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Hikers explore New River Gorge's island of death

CUNARD, W.Va. -- Shaded by old-growth beech and sycamore trees and home to three beaver ponds and a sunny beach that serves as a resting spot for passing whitewater paddlers, Red Ash Island is teeming with life -- but this tranquil 13-acre patch of land deep in the New River Gorge is also a resting place for the dead.

In the shadows of its high ground, dozens of graves can be found in the leaf litter and brush. Many are merely unmarked indentations in the loamy soil, while others are marked only with smooth, round river rocks. Formal engraved headstones can be found atop 16 graves that are being reclaimed by the island's forest.

National Park Service Ranger Reed Flinn, who led a group of hikers taking part in the New River Gorge National River's Hidden History program to the island last weekend -- three days before the park closed as part of the partial federal government shutdown -- said he first visited Red Ash several years ago to see the remnants of old-growth forest he'd read could be found there.

Flinn hiked to the site and admired the mature trees. "But when I saw all the indentations in the ground and the sandstone rocks that marked the fronts and backs of graves, it really piqued my interest in this place," he said. "I wanted to learn more about it."

What little has been written about Red Ash Island over the years mainly deals with tragedy.

A narrow slough separates the island from the shore of the New River and the nearby town sites of Red Ash and Fire Creek. When a smallpox epidemic swept through the New River Gorge and the 50 mining and railroad towns in it during the 1890s, health officials decided the unoccupied island naturally suited itself as a locale for a quarantine camp.

Three buildings were erected on the island -- one to house women and children, one for men and one for medical personnel.

"The smallpox victims who lived in 'pest houses' here had it better than people in other parts of the Gorge," Flinn told those taking part in the Hidden History hike. In one community, Flinn said, those suffering from the disease were loaded into boxcars equipped with cots and hauled to remote sidings, where they received minimal care.

Since the mortality rate for smallpox in the New River Gorge area in the late 1800s approached 30 percent, there was no shortage of bodies to inter. According to the text of a 2007 historic archeological study of the New River Gorge National River, "most were placed in graves marked only with fieldstone markers or in unmarked graves."

"It's hard to imagine what went through these peoples' minds as they were cast out of their communities and sent here," quite possibly to die, Flinn said.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the island's smallpox victims were joined by the dead from a pair of mining disasters.

On March 6, 1900, 46 coal miners were killed in a methane explosion at the nearby Red Ash Mine.

The night before the blast, the crew closing up the mine failed to close vent doors, allowing gas to build up in ceiling pockets in the drift mine. The following morning, the mine's fire boss was late to work, and the miners, who were paid by the ton and not by the hour, chose to begin working without the customary pre-shift safety inspection.

"The explosion happened as the men were going into the mine in groups, or in couples in some instances, and they were strung along in this manner for over a mile," according to a New York Times account of the disaster.

"A fireball shot from the mine and smoke poured out," Flinn said. "Some of the equipment that had been in the mine landed in the river more than 400 feet away."

Open flame from a miner's carbide headlamp might have sparked the explosion, according to the Times account.

Five years later, when the Red Ash Mine was connected underground with the adjacent Rush Run Mine, tragedy struck again.

On March 18, 1905, shortly after 9 p.m., a coal dust explosion -- apparently sparked by a mine car running over loose explosives on a section of track, according to a state mine inspector's report -- swept through both mines, killing five miners in each.

An auditor for the New River Smokeless Coal Co., which owned both mines, was taking a smoke break outside a company building at the time of the incident, and witnessed the blast.

"I hope never to see such a thing again," he wrote. "When I saw that awful sheet of flame belch forth from the mountain, I thought the world was coming to an end. The fire shot from the opening nearly across the river to the cliffs on the other side of the valley. It seemed like a volcano had opened up and was about to envelope us with flame."

About six hours after the 1905 explosion, a 14-man rescue team entered the mine complex, which had been accumulating gas because of the destruction of ventilation fans. The open-flame carbide lamps and lanterns used by the rescue squad set off a second blast, killing all of the would-be rescuers, and bringing the death toll for the day to 24.

Several victims from the two explosions are believed to account for some of the unmarked graves on Red Ash Island.

The Red Ash Mine, which opened in 1891, was the site of one of the region's first unionization drives. The Knights of Labor organized the site in 1893, in an attempt to improve wages and working conditions.

"The mines continued to operate into the 1930s," Flinn said. The most recent burials on the island date to the early 1940s, about the time one portion of the island was cleared to create a baseball diamond. By the 1950s, the town of Red Ash was abandoned.

"Thousands of rafters float past here every year, and no one knows this place is here," Flinn said.

The Brooklyn-Southside Trail, located on the former rail bed of the C&O Railroad's Southside Line, passes near the island and the town site of Red Ash, but there is no side trail leading to Red Ash Island.

Despite the island burial ground's remote locale, its presence is not completely unknown or forgotten.

Flinn and his wife, Megan, hiked to the island on one occasion and found someone had placed tea candles near some of the graves.

More than 900 people took part in this year's Hidden History Weekend hikes in the New River Gorge National River and Babcock, Pipestem, Hawks Nest and Little Beaver state parks.

"At one time, there were 50 towns in the New River Gorge," Flinn said. Because memories have faded since the towns were abandoned and reclaimed by second-growth forest, "the Hidden History program helps people find traces of the people who lived here and the places where they lived."

New River Gorge National River, along will all other units of the National Park Service, is closed because of the partial federal government shutdown.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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