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By Sam Perry
In addition to The Voice, one of the other newspapers that have served the people of McCreary County in the past was The McCreary County Record. This venerable newspaper proclaimed on its masthead that “we hew to the lines of truth . . . and let the chips fall where they may.” Whether it did, or not, is a matter of debate, but the proclamation on its masthead should be the hallmark of any newspaper and the guiding star for every reporter. Hewing to the lines of truth should also be the starting point for all professional historians.
In 1977, an eighty-seven year old coal miner named Ery West sat down with L.E. Perry, who was putting together his monumental McCREARY CONQUEST:A NARRATIVE HISTORY, and told this story:
“My first job was in the coal mines when I went to work for L.E. Bryant at the Bear Creek Coal Company. When Bryant opened up the Barthell mine with the Stearns Company, I went to that mine and I was working there when the explosion killed six men. I was the only survivor. That was in 1910 or 1912 I believe. There were only seven of us in the mine at the time, about a thousand feet from the drift mouth. We were shooting from the face and had just finished loading the holes. I remained behind to fire the fuses while the other six men were on the way out. I don’t know what actually happened but two of the men had been drinking. At first, I felt a slight shock or jarring sensation and I stepped back into a manhole beside the entry, thinking it might be a rockfall. About that time, there was a deafening roar and blasting wind, fire, and dust filled the mine, with flying brattice lumber, tools, and everything. It hit the face and the return blast was worse than the first. I was blinded by the dust, but I knew I had to get out of there fast or not at all. Holding my coat over my face and mouth, I groped my way toward the outside and as I did so, I stepped on the dead bodies of each of the other six men. There was nothing I could do and I just barely made it to the outside, more dead than alive. By that time, a crowd of men and women had gathered at the mine. When I was able, I went back inside to find the other miners. They had been killed instantly by the explosion. It was a dust explosion and I don’t know what set it off. I would have been killed, too, if I had been in the path of the blast. After that, I went to work for St. Mihiel Coal Company at Oz and I was working there when Stearns bought them out.”
The horrific event described by West took place in the early morning hours of February 9, 1910 at Mine #1, located at the Barthell coal camp on Roaring Paunch Creek in what, soon after, became McCreary County. It took the lives of six men: Fred Compton, Daily King, and two sets of brothers, Edward and Albert Thrasher, and Elihu and Richard Grundy. It was, by far, the worst mine accident to occur in the long history of the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company and was widely reported. A similar accident had taken place six years earlier, at the same mine, but, since the dead miners that time were all African-American, the incident was dismissed, out of hand.
On February 19, 1910, following an extensive investigation of the tragedy at Barthell by what, three months later, would become the U.S. Bureau of Mines, a report was filed by a mining engineer from Knoxville, Tennessee named J. J. Rutledge. In his report, Mr. Rutledge notes:
“About 6:00 P.M. Tuesday, February 8th, seven miners and a driver went into Mine No. 1 of the Stearns Coal Company, at Barthell, in Whitley County, Kentucky, to shoot coal for the following day and also to shoot slate shots. One of the miners and the driver left about 9:00 P.M., leaving the six miners still in the mine. At this time, four men were working in the 6th Left and two men in the Main Entry and Air Course. When about to leave the mine entrance, the driver heard a sound, but thought it was caused by a railroad train at the mine tipple nearby. About the same time, a miner passing along the railroad track near one of the crop openings, felt a shower of small stones and dirt fall upon him, but, assuming that it was caused by the railroad train shaking the ground, he did not investigate the matter. About 2:00 A.M., on the morning of the 9th, Compton’s wife awoke Field, who boarded with Compton’s family, and sent him into the mine to ascertain why Compton had not returned from the mine. Field found Compton’s and King’s bodies on the Main Entry, opposite the 6th Left, and also encountered the after-damp. The mine foreman, Mr. Reynolds, was aroused and a rescue party formed. After using canvas to brattice up the breakthroughs and restore the circulation of air, the bodies were all recovered by 7:00 A.M. of the 9th.”
Mr. Rutledge’s report is, obviously, at variance with the story told by Ery West. In simple terms, the two stories just don’t match. To an unbiased observer, however, some logical conclusions may be made about the apparent discrepancies. First, it is highly probable that the driver, whose name is not mentioned in Rutledge’s report, was Ery West. If so, he could not have been in the mine when the explosion occurred as he and another miner named Field had already left. Second, it is very likely that the interval of sixty-seven years clouded West’s memory of the incident. Perhaps, the aging process mixed things up a bit in his reasoning ability. Perhaps, he felt guilty for having survived a cataclysmic event that took the lives of his friends and co-workers. Perhaps, he came to believe what he wanted to believe. I have seen that happen many times when aging war veterans dodge incoming mortar rounds that were never there in real life. And, for historians and family genealogists, there is a lesson to be learned from stories such as that told by Ery West. Never take for granted anything you hear from Grandpa or Grandma without following it up with some old-fashioned investigative work yourself. For as much as we love our grandparents, there is always a chance that what they are telling you can be wrong.
Ery West was a hard-working, honorable man who believed that mining was a noble profession and that mine owners had an obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of their employees. Such sentiments did not sit well with the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company and when he became a supporter of the United Mine Workers of America, he was fired. With no more work available for him in the Stearns mines, he moved his family to Letcher County and found employment there. It was in Letcher County that he fathered a son, Bethel, whose record of public service would be hard to match by anyone.
In time, the entire family returned to McCreary County where their roots were strong and enduring. Ery retired and devoted himself to performing odd jobs for anyone who needed help. Although he readily admitted that his only true skill was in mining coal, he always promised that he would do the best he could at whatever task he undertook, and he always did. He never worked for the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company again, though. The bosses in the big office building on the hill just didn’t like his attitude.
In an ironic, and somewhat amusing, twist of fate, however, if one gets a hankering for some gourmet cooking, a trip to the Whistle Stop Restaurant in Stearns will satisfy the cravings of the pickiest of eaters. There, Master Chef Ryan West, great-grandson of Ery West, will fulfill all of your culinary desires.