Zack Harold

writer/editor

To the Dogs

This story was originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus.

When Sam Burdette first visited the Tri- State Greyhound Park in Cross Lanes in the mid-1980s, he didn’t even know how to read the program. The sheets of paper were filled with an overwhelming array of fractions and decimals, arranged in almost indecipherable rows and columns. A buddy had to help him navigate—the strange figures were statistics for each dog in a race, detailing the animal’s weight, past race times, total number of races, and odds of winning, along with the names of the dog’s owner, kennel, and trainer.

Burdette caught on quick. He won $600 on a $60 bet that first night and started mulling a strategy to make some real money. He would use the race standings to figure out which kennels had the most successful dogs, and then bet only on dogs from those kennels. Burdette was a civil engineer, comfortable with crunching numbers. He started keeping a notebook, making hypothetical bets on races based on the handicapping numbers in the program. “Each day I’d tally it up and see if I was ahead or behind. I was approaching it from an analytical standpoint.”

The experiment ran for three months. By the end Burdette realized if he had used real money, he would be $200 behind. “I said, well, you can’t buy groceries with that. My object was to take money away from the racetrack, not leave it there,” he says. “To this day, I don’t bet.”

Instead, Burdette made what he considered a safer wager. After years of hopping from state to state with his job, he moved back home to West Virginia in 1997 to take care of his ailing mother and father. He retired from engineering and decided to start raising greyhounds. He had learned a lot about the industry during his brief stint as a pretend professional gambler, and he fell in love with the dogs.

It was more than the dogs, however. In 1990 the state legislature took a portion of greyhound wagering money and created the West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund. In addition to the purse money breeders received when their dogs placed in races, they would now get monthly checks from the state Racing Commission. The payout was determined by the amount of money in the fund and the number of points an owner’s dogs earned during races that month. The more dogs a breeder raised and raced, and the better those dogs performed, the larger the checks would be.

Successful breeders were soon receiving thousands of dollars each month from the fund. As a result, those breeders began doubling down on their investments. They started raising more dogs and taking out loans to expand their kennels. Out-of-state breeders began moving to West Virginia, even though they were required to live here for four years before receiving any money from the fund.

“That’s when I decided to start raising dogs,” says kennel operator Harvey Maupin. He grew up in Colorado, where his father raised and raced greyhounds. As he got older, Maupin began training dogs, and he came to West Virginia in 1988 to work as a dog trainer. He whelped his first few litters around 1995, raising the dogs in the backyard of his Cross Lanes home. He later purchased a farm in Red House in 2000. As his operation grew, he spent $140,000 to get a kennel at Tri-State, and about $100,000 for a partnership in a kennel at the Wheeling Island greyhound track. At one point, Maupin had 15 employees.

“Times were booming,” says Burdette, who is now president of the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association. “The Legislature had done something that actually worked. We had created a greyhound breeding industry. Wheeling was the number-one track in the United States. People were making a living at greyhound racing.”

But then the industry’s luck began to change. Nationwide interest in greyhound racing started declining. In 2001 there were greyhound tracks in 15 states around the country. West Virginia is now one of only seven states that continue to race dogs, and the sport has grown increasingly unpopular in this state as well.

A few things are to blame for this downturn in interest. Greyhound racing has faced increased scrutiny by animal rights groups like Grey2K, a Massachusetts-based organization that tracks reports of racing-related injuries and abuse. The group’s findings often gain media attention, which has helped turn many animal lovers away from the sport. But animal welfare concerns are not the biggest threat to the greyhound industry. The major declines in attendance and revenues have come from an enemy familiar to most industries—competition.

In early 1994 the West Virginia Legislature legalized video lottery terminals—better known as slot machines—at state greyhound tracks. By September the machines were up and running at both greyhound tracks. It seemed like a mutually beneficial move for racetracks and the racing industry. Tracks gained an additional revenue stream and, because of the way legislators crafted the law, greyhound breeders and kennel operators would be allowed to continue racing while also taking a 15 percent cut of video lottery money, which was added to race purses and the breeding development fund.

But over time, the slot machines that were supposed to help the greyhound industry began to overtake it. “People switched over from racing to slot machines. They and sit there in a trance and push that button,” Burdette says. He likes to joke—not incorrectly— that it used to take all night to lose $50 at the dog track. With a slot machine, it can take just a few minutes.

Competition only increased after the legislature legalized table games like blackjack, roulette, and craps in 2007. The racetracks began rebranding themselves accordingly. In 2008 both Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center and Tri-State Racetrack and Gaming Center changed their names. They are now Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and Mardi Gras Casino and Resort. Live racing had gone from the main attraction to just one more way to gamble and was losing customers in droves to the one-armed bandits.

In addition to the troubles at the racetrack, the greyhound industry has also faced repeated challenges from the statehouse. Every few years, it seems lawmakers take a look at the millions of dollars in subsidies dedicated to greyhound racing and usually decide that money could be better spent elsewhere. In 2001 the legislature put a cap on video lottery subsidies to greyhound racing, with revenues over that cap flowing into the state’s general revenue fund. In 2005 state lawmakers took another chunk of greyhound purse supplements to create the Workers Compensation Debt Reduction Fund. Then, last year, lawmakers again cut greyhound subsidies with the passage of a so-called “haircut bill,” which reduced money for purses and the development fund by 10 percent.

The Spectrum Report

Although it was clear the greyhound racing was suffering, no one had collected the evidence to prove it. So in 2014 the legislature ordered a $68,000 comprehensive study of the industry. The West Virginia Department of Revenue hired the New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming Group to conduct the study, and the completed report was presented to lawmakers in January 2015. The findings were discouraging.

Although West Virginia does not track attendance figures at greyhound tracks, the Spectrum report found live wagering on races fell by 55 percent between 2004 and 2013, from $35 million to $15.8 million. Researchers also found the greyhound industry now largely relies on video lottery and table games revenues for its purse awards. When purse supplements were first put in place at Mardi Gras in 1995, subsidies from slot machine revenues made up 49 percent of total purse awards. Four years later, slot machine subsidies made up 75 percent of purses. Now more than 95 percent of total purses come from video lottery and table games like blackjack and roulette.

