MACFARLAN'S FABLED RITCHIE MINES - From Fortune To Despair

(07/17/2017)

Article from RITCHIE GAZETTE 1992

Written by Janet Hodge

In a remote section of southern Ritchie County lies a place where time stands still. It is a place where fortunes were won and lost and the lives of over 1,000 of its hardiest inhabitants were changed forever.

The place is called Ritchie Mines, and although few know of its actual location, there remains hardly a person who hasn't heard of its legendary tales.

Although few agree on the "correct story" about Ritchie Mines, one name is always heard in the history circles--that of Fredrick Lemon.

It was in the Fall of 1852, that according to legend, Fredrick Lemon first discovered what he thought was a large, abnormal, deposit of coal while he was tending his cattle on Macfarlan Creek. The "coal" had been revealed by a severe flood which had washed out a portion of the hillside.

Lemon covered his discovery with leaves and brush and later attempted to purchase the land. By this time, heavy rains had again uncovered Lemon's discovery and the local citizens were readily attempting to use the substance as they would coal.

According to the WV Geological Survey, local blacksmiths at Macfarlan were using the "coal" in their forges. However, according to long-time Mellin resident Earl Echard, "One fellow tried to put it in his stove and use it as coal. The stove blew up and it nearly burned the house down".

After attempting to use the "coal" Lemon, himself, was dismayed to find it melted and ran like pitch. Disgusted, he reportedly sold the land, which he had purchased in 1858, to Nelson Beall in 1859 for a hefty sum of $75,000.

Beall, in turn, began to operate a mine for the "coal" which was transported through the wilderness by way of mules. At this time, the "coal" was being turned into oil, and according to the Oil Man's Magazine (OMM), "it made from 140 to 165 gallons of oil to the ton". This was in the days before the war when oil brought $90 per ton.

During this time, the town of Ritchie Mines was a veritable boom town. Men left their farms and everyone began to speculate about the fortunes to be made at Ritchie Mines.

In a single year, the mine made the owners a clear million in profits. A large brick hotel was built and a little village with paved streets sprang up in the wilderness. Thousands of dollars were spent in building a boulevard along Macfarlan Creek. The creek was straightened and held in place by a wall of cut stone.

Work began near the top of the hill and drifted back into the hillside, working a vertical height about six feet. When the strip was worked out, the men began one lower down and so constantly worked nearer the bed of the creek (OMM).

Since mules were no longer efficient, a small engine called "Ritchie" began to run on the Calico Railroad to distribute the asphalt to the further reaches of the world.

When the Civil War came, work came to an abrupt halt. Marauding bands were said to have prowled through this part of the state, and in fear of the mines being torched, the workers quit.

Following the War, the land was sold to the Ritchie Mineral & Resin Oil Co. For a half million dollars, and work commenced to provide asphalt for paving projects that spanned the globe.

Meanwhile, at the Mines, trouble was brewing. As the men worked deeper and deeper into the earth water became a major problem. The water poured in great streams and the pumps had to be kept going almost constantly, many ignorant workmen thought they were about to strike an underground lake that would engulf them all and they refused to work (OMM).

In the deepest part of the mine, the miners had worked down to a depth of 300 feet beneath Macfarlan Creek. There, the asphalt seemed to be getting quite soft. And the men were always afraid they would fall through into a lake of oil beneath. Once they reported that one of their number had sunk into the soft asphalt up to his knees, and that he was gotten out with difficulty.

In spite of the best ventilation possible, the gas grew worse and worse. One night, after all the men had quit work for the evening, and only a watchman was left in the mine;, the gas exploded. The force of the explosion was terrific. The head house at the opening of the mine was wrecked. The stables inside the mines were torn to pieces and the mules killed. The watchman died of his injuries and the mine was completely wrecked (OMM).

