Fieldworking: New Straitsville, Ohio

I love to make work. As much as I love making, I love the research and fieldwork that goes into the making. I love archives, antique stores, libraries, and museums. I want all their juicy history, secrets, and mysteries. One of my greatest delights is to strike out and find the source, the place. I get this from my dad. One summer he took me to Centralia, Pennsylvania – the site of what is arguably the most famous mine fire in the world. He was just curious but I became obsessed. I was eleven years old and had just learned that the earth could burn under my feet indefinitely. That it could gut that underground and as a result gut an entire community. I was seeing firsthand the evidence of an empire built on non-renewable resources and the shiny diagrams in my 6th grade science textbook showing the process of coal production from dead dinosaur to prosperous society did not track with the abandoned towns, sinkholes, heaps of slag, and hard men and women.

Cut to 2009. I had been living in Ohio for thirteen years when I learned about New Straitsville, Ohio, site of the World’s Greatest Mine Fire. I immediately called my dad – “Did you know?!?!? Ohio has its own mine fire!!!”

My printmaking friend Rachel (also from Pennsylvania coal country) and I piled into my car and we drove southeastward on a route outlined by the incomparable artist and Professor Mary Jo Bole. We ate fried eggs at the counter of a diner on Main Street that had a 6 foot banquet table along its wall covered in mine fire memorabilia and historical pamphlets produced on a photocopier. We hiked up to Robinson Cave, site of the miners’ clandestine union meetings, our eyes ever-peeled for signs of smoke or steam. Since that first visit I have been back a few times – mostly on official business with the Ohio History Connection where I worked from 2009-2015. In 2012 I had the pleasure of dedicating an historical marker to the World’s Greatest Mine Fire near one of the sites where it started in 1884.

 

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Image from “Dedication of Ohio Historical Marker at New Straitsville.” Perry County Tribune

 

The text of that marker reads:

During the 9-month Hocking Valley Coal Strike beginning in June 1884, tensions between the Columbus & Hocking Coal and Iron Company and striking miners led to violence and destruction. Starting October 11, 1884, unknown men pushed burning mine cars into six mines located around New Straitsville to protest being replaced by “Scab” workers. Mine operators attempted to plug all fissures to no avail. As years passed, ground collapsed under buildings and roadbeds, and mine gases seeped into schools and homes. Residents were evicted and homes demolished. Potatoes baked in the heated soil and roses bloomed in winter. At times, the fire soared 100 feet in the air and could be seen for five miles.

Side 2:

Ripley’s Believe It or Not broadcast a radio report on the fire and local landowners marketed “The World’s Greatest Mine Fire.” Thousands of tourists paid 25 cents to see guides cook eggs over the fire holes and make hot coffee directly from a well. By 1936, the Works Progress Administration tried to create barriers to slow the fire by replacing coal and wood with brick and clay. Journalist Ernie Pyle reported on the fire for NBC Radio and in his syndicated newspaper column. The Wayne National Forest purchased many ruined fire lands in the 1930s. In the 1970s, the State of Ohio shifted a sinking Route 216 to more stable ground. Steaming ground areas stay green and snow-free in the winter. The World’s Greatest Mine Fire Endures.

I have been working on a piece about mine fires over the past few months and needed a refresher and some good photos of the site. I have a great photo I took on my Centralia visit of smoke and steam rising out of the ground, but I didn’t have the right images for New Straitsville. So I packed a lunch and spent my Black Friday with the Little Cities of the Black Diamonds.

My trip was blessed early with good omens. The weather report was revised from rain to sun and my tarot card for the day was the Knight of Pentacles – “Work on a project that is important to you today. You have a very practical mindset that will serve you well. Don’t get caught up in little details–keep on moving and producing. You can come back to refine later.”

The site of the marker is a few miles north of town on Clark Street or Route 93 at the trailhead of a mining reclamation area. Organizations like the Monday Creek Watershed Restoration Group have been working to repair the damage done by so many years of reckless mining and drilling for oil. You can see the oil derricks in this postcard:

 

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New Straitsville Oil Fields.

 

And evidence of still contaminated water in this photograph I took from a train trestle outside of Glouster, Ohio:

 

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Photo by Molly Uline-Olmstead, 2015

The site has been returned to wetlands status. Imagine the entire area completely clear cut, yellow and red mud replacing the tall grasses, pools and puddles of orange and black contaminated water, and heaps of coal and slag littering the landscape. The ground is still freckled with coal – it is everywhere, black, shiny, and crumbling under your feet. This is the site of Mine No. 5 where those striking miners allegedly set the earth on fire in 1884.

 

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Coal Mine Map, Ca. 1920, Showing Mine Workings in Sections 28-33, Coal Township, including Town of New Straitsville.

 

It is beautiful now – very quiet, very still.

 

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Photo by Molly Uline-Olmstead, 2015

 

While I am not certain of the exact location of the mine entrances there are a few clues in the landscape. Near the east end of the clearing there is a rise in the land that has several depressions. The strangest and most noticeable one is filled with earth and giant tree stumps, indicating a back-filled mine shaft. These were the images I wanted to complement my Centralia photo:

 

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Photo by Molly Uline-Olmstead, 2015

 

If you want to learn more about New Straitsville and the Little Cities of the Black Diamonds region I recommend visiting. The entire region is undergoing a revival thanks to the work of community members, many of them historians and artists. Here is a bibliography to get you started:

 

Carney, Brenda. “Dedication of Ohio Historical Marker at New Straitsville.” Perry County Tribune. Perry County Tribune, 16 July 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

Cramer, Ann. “Historic Mine Fire Marker Dedicated.” Region 9 – News & Events. USDA Forest Service, 20 July 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

“The Little Cities Archive.” The Little Cities Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.

“Little Cities of Black Diamonds.” Little Cities of Black Diamonds. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.

“New Straitsville Mine Fire Reported in Journal.” The Engineering and Mining Journal (1885): 42. The Little Cities Archive. 09 June 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2015. <http://littlecitiesarchive.org/2011/06/09/new-straitsville-mine-fire-reported-in-journal/>.

New Straitsville Oil Fields. N.d. Little Cities Archive, Shawnee, Ohio. Little Cities Archive. Web. 28 Nov. 2015. <http://littlecitiesarchive.org/2012/02/12/new-straitsville-oil-fields/>.

Perry Co. Auditor. “Coal Mine Map, Ca. 1920, Showing Mine Workings in Sections 28-33, Coal Township, including Town of New Straitsville.” Boom and Bust in the Hocking Valley Coal Fields. N.p., 1920. Web. 28 Nov. 2015. <http://www.library.ohiou.edu/hosted/boom/maps/>.

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