The additional revenue still wasn’t enough to stem the decline in purses, however. As greyhound wagering has declined, slot machine and table game revenues have also fallen as new out-of-state casinos steal gamblers away from West Virginia. As a result, greyhound purse awards declined from $30 million in 2004 to about $18 million in 2013. Without the subsidies, last year’s purses would have been only about $900,000. Most of that purse money also goes to out-of-state greyhound owners. Only $2.6 million of the $11.7 million in purse awards paid at Wheeling Island in 2013 went to West Virginia owners, according to the Spectrum report.

As surprising as some of the findings were, the report only confirmed what many people—lawmakers, greyhound breeders, and track officials—already knew. “It’s not only decreasing in popularity, it’s dead,” says Danny Adkins, vice president of Mardi Gras’ parent company, Hartman & Tyner, Inc. And so, for the first time since greyhound racing came to West Virginia in 1976, lawmakers have started looking in earnest for a way out of the dog racing business.

Decoupling

Shutting down greyhound racing is not as easy as it sounds. Back when West Virginia legalized slot machines and table games, legislators included language in the bills requiring greyhound racing to continue alongside those other activities. Casinos never loved that idea. Adkins compares it to the government telling Ford Motor Company, “you can continue to build all the F-150s you want to build, as long as you build the Model T.”

But that’s the law. If racing stopped tomorrow, so would all other forms of gambling at the casinos, unless the legislature passed another law to decouple the activities. If and when that occurs, it will be very important for lawmakers to get the legislation absolutely right. West Virginia uses gambling revenues to fund lots of programs, from the PROMISE scholarship to senior centers, and also uses the money to pay off bonds for projects like the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in Charleston and Pullman Square in Huntington. Credit rating agencies would get pretty anxious if the state compromised one of its major revenue streams.

About a month into this year’s legislative session, state Senator Ron Stollings of Boone County introduced a bill crafted by the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association to create a “greyhound racing cessation program.” The bill would have put an end to greyhound racing in West Virginia by July 1, 2015—while also taking $37.5 million from the breeder development fund to bankroll a three-year-long buyout of the industry.

The breeders association previously put forward a bill in the House of Delegates to create a $75 million buyout, but that number didn’t sit well with lawmakers. The state Senate version was more conservative and included $1 million to cover administrative costs and handle adoptions of the greyhounds. The remaining $36.5 million would be distributed among greyhound owners in the state. Payouts would be determined by how many years an individual participated in the breeding development fund, how much money the breeder received from the fund, and how many greyhounds the breeder raised. Breeders who also operated racetrack kennels would be eligible for additional compensation.

Stollings, a Democratic member of the Senate Finance Committee, says he knows very little about greyhounds and did not expect the to bill pass, but he hoped it would spark conversations among his fellow lawmakers. “The writing’s on the wall. Obviously the profitability has gone south,” he says. “The idea was, let’s see if there is some way to have a graceful exit.” The bill was ultimately shoved to the side while lawmakers worked on more pressing issues, however.

For the first time in more than 80 years, Republicans were the majority party in the statehouse this session. To celebrate, the caucus took on an ambitious agenda. Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, a Republican from Putnam County, said his committee had more than 200 bills to consider over the 60-day session while also preparing the state’s 2016 budget.

Hall says his committee tried to look into the greyhound buyout but there was not enough time to adequately research the issue. “The lottery statute is very complicated and intertwined,” he says. “The unintended consequences of trying to unwind it in the last two weeks were massive.” As the clock struck midnight on March 14, bringing the 2015 regular legislative session to an end, the buyout bill was still stuck in committee.

Members of the Senate Finance Committee along with their counterparts in the House of Delegates will continue to examine the issue over the next year during legislative interim meetings. “I suspect by next legislative year, we’ll be somewhere with these decisions,” Hall says.

Burdette says members of his organization are well aware of the state of their industry. “As times change, as technology changes, they have to change their business model. If it’s no longer beneficial to have greyhound racing, fine.” But he is adamant a buyout should be included in the phase-out plan. The way Burdette and many members of his organization see it, all those purse subsidies and development fund money were a business agreement between breeders and the state. Breeders agreed to raise dogs and invest money in the industry while the state, through legislation, agreed it would make sure the dogs kept running. “We reinvested with the belief things were going to continue,” he says.

If the state should break its side of that perceived bargain, Burdette believes breeders deserve something in return. He says breeders need the cash to pay off loans and transition into other livelihoods. Maupin says the breeders association has discussed taking legal action against the state if racing ends without a buyout. “This is not a natural death. This is not just, ‘You’re a bad businessman,’” Maupin says. “They’re breaking their promise.”

But outside of the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association, there does not seem to be much support for a buyout. Adkins at Mardi Gras Casino calls the idea “absurd.” Hall says while Stollings’ bill became a “vehicle” for discussing the issue, the bill would never have passed as written. He says there’s not much appetite among Republicans for a buyout. “People took on a business risk when they got into this,” he says. While state subsidies might have enticed breeders to get into the business, Hall does not believe the state has a responsibility to help them get out. “A legislature in the past cannot bind a future legislature,” he says.

There is even a group of greyhound owners who do not believe a buyout is the correct course of action. Despite what lawmakers, track officials, and the breeders association say, the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association insists greyhound racing is still a moneymaking business and should be allowed to continue. “There are plenty of breeders—a lot of big breeders in West Virginia—who are profitable,” says board member Steve Sarras.

Sarras admits the industry isn’t what it used to be. In addition to racing at West Virginia tracks, he stays afloat by sending dogs to Arkansas and Florida to race. He has also tightened his belt at his kennel in Wheeling, eliminating some bonuses and limiting his six employees’ overtime pay. But Sarras says greyhound racing remains a viable enterprise. “Have our profits gone down? Yes. Can we still sustain as a business?” Sarras thinks so.

He says breeders who are pushing for a buyout are just looking for an easy way out of the business—a government-funded retirement plan. “In my opinion, they were just trying to get a handout at the expense of state taxpayers,” he says.