Following the great explosion in early 1873, many believed the town of Ritchie Mines simply disappeared. However, according to a column written by a local correspondent in the Ritchie Gazette, May 5, 1873, "several people still filled the streets, and business went on as usual: This is a place of considerable business, containing one store, one carpenter's shop, one blacksmith shop, one shoe shop, one machine shop, twenty or thirty dwelling houses, two boarding houses, one saw mill (which give 65 to 75 men employment).

The mines are under the supervision of Colonel William Glenn; Richard Bowin is boss miner. Capt. D. Toothman and J. Overton are stationing engineers. F. Monroe and M. Friend are slope engineers. C. Myers and William Turpin are locomotive engineers. L. R. Dyer, machinist, Mr. Carpenter and John Matthews are blacksmiths.

The carpenter and milling gang is under the control of L. F. Glover. G. W. Miller repairs the soles and uppers too of those who give him a call and he does not forget to charge for it either.

Robert Means, Esq., will take pleasure to all customers and the public generally, will administer law or justice as the case may demand. N. Lemons is ever prompt to execute the commands of his honor.

There has not been as much coal taken out for some months past as last summer and fall. Since the explosion, a number of men have left; others have taken their places and from indications and the preparations making the work in the Mines will be pushed rapidly this season.

Richard Bowin has removed from the big boarding house to a dwelling house, Mrs. Nee, widow of John Nee, has the boarding house. The fire caused by the explosion in No. 7 is not entirely out. Smoke at times comes pouring out of the attic and the hole in the side of the mountain.

The Catholics have a very neat little church here, the M.P. and M.E. Church South occupy the school house for church. We have quite a little world down in these mountains, with railroad connections with the Baltimore Road at Cairo, and bridle paths to connect with the rest of the world. Public or county roads we have not, except what the bed creek affords.

In just a short 20 years, a virtually unknown area in the wilderness of Ritchie County became a boom town of sorts. But what it took 20 years to build, only took a matter of months to take on the appearance of a ghost town.

According to Minnie Kendall Lowther's History of Ritchie County, "the coal vein was lost in 1874 and work suddenly ceased. Everything sank into a state of apathy-into dilapidation and ruin..."

Few families remained in the area of Ritchie Mines during this time, and several relocated to the towns of Oxbow and Silver Run.

The mines were now said to be haunted--the "spirits" of those killed in the explosion freely roamed the area, lending much fervor to the superstitions of the immigrant workers.

As the legend goes, several workers were buried alive, during the explosion--their bodies never recovered amid the rubble. However, standing on the remote hillside into the far reaches of Silver Run, stands a tombstone at St. Michel's Cemetery that will forever bring back the memory of that fateful day at Ritchie Mines:

Sacred to the Memory of Patrick Clark
A Native of Tuam County Galway, Ireland
Who Died By The Explosion At The Ritchie Mines
February 24, 1873
Aged 29 years

Following the great explosions at the Ritchie Mines in 1873, the town that had once seen prosperity began to dwindle in size until only a handful of hardy residents remained.

According to a 1910 issue of the Oil Man's Magazine (OMM), "much of the wreckage from the explosions was never cleared away and even the railroad was soon abandoned.

The engine known as the Cairo was sold to the P & H, later known as the Lorama, the engine known as the Ritchie was sold for junk, and in 1876, the iron was taken from the rails".

Twenty years went by and nothing was done with Ritchie Mines. In the late 1800's a new railroad was built over the old right-of-way and was known as the Cairo & Kanawha Valley Railway. This road was built by H.S. Wilson, who was the new owner of Ritchie Mines (OMM). During this time, oil was found in deep sand wells near Cairo, and proved to be one of the richest salt sand field in the history of oil discoveries.

About 1904, the Mines were sold to the Ritchie Coal Mines Co., and under that name, they began operation. Much time was spent to take even a ton of asphalt from the ground because, in prior years, the area had fallen into a sad state of repair. Soil had washed from the hillsides into the fissures, and the areas where once coal was taken had almost completely been filled in.

