rock Run Reclamation Site commemorates the phenomenal story of an underground coal mine fire set during the Great Hocking Valley Coal Strike in 1884. It has been burning for 128 years.
Wayne Archaeologists Ann Cramer and Chris Euler joined with partners from the New Straitsville History Group in the dedication. Molly Uline-Olmstead, representative from the Ohio Historical Society helped unveil the marker. Nate Schlater, Water Quality Specialist from the Monday Creek Watershed Restoration Group, also spoke about their accomplishments in partnership with the Forest in cleaning and reclaiming this mine-damaged watershed. The highlight was Ron Luce, Executive Director of the Athens County Historical Society, who reenacted Christopher Evans. Evans lived in New Straitsville for many years and helped create the United Mine Workers. He dedicated himself to organizing the union and he was in charge of the 1884 strike when the fire was set.
The fire was set by disgruntled striking coal miners in retaliation for months of oppression from the mine operators. The dispute centered on a reduction of miners’ wages from 70 to 60 cents per ton of coal extracted. Syndicate mines only increased the tension by importing hundreds of immigrant strikebreakers to keep their mines in business.
Spurred by the belief that if they couldn’t work no one should, a group of six men (unknown to this day) pushed burning mine cars into the mines from different locations around New Straitsville in October of 1884. Mine operators and others attempted to put out the fires and plug all fissures to no avail. They soon realized that it couldn’t be done because the coal seam became a perpetual fuel source. At times, the fire soared 100 feet in the air and could be seen for five miles. Years passed as the 12-14 foot coal vein burned and turned into ash. The ground collapsed under building foundations and roadbeds. Mine gases seeped into schools and homes making them unsafe. The fire heated the soil so much that roses bloomed in winter and potatoes baked in the ground.
Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” broadcast a radio report on the fire, holding a microphone into the crackling flames. Local landowners started tourism businesses, marketing “The World’s Greatest Mine Fire”. In the years after the fire started, New Straitsville became a renowned tourist destination. It was the subject of international news. Thousands of people flocked to this area and paid 25 cents to see the fire and its remarkable consequences: cooking eggs in a skillet held over a hot smoking opening, hot water being drawn out of residents’ wells and cisterns, subsidences that would swallow up houses, and the like. To this day, snow melts on the ground above where the fire burns and holes open and spew steam and smoke sometimes quite high in the air.
The Wayne National Forest purchased thousands of acres of abandoned mine lands in this area from the 1930s and now owns a significant portion of the underground fire. One of the locations where the fire was set is on the ridge slope just south of the Forest’s Upstream Rock Run Reclamation site. In addition to standard reclamation activities, a secondary goal of this project is to provide an educational and interpretive site where the public can visit to learn about reclamation, the Forest, and the history of the area. The Ohio Historical Society marker and interpretive kiosk is the first step towards the development of the Forest’s “Devastation to Destination” theme at this reclamation spot. Forest staff has seen that with reclamation this once devastated area is now a destination point for visitors.