Naturally, Burdette and Maupin disagree. They allege breeders like Sarras and other members of his organization are only able to make money because they are the biggest fish in an evershrinking pond. “They want to keep it going because they’re the ones making the last little bit,” Maupin says.

But Burdette admits some smaller breeders—members of his own organization—also do not want to give up on racing just yet. They hope things will eventually get better, that wagering trends will turn around and the legislature will restore cuts to subsidies. “They hope against hope,” he says.

Maupin doesn’t want to stop racing, but says a buyout is better than a “starve out.” Times have gotten tight for him. He no longer raises greyhounds—the kennel on his big farm is empty. He let the kennel in Wheeling go in November 2013 and now leases dogs from a breeder in Wheeling to fill his kennel at Mardi Gras. When he couldn’t afford his trainer anymore, Maupin went back to training the dogs himself. Instead of 15 employees, he’s down to two. His 27-year-old stepson keeps asking to join the family business, but he refuses. “He keeps wanting to be in it and I’m like, ‘No. This is not going to last.’ I keep pushing him away.”

Instead of raising dogs, Burdette now spends most days substitute teaching for Kanawha County Schools. “After I got up to my neck, I stopped wading out,” he says. He has seven greyhounds left but is working to find them homes. Except one, Hickory. Burdette plans to keep him. Hickory only ran about 30 races before being forced into retirement by an ankle injury, but during that time earned more than $50,000. “He was a good running dog—and I just like him.”

Rumors surround Golden Horseshoe artifact

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Friday, May 7, 2010.

This morning, State Schools Superintendent Steve Paine will dub more than 200 West Virginia eighth-graders “knights and ladies of the Golden Horseshoe” for their knowledge of state history.

But there’s one question none of these adolescent history aces, or anybody else for that matter, can answer: Where did the silver sword, used for decades to knight students, come from?

There’s only one thing officials know for certain about this antique weapon.

“The sword is really old, I can tell you that,” said Regina Scotchie, the state Department of Education’s social studies coordinator.

“All the history that we have on where the sword came from is hearsay,” she said.

Scotchie said she heard a men’s club donated the piece years ago and that the current sword is the second in the Golden Horseshoe’s history, but has no proof that would substantiate either rumor.

The sword’s ornate scabbard features several images of the Crusades and an engraving that reads, “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.” There’s also a large, fanciful engraving that says “Howard S. Chenoweth” in an Old English font.

The pommel on the end of the sword is shaped like a knight’s helmet. The weapon’s cross-guard, which separates the blade from the grip, displays a sword and crown emblem.

The sword’s ivory grip features an “HC” engraving on one side – presumably for “Howard Chenoweth” – and a cross passing through a triangle on the other side.

The blade is stamped with a logo, “The M.C. Lilley & Company, Columbus, Ohio.” It also features several more Crusader scenes and an engraving that reads “memento mori” -“remember that you must die” in Latin – with a skull and crossbones.

Ron Ruble, owner of an online antique weapon shop (www.ruble-enterprises.com), said those markings indicate the sword once belonged to a Mason.

He said a sword was a standard-issued weapon until after the Civil War. Even a company’s musicians carried swords.

But following the war, Ruble said government officials realized a soldier’s sword was a “worthless piece of crap,” seldom used and extremely outdated in an age of long-range weapons like cannons and guns.

So the military stopped ordering as many swords for soldiers and started using the pieces for ceremonial purposes only. Ruble said the drop in sales put sword companies in difficult financial straits, forcing them to adapt their business strategies.

Because most men alive at the time were either Civil War, Mexican-American War or Indian War veterans, members of fraternal organizations like the Masons, the Grand Army of the Republic and the Independent Order of Oddfellows started wearing ornamental swords to the groups’ ceremonies.

“Since they were so used to carrying swords in the military, it was a natural thing,” Ruble said.

Sword manufacturers realized this business opportunity and started making personalized weapons for members. Ruble said this tradition lasted up until the 1920s and 1930s, when a new group of members came along that weren’t so “sword-oriented.”

“They made literally thousands of different ones,” he said. “They’re all over the place if you really start looking around.”

Ruble said West Virginia’s Golden Horseshoe sword is a replica of an 1840 model militia blade and Howard Chenoweth was probably the weapon’s original owner.

He said the manufacturer’s logo indicates the blade was manufactured between 1882 and 1925, making it 85- to 128-years-old.

Scotchie said the weapon’s age might negate the rumor of an earlier Golden Horseshoe sword, but questions remain.

Who, for instance, is Howard S. Chenoweth?

Joe Geiger, director of the state archives, provided the Daily Mail with a death certificate for a Howard Scott Chenoweth, an Elkins native who died in Huntington in December 1943 from a diabetic coma.

A 1944 obituary from the Elkins Inter-Mountain newspaper reveals that Chenoweth, 60 when he died, was a member and former master of Elkins’ Masonic lodge. According to Ruble’s timeline, it’s likely this Chenoweth would have owned a ceremonial sword.

It’s still unclear, however, how the sword made it to the state superintendent’s office.

Social Security death records indicate that Chenoweth’s wife, Helen, and children, Robert Neil and Mary Virginia, are all deceased, and further research didn’t turn up any additional heirs.

Chenoweth has no apparent connections to the state Department of Education, and members of Elkins Lodge 108 say they don’t know anything about the sword or Chenoweth.

The case of the Golden Horseshoe sword may have grown cold, but no matter its origins, it’s still part of a memory thousands of “knights” and “ladies” share, and it’s an artifact of the West Virginia history it represents.

As another group of amateur historians prepared today to have their shoulders tapped by its silver blade, Scotchie said she would like them to remember one thing: Don’t get nervous.

“I always say ‘Guys, we could not cut soft butter with this sword,'” she said. “He hasn’t cut an ear off yet.”

Boone town still dealing with explosion that killed 11 men

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Nov. 6, 2013.

NELLIS, W.Va. — William Gunnoe noticed his safety lamp had stopped burning.

Gunnoe, a section foreman at the Nellis No. 3 Mine in the Boone County with 19 years’ experience, knew a darkened lamp meant one of two things. Either the device was broken, or the air inside the mine had filled with methane.

The Boone County Commission erected a monument in 1997 to honoring the 11 victims of the Nellis No. 3 Mine explosion. Community members will gather at the monument today for a special memorial service.

The Boone County Commission erected a monument in 1997 to honoring the 11 victims of the Nellis No. 3 Mine explosion.

He figured the lamp was just broken, and asked his supply crew to return to the surface for another one. As a precaution, Gunnoe decided the men on his section would not blast any more coal, at least until he could rule out the methane.

The supply crew got in their electric man trip and headed aboveground.

At the same time, 5-year-old Harold Baldwin was sitting on a wall near his grandmother’s house, waiting on the evening train to pass. He went out to the wall every evening, to wave at the conductor and fireman.

“I was sitting out there, when that mine explosion happened,” Baldwin, now 75, said.

His grandmother ran out to the wall, scooped him up and carried him inside.

“She said ‘Henry, this is bad,'” Baldwin remembers. “Because the whistle just kept blowing and blowing and blowing. She knew it was real bad.”

Gunnoe had been wrong about the methane.

About 6:55 p.m. on Nov. 6, 1943, a spark from an electric mine car ignited the air inside American Rolling Mill Company’s coal mine in Nellis, killing Gunnoe, his brother, Lester, and seven other men.

William Barker, 59, and Lawrence Vincent, 25, survived the initial blast but later died at McMillan Hospital in Charleston.

Although Baldwin was only a child, he remembers a black cloud descending on Nellis after the blast.

“It was like a morgue. There was nobody out,” he said. “They were in a daze. It just ripped the guts right out of the community.”

Nellis, in some ways, is still dealing with the tragedy.

Like many coal communities, the tiny town still bears the markings of its mid-century heyday. The coal camp houses are still there, along with the company store (which is now a cash and carry) and the community church that since 2004 has served as museum.

The church-turned-museum contains artifacts of coal camp life — typewriters, telephones, cash registers and company store scrip — but also reminders of the tragedy. There are news clippings from the time, along with coal company reports on the blast, typewritten on onionskin paper.

“People bring things to us all the time,” said Judy McComas, secretary and treasurer of the Boone County Historic Landmark Commission. “We don’t say no.”

In one glass case are the personal effects of Lester Gunnoe, donated by his son, Arnett: a wooden pipe, leather belt, shaving razor, his pocket-sized mining certificate and Social Security Card, and two nickels Gunnoe had in his pocket at the time of the blast.

The heat of the explosion fused the coins together, back-to-front.

Down the hill from the church, the Boone County Commission erected a monument in 1997 honoring the 11 victims of the explosion, which remains Boone County’s single worst coal mining disaster.

Members of the community, along with students from the nearby Nellis Elementary School, will gather at the memorial at 1 p.m. today to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the tragedy.

The service will include songs from students at Nellis Elementary, comments from Boone County Commissioner Mickey Brown and Board of Education member Joe Tagliente, a letter from Rep. Nick Rahall and other tributes.

McComas said several men who worked at the Nellis No. 3 mine after the explosion are expected to attend, along with Bill Workman, son of one of the victims.

Harold Baldwin won’t be in attendance. He’s in Oakland, Neb. now, where he’s lived and worked since leaving the Air Force in the 1960s.

He still subscribes to the Coal Valley News, however, and still visits Nellis whenever he’s in West Virginia…even though he admits he’d never live there again.

“You can never tell where you’re going until you know where you’ve been,” he said, choking back tears.

Final rest for forgotten victims of industrial tragedy

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012.

SUMMERSVILLE, W.Va. — History doesn’t have much to say about Roosevelt Singleton.

We do not know where he was born or where he lived before moving to Gauley Bridge to work in the Hawks Nest Tunnel. We do not know his parents’ names, his marital status or his religious affiliation.

There are a few things history can tell us, however.

His death certificate indicates he was 31 years old when his lungs stopped working on May 14, 1931. He pulled his last shift at the tunnel less than two weeks before, on May 2.

Dr. Wilkerson at the Coal Valley Hospital in Montgomery listed pneumonia as the cause of death, although it was most likely acute silicosis caused by high levels of silica in the ground and unsafe drilling techniques.

When Singleton died, his body was taken in the dark of night to a farm owned by the local mortician’s mother. He was buried alongside about 80 other African-American workers who died from working in the tunnel.

But the graveyard was only a temporary resting place.

In 1972 the state decided to widen U.S. 19. Singleton’s body was exhumed with the rest of the fallen workers, transported a few miles down the road and reburied in unconsecrated ground, in a lot that would later be used to dump road kill carcasses, old tires and broken washing machines.

Now, 40 years later, some Summersville residents are striving for a better ending for this tragic story.

Charlotte Yeager Neilan moved to Summersville from Charleston in 1990, where she and her late husband, Charles, became editor and publisher of the Nicholas Chronicle newspaper.

About 10 years ago, Neilan heard rumors of a lost cemetery for Hawks Nest tunnel workers. The story piqued her interest but no one wanted to talk about it.

“People just kind of said it in whispers,” she said.

She started searching for the graveyard with the help of a few friends, but to no avail. She spent about five years looking but was never able to locate it.

“People did not want the truth,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

Finally, in 2009, she heard about Richard Hartman, a West Virginia State University history professor. He also was haunted by the story of the lost graveyard. But unlike Neilan, Hartman had actually located the plot.

Hartman first learned of the site in 2000 while working on a master’s degree in history at Marshall University.

He was writing a paper about tunnel contractor Rinehart and Dennis when he came across a passage about black workers buried on the White family farm.

Union Carbide, which owned the tunnel, hired local undertaker Hadley White to bury workers who died at the Hawks Nest Tunnel.

White’s services were certainly in demand. Workers were dying by the dozens from what doctors then diagnosed as “pneumonia” or “tunnel-itis.”

Experts now agree the men actually died from acute silicosis. While silicosis usually is a slow-moving disease, destroying victims’ lungs by building up scar tissue, Hawks Nest workers ingested much more dust than usual because of the tunnel’s high silica concentration and the unsafe drilling techniques.

Rinehart and Dennis refused to employ “wet drilling,” which calls for water to be sprayed at the drill site to suppress dust in the air, because Union Carbide planned to use the silica in metal alloys.

Workers like Singleton quickly paid the price. They ingested more and more silica with each breath, inflaming and scarring their lungs and causing them to fill with fluid.

“People got sick very quickly, within a matter of months rather than five or 10 years,” said Dr. Marin Cherniack, a professor of medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

Although no one has reached a definitive death count, Cherniack estimates more than 700 people died of acute silicosis while building the Hawks Nest Tunnel.

Hadley White, whose descendants still run a funeral home in Summersville, set up an additional funeral parlor in Gauley Bridge to handle the demand.

Hartman said some bodies were shipped home to loved ones, but that was impossible for many workers.

“You had a lot of people back during the Great Depression going from one place to another looking for work. There was no record of where they were from, so there’s no place to send the body,” he said.

That left White to find graves for many men.

Jim Crow laws at the time prevented blacks from occupying cemeteries alongside whites, so the undertaker buried some workers in an old slave cemetery at the Summersville Presbyterian Church. He quickly ran out of room so he began burying the workers — laid unembalmed in plain wooden boxes — on his mother’s farm a few miles outside town.

The arrangement worked out fine until 1972, when the state Department of Transportation decided to widen U.S. 19. The proposed road project cut right through the White farm and Hadley White’s makeshift cemetery.

The state paid Howard White, Hadley’s son, to oversee the exhumation. Howard later told Hartman that a contractor placed the skeletal remains in 3-foot wooden boxes and took them away for reburial. White said he did not know where that took place.

That bothered Hartman. He was working for the state transportation department at the time and wondered if the bodies were not lost, but only misplaced.

“I knew what they did with cemeteries when they were relocated for highway purposes. There were records kept,” he said.

He visited the Division of Highways office in Greenbrier County to review documents from the widening of U.S. 19 and discovered a map of a cemetery from where the bodies had been moved. According to the map, the Department of Transportation purchased a plot of land near the highway as part of the road construction project and moved the bodies there.

Hartman drove to the site.

“There was nothing there. Just trees growing up, and trees that looked like they had been growing for some time, before 1972,” he said.

Dejected, Hartman headed home to South Charleston.

A short time later David Smith, a GED teacher at the Friends-R-Fun Child Development Center in Summersville, contacted Hartman. Smith said he, too, was looking for the lost cemetery and had a general idea of its location.

“I’m on the phone here in Charleston, and he’s down there on Whippoorwill Road, and I’m leading him with the map I’ve got in my hand as he’s walking up and down this road,” Hartman said.

Soon, Smith came across something.

He described what he saw over the phone: a small clearing off Whippoorwill Road with only a few small saplings growing on it. There appeared to be multiple depressions in the ground.

“I said yes, that may be it,” Hartman said.

He jumped in his car and headed back to Summersville.

The lot was filled with trash, old tires and washing machines. Highway workers also were apparently using it as a dumping ground for road kill.

But Hartman and Smith found several temporary markers, like the ones funeral homes leave on a grave until a proper headstone is delivered.

The pair counted dozens of depressions in the clearing, a volume that seemed to correspond with the remains that would have been relocated from the White farm.

“It was such a revelation. When I finally found it, I sat down and cried,” Charlotte Yeager Neilan said.

She cried not only because the cemetery had been discovered, but also because the property had been so neglected in the years following the workers’ reinterment. She decided the men deserved better.

Neilan and her new husband, George, applied for and received a $10,000 community participation grant from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s office to fix up the cemetery. Soon, they had the rest of the Summersville community on board.

Summersville city employees helped the Neilans clear trash and members of the West Virginia National Guard hauled in gravel to create a parking lot.

New River Community and Technical College’s welding class constructed a gate for the front of the cemetery. Neilan said future classes will complete the fence, wrapping it all the way around the cemetery.

The Stone Masons Yard in Birch River donated and installed stone steps and a wheelchair ramp leading from the parking area to the graves.

George estimated the project might have cost $60,000 without all the donations.

Nicholas County High School’s Future Business Leaders of America chapter also pitched in, helping to clear debris and raising money for the historic marker that now stands at the mouth of Whippoorwill Road.

Today the students will return to the cemetery for a reading of the workers’ names, culled from death certificates George found. Three ministers will be on hand to consecrate the ground.

Charlotte said these men deserve a proper funeral service, even if it’s 80 years overdue.

“It’s important because they were treated so shabbily during their lives. These poor men had a horrible life and they were treated no better in death,” she said.

Work on the cemetery is far from complete.

There are 48 gravesites and most are now marked with small orange flags.

She said there are probably two or three sets of remains to each grave because some were combined when reburied. She plans to have a stone monument inscribed with each worker’s name made for the site and eventually a permanent marker on each grave.

That way, if the descendants of the Hawks Nest workers want to visit West Virginia and pay their respects, they will see more than a clearing a few hundred yards from the highway.

“We need to make it right. It was a wrong, and we need to make a wrong right,” she said.

The curious case of Sherlock Holmes and the Norwood Building Inspectors

This story was originally published Jan. 3, 2013 in the Charleston Daily Mail.

In a mostly empty room off the South Charleston Public Library’s DVD section, Nye Clinton stretched his arms across a plastic folding table and gripped the edge for dear life.

He was trying to determine if a cleaver-wielding attacker could cut his thumb off.

Short on props, Clinton used the table as a stand-in for a windowsill. He reasoned that if a man was dangling from a window and gripped the inside of the sill, his thumbs would be completely exposed to his assailant.

“If you’re on the inside, your thumb’s a perfect shot,” he said.

Other members of the Norwood Building Inspectors – that’s what members of Charleston’s Sherlock Holmes society call themselves – disagreed.

They reasoned the dangling man likely would be hanging from the outside of the window, leaving his fingers, but not his thumbs, exposed to an attacker’s blade. Perhaps, they reasoned, Dr. Watson was confused about the details when it came time to report “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb.”

Fletcher Adkins sided with Clinton, however. He pointed out that in Victorian architecture, windowsills were quite wide.

“That would lay his hand out across it, as if it were on a cutting board,” he said.

There are other problems with Dr. Watson’s account of the mystery, however, and none escaped the scrutinizing eyes of the Building Inspectors.

“The Engineer’s Thumb,” first published in The Strand magazine in 1892, chronicles the adventure of a young engineer recruited by a mysterious German to do maintenance work on his hydraulic press in Berkshire, about 60 miles west of London. The German turns out to be a counterfeiter who tries to kill the engineer with a cleaver once the young man discovers the true nature of his work.

The engineer escapes with his life but without one of his thumbs, and he returns to London to recount his strange tale to Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.

“They’re having a little discussion, and obviously he’s bleeding through his handkerchief, and Watson isn’t concerned,” said Mille Clinton, Nye’s wife.

Bill Crockett scoffed at the hour of the young man’s appointment with Dr. Watson.

“I can’t imagine getting a doctor at 7 in the morning,” he said.

Crockett also was concerned with Watson’s initial prescription of brandy and water.

“We imagine most doctors would recommend a hot drink, rather than alcohol,” he said.

“My Irish grandmother cured everything with a whiskey tonic,” Crockett’s wife, Bunny, added.

You may have deduced that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock’s creator, is not mentioned very often in these gatherings. That’s because “Sherlockians” like the Building Inspectors prefer to imagine Doyle did not write the stories, but instead served as Watson’s literary agent.

It’s a game played by Sherlock fans all over the world. Devotees pretend the great detective, his sidekick, Watson, and all their adventures are real.

Any inconsistencies or inaccuracies in the stories are Watson’s fault because he didn’t write things down correctly. In those cases it’s up to Sherlockians to figure out what really happened using clues from the stories.

That’s why Nye Clinton was so concerned about the windowsill. The game, as Sherlock once said, is afoot.

The Case of the German Bible Scholars

Sherlock Holmes, Watson and their famous 221B Baker Street address first appeared in the 1887 novel “A Study in Scarlet.” The characters did not gain a wide following until four years later, however, when The Strand magazine began publishing short stories featuring the duo.

Doyle’s fan base grew with each new story he published, but the author was not entirely comfortable with his newfound acclaim. Fearing his detective fiction would overshadow his other work, Doyle killed off Sherlock in 1893, just two years after his debut in The Strand.

“People were hysterical,” said Andrew Gulli, a Michigan publisher who revived The Strand in the United States in 2000. “There were protests.”

Women apparently cried in the streets. Men wore black armbands to show their solidarity.

Doyle eventually caved to public pressure in 1901 and wrote a new Sherlock novel, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” He eventually penned three more collections of short stories, where it is revealed the detective actually faked his death.

In-depth study of Doyle’s work began in 1911 as a joke among Bible scholars.

English theologian Ronald Knox published a paper in 1911 titled “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” in which he lampooned German Bible scholars of the day by using their study techniques on Doyle’s stories.

“He was very good at irony,” said Nicholas Utechin, longtime editor of The Sherlock Holmes Journal in Oxford, England. “These German biblical scholars were doing all sorts of extraordinary serious studies. ‘Did Paul really write that? If Peter did that, why did John do that?'”

Knox applied this same super-serious scholarship to Sherlock Holmes stories and attempted to, among other things, place all the stories in chronological order and guess which college Sherlock attended.

“To write fully on this subject would need two terms’ lectures at least,” he wrote. “Some time, when leisure and enterprise allow, I hope to deliver them. Meanwhile, I have thrown out these hints.”

He ended the essay with a paraphrased quote from “The Hound of the Baskervilles:” “You know my methods, Watson: apply them.”

Although Knox’s study of Sherlock was meant only to be a good-natured jab at his fellow scholars, Utechin said all modern Sherlock societies can trace their history to his paper.

Knox’s essay was republished in 1928 in a collection called “Essays in Satire.” In 1931, S.C. Roberts, a professor at Cambridge University, wrote a reply to the paper pointing out “the Watson problem” in Sherlock scholarship: details in the stories do not always match up, so Watson either wrote things down incorrectly or he left details out of the stories.

Utechin said literary societies soon began cropping up on both sides of the Atlantic to solve “the Watson problem.” And so the game began.

The United States’ largest and longest-running Sherlock society, The Baker Street Irregulars, was founded in 1934, growing out of male-only dining clubs in Philadelphia and New York. The group began publishing The Baker Street Journal, a magazine for players of “the game,” in 1946.

A short-lived Sherlock society also sprang up in London in the mid-1930s, but it lasted only for two dinners and one official meeting. England would not get its own Sherlock society for nearly 20 years.

The “Festival of Britain,” held in 1950, featured a variety of exhibitions highlighting the history and accomplishments of different parts of the country.

Community leaders in the Borough of St. Marylebone, where Baker Street is located, formed a council to come up with ideas for their exhibit. Some members suggested an exhibition about slum clearance. The council eventually picked an idea from the Public Libraries Committee for a Sherlock Holmes tribute.

The exhibit included a recreation of Sherlock and Watson’s rooms at 221B Baker Street, featuring mementos from Holmes’ “life.” More than 50,000 people visited the display.

Inspired by this enthusiasm, the Sherlock Holmes Society of London was formed in January 1951. The society soon began publishing its own periodical, The Sherlock Holmes Journal.

Other societies eventually sprang up across Europe, including large societies in Switzerland, France and Germany. Utechin said Sherlock became extremely popular in Soviet Russia.

Back in America, enthusiasts started establishing branch societies of the Baker Street Irregulars, including the Amateur Mendicant Society of Detroit, the Nashville Scholars and the Noble And Most Singular Order Of The Blue Carbuncle, located in Portland, Ore.

Societies now exist all around the country, gathering Sherlock fans for the singular purpose of discussing – and occasionally arguing about – Doyle’s stories.

Tales of the Norwood Building Inspectors

The Sherlock Holmes Society of Charleston, otherwise known as the Norwood Building Inspectors, was founded in September 1999. Members conducted their first meeting in a basement meeting room beneath Taylor Books on Capitol Street.

The group also met for a time at Trans-Allegheny Bookstore. Each meeting during these early years included a champagne toast to “the woman,” Sherlock’s nickname for Irene Adler, his one-and-only love interest.

The imbibing ended a few years later when the society moved its meetings to the Kanawha County Public Library’s main branch in downtown Charleston. The library doesn’t allow drinks, even symbolic ones.

“We’ve been teetotalers ever since,” Jerry Summers said.

The society moved to the South Charleston branch, which has better parking, four years ago. Sherlockians have come and gone through the years, but the Norwood Building Inspectors now boast about a dozen members.

The group takes occasional field trips (members watched both Robert Downey Jr. “Sherlock” films in theaters) and holds a birthday party for Sherlock each January.

This year’s gathering will be at Mayberry’s in St. Albans. Sherlock, who was born Jan. 6, 1859, will turn 159.

Most meetings are casual affairs, however. Members munch on light refreshments while one Sherlockian delivers a short talk about a story of his or her choosing. Bill Crockett chose “The Engineer’s Thumb” for November’s meeting because he is a retired Union Carbide engineer.

Crockett was first introduced to Sherlock Holmes around 1959 while he was in graduate school at West Virginia University, studying chemical engineering.

He and his wife, Bunny, had been married for a few years and were trying to have a child. Their first attempt ended in a miscarriage. When they conceived again, Bill resolved they should be much more careful with Bunny’s health this time around.

She was still completing her bachelor’s degree in English at the time, and all her classes were in Armstrong Hall, which, like much of WVU’s campus, is built into a hill. Crockett, worried about his wife, would walk to meet her and help her up the hill.

He often arrived before class dismissed.

“I got captivated by the discussions going on. Finally, I asked her prof if I could sit in on the class,” he said.

Bunny’s professor, excited that an engineering student would take an interest in literature, readily agreed. The professor also invited Crockett to a meeting of the Bakers Street Irregulars.

“They were true believers. God forbid you should mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was always, ‘Watson wrote those things,’ and that was it,” he said.

Utechin said it’s a testament to Doyle’s writing that 125 years after his detective fiction first appeared in print, fans are still able to study and analyze Sherlock’s adventures.

“There’s always more juice to squeeze out of the orange,” he said.

A Sherlockian once concluded Watson had five wives, given the varying marriage dates listed in the stories, but others contend he was married twice. Others are still debating whether Sherlock attended Oxford or Cambridge.

Some Sherlock fans never play “the great game,” but prefer to read the stories or watch the films and television shows they inspire. Some collect original editions of Doyle’s books, which often bring astronomical prices at auction.

“You can have this extraordinary enjoyment of Sherlock Holmes on so many levels,” Utechin said.

Characters reason for lasting appeal

When Andrew Gulli revived The Strand, he said most of his original subscribers signed up because of the magazine’s historical association with Sherlock Holmes.

The Strand now has around 50,000 subscribers. And while it publishes new fiction, interviews and book reviews, each issue contains a Sherlock Holmes story.

“People love superhuman figures. They love people who are larger than life,” Gulli said. “In Sherlock Holmes’ case, he was not cartoonish.”

Gulli pointed out the great detective is often cynical to women and was known to use cocaine when he got bored.

“That’s where the appeal lies. He was a larger-than-life person but had a lot of human weaknesses,” he said. “He was not Captain America. In many respects, Sherlock Holmes is not the kind of person you’d want to have as a next-door neighbor.”

Utechin said most of Doyle’s stories do not contain a lot of action, as only a few tales contain actual crimes. In many cases, Sherlock becomes involved because he is intrigued by the quirkiness of the situation.

Like Gulli, Utechin said he believes the strength of Doyle’s stories are his interesting, realistic characters. Those characters have appeared in hundreds of stage and screen adaptations, dating back to 1899, making Sherlock the “most portrayed detective” according to the Guiness World Book of Records.

Despite legendary portrayals by actors like Peter Cushing and Basil Rathbone, newer actors have not shied away from reinterpreting the great detective. Director Guy Ritchie recently produced two blockbuster films starring Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock and Jude Law as Watson.

In 2010, the minds behind the British Broadcasting Corporation’s science-fiction series “Doctor Who” debuted a new television show called “Sherlock,” which updates Doyle’s stories for the 21st century. Instead of telegrams, Sherlock sends text messages. Instead of keeping a journal, Watson writes in a blog.

CBS debuted its own update of Sherlock last fall with “Elementary,” starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as “Joan Watson.”

Utechin said these adaptations are all part of Doyle’s legacy. Although his first detective stories were written in the 1800s, the last were not published until 1927.

“By which time there were cars in the stories, and there was a telephone and a record player,” Utechin said. “Conan Doyle knew how to move things along. Anything that keeps the brand alive and is of good quality, I’m all for.”

Members of the Norwood Building Inspectors agree. None of them like the new BBC series, but all enjoyed the Robert Downey Jr. films.

For them, the lasting appeal of Sherlock lies in his personality and cleverness. No matter how fantastical the situation, Sherlock eventually cracks the case and explains everything.

“It’s always logical,” Bunny Crockett said.

She compares reading a Sherlock story to her visit to the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin once walked and developed his theories for “The Origin of Species.” Bunny said she saw all the same things Darwin did but never could have come up with the same theories.

“I’m just smart. Darwin was a genius. Sherlock is a genius, too,” she said.

Although Doyle gives Sherlock and his readers all the same clues, only Sherlock can reveal the solution.

Dr. Watson often expressed similar fascination with the great detective. At the beginning of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes immediately deduces that Watson has recently walked in the rain and hired a clumsy and careless servant girl.

“When I hear you give your reasons,” Watson then told Holmes, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process.”

Holmes then lights a cigarette and flops into an armchair.

“Quite so,” he tells his friend. “You see, but you do not observe.”

 

State of Confusion

This story was originally published on June 20, 2013, in a special tabloid released to commemorate West Virginia’s 150th birthday.

Delegates at the constitutional convention found themselves in a state of confusion.

On October 24, 1861, voters in 41 western Virginia counties overwhelmingly voted to break away from the Old Dominion and form a brand-new state called “Kanawha.”

Representatives at the 2nd Wheeling Convention, held the previous summer, had agreed on the name. And voters, by casting their vote for secession, also had adopted “Kanawha” as the de facto name for their new home state.

It appeared Kanawha soon would take its place on Union maps alongside other Native American names like Michigan, Illinois and Ohio.

But then came December 3, 1861.

Delegates had again convened in Wheeling to craft a constitution for the new State of Kanawha. On this particular Friday, representatives were set to adopt a resolution declaring the U.S. Constitution, as well as all other federal laws and treaties, the “supreme law of the land.”

The clerk read the first section of the code.

“The State of Kanawha shall be and remain one of the United States of America. The Constitution of the United States, and the laws and treaties made in pursuance thereof…”

He paused at the end of the first paragraph, waiting for delegates to approve, amend or strike down the language.

Harmon Sinsel of Taylor County took the floor.

“Mr. President,” he said, addressing convention leader John Hall, a delegate from Mason County. “In the first section I move to strike out the word ‘Kanawha.’”

Sinsel, an architect from Pruntytown, wanted the new state to be called “Virginia.”

“I am a Virginian. I was born and raised in Virginia, and I have ever been proud of the name,” he said. “I admit that Virginians have done wrong, that many of them in this rebellion have disgraced themselves. But that has not weaned me from the name.”

Other delegates rose to support Sinsel’s motion.

Cabell County Delegate Granville Parker was worried calling the state “Kanawha” would create confusion, since there was already a large county with the same name

J.M. Powell, of Harrison County, said his constituents asked him to urge the convention to strike out Kanawha and call the state “Western Virginia.” Delegate Elbert Caldwell said Marshall County voters expressed similar wishes.

“It was not because of any particular objection to the name of Kanawha, but because they desired (the state) should bear the name of Western Virginia,” Caldwell said. “Western Virginia is the most proper name for this new state.”

Delegate Edward Mahon said everyone he’d talked to in Jackson County had “great objections” to the name “Kanawha,” preferring “Western Virginia” or even “New Virginia.”

Waitman Willey, of Monongalia County, said he opposed “Kanawha” for different reasons.

“It is a very hard name to spell,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Willey, who would later become a U.S. Senator, said “West Virginia” was the only name that made sense.

“We are known and recognized as West Virginia, on the continent, over the sea, in Europe, and everywhere. We are spoken of as ‘West Virginia,’” he said.

But “Kanawha” also had its supporters.

Peter Van Winkle ridiculed the delegates wishing to keep ties with Virginia. He compared them to the Children of Israel, opining for the land of Pharaoh even while on their way to the Promised Land.

“As of old, the cry is going up ‘Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots and when we did eat bread to the full!’” he said.

Van Winkle said if delegates named their new state “West Virginia” or “New Virginia”—he mockingly added “Little Virginia” to the list of suggestions—it would always be subordinate to the original Virginia.

He argued “Kanawha” would be a more suitable, more attractive name.

“I think it is one of the most euphonious words with which I am acquainted. Almost every letter in it has a soft and musical sound,” he said.

*******

The debate dragged on for hours, beginning shortly after members convened in the morning and lasting into the late afternoon.

Daniel Lamb, a retired lawyer and bank clerk from Ohio County, pointed out that voters had already approved the name “Kanawha.” He asked his colleagues to remember the injustices western Virginians suffered at the hands of the Old Dominion.

He reminded delegates that western Virginia had little representation in Virginia’s government and, even though they paid taxes to the state, received little in the way of public improvements or public buildings.

“I have been an inhabitant of western Virginia for thirty odd years. During that time, what have we received here but oppression and outrage?” he said. “We have been denied by the state of Virginia, for many long years, our proper share in the representation and government of the State.

“I want to cut loose from these recollections. I want to have the new state, not merely in substance, but even in name. If Kanawha is stricken out, I do not want to see anything that has Virginia to it inserted in the blank.”

Lamb would not have his way, however.

Delegates eventually agreed to put the names up to several rounds of votes, where the name with the lowest amount of support would be dropped until one option gained a majority vote.

Although they received little discussion, the names “Allegheny” and “Augusta” entered the fray. Caldwell suggested “West Virginia.” James Hervey of Brooke County offered “New Virginia.”

Wetzel delegate R. W. Lauck recommended “Columbia,” which he considered “a beautiful name.” A parliamentary error kept it off the ballot, however.

Finally, it was time for a vote.

Augusta received one vote, from Preston County Delegate John J. Brown.

Western Virginia garnered two votes, from Powell and Upshur County Delegate Richard Brooks.

Allegheny also received two votes, from William Stevenson of Wood County and Joseph Pomeroy from Hancock.

“Kanawha” received nine votes, with supporters including Van Winkle, Lamb and both Kanawha County delegates.

There was no need for another round of votes. “West Virginia” received overwhelming support, with 30 delegates voting in favor of the name.

“So it was determined,” the clerk wrote, “to fill the blank with ‘West Virginia.’”

*******

It’s now 152 years later, and some of our forefathers’ predictions have come true.

As Van Winkle guessed, some still view this state as “Little Virginia,” or “the Other Virginia.”

Worse, other people don’t even know West Virginia exists.

Last year, ESPN announcer Brad Nessler described the Mountaineers as “another team from the state of Virginia.” More recently, a Midwestern television channel placed Williamson in “West Virginia County, Va.”

Hunter Lesser, an archaeologist who serves on the state’s Sesquicentennial Commission, said West Virginia’s name probably has given residents somewhat of an identity crisis.

“It seems like West Virginians are hypersensitive about our state, in defense of West Virginia,” he said.

That’s nothing new. Lesser said people from western Virginia have always had an underdog mentality, ready to defend their home at the drop of a coonskin cap.

David Javersak, a professor emeritus at West Liberty University, said naming the state “Kanawha” might have eliminated some of the confusion among geographical know-nothings.

“Maybe we’d have better recognition. Because once you heard it, ‘Oh, you’re from that strange sounding state.’ They wouldn’t have been able to pronounce it, but they would remember it,” he said.

Still, Lesser and Javersak agreed it is difficult to imagine this fair state with any other name besides “West Virginia.” It’s strange to consider that, had history turned out just a little differently, there would be no “West Virginia Hills,” or “Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia.”

Even Peter Van Winkle would have to admit, “Kanawha Mountaineers” just doesn’t have the same ring.