By the year 1910, the mine was operating on such a primitive basis that coal was reportedly loaded into coffee sacks as it was dug and then hauled to the surface by an engine stationed on the outside. Small amounts of coal were taken out via an elevator or barrel. By the barrel method, coal was loaded in the barrel deep inside the mine, and when the barrel was full, it was drawn to the top, emptied, and then lowered again.

Little by little, work ceased until the mines were completely shut down. During the next 70 years, the area began to return to the look it once had--buildings crumbled and rotted into the earth, the railroad tight-of-way became covered with grass and weeds and the mines began to fill-in, leaving what only seemed to be a large cut in the earth.

Almost 75 years after the mines halted production, two adventurous young men realized their childhood dream to explore the reaches of Ritchie Mines.

David Westfall of Smithville and Mark Gaston of Mellin, in 1983, made a perilous journey deep into Ritchie Mines, nearly 100 feet below the earth's surface. In order to go into the Mines, the young men, fully equipped with headlamps and other gear, had to lower themselves with repelling ropes and harness into the unknown reaches of the mine.

Once in the Mines, the two found things much as they had been left over 50 years before. Picks were stuck in the asphalt, and hundred year-old timbers lined the roof to prevent cave-ins.

It was the experience of a lifetime, one which few will ever experience. Within a year after the team went into the deep reaches of Ritchie Mines, a cave-in occurred, blocking off the entrance by which the two had gained access.

So, for the current time the interior of Ritchie Mines will remain illusive from the eyes of today's adventurers. Over the years, the Mines have kept the legends and secrets to themselves. One can't help but wonder if the secrets will remain forever.

From a humble beginning in the early 1800's, Ritchie Mines has seen both progress and failure, riches and ruin. Although the stories will never be forgotten about the legendary asphalt lode, the land itself, has reverted back to a virtual wilderness--much as it was when the first discovery of asphalt was made.

In the last five years, the acreage of Ritchie Mines underwent a timbering operation by owners from Smithfield, Tall Timber Inc. The result of the timbering operation left a maze of roadways in and around the old mine site, the likes of which prove to be both adventuresome and frustrating.

Coupled with the actual old roadbeds and gas well rights-of-way, the logging roads turn into a maze which can leave the visitor traveling on for hours if not days.

On September 14, 1989, the land again changed hands only this time, it seems to have a permanent owner. The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources purchased the 1,731 acres with the intent of using the area as a Wildlife Management Area (WMA), formerly known to many as a Public Hunting Area. The state paid in excess of $300,000 for the deed, and the funds were mostly derived from funds generated by the sale of the Conservation Stamp to hunters, anglers and trappers.

About the WMA, long-time Mellin resident Earl Echard said, "I still think it's pretty dangerous down there around the mines. There are holes about every 100 feet, and if a person falls into one of those mine shafts, they'll never be heard from again" .

Echard lives at the site of the old Mellin Depot, high atop the ridge above Ritchie Mines. And the stories he can tell about Ritchie Mines can bring not only a smile to the face of the listeners, but occasionally emit a spine-tingling chill as well.

Although Echard's concerns for the safety of those traveling to the mines seems adequately justified, DNR Officers state that the area is safe if hunters just take a few normal precautions.

The area is a vast wilderness of trees and vegetation, with hills so steep there seems to be a noticeable temperature decrease near the bottom of the hallow. At the site of the actual mine, however, the temperature does, indeed, decrease as one ventures into the dark hollow that once supported a flurry of activity.

The elevations of the property, according to a DNR study, vary between 650 feet at the mouth of Macfarlan Creek to 1200 feet along the ridge tops. Access is limited to all but four-wheel drive vehicles and hikers. The rough terrain of the area has two entrances, the south being Macfarlan Creek and the north being from Mellin Ridge.

Several ideas have been discussed regarding the new WMA, Including the construction of a lodge and cabins. However, as of the current time, no actual construction is being planned for the near future.

So what remains of the future of Ritchie Mines? One can only guess.

The fine line between fact and fiction readily seems to disappear with the imagination of those traveling to the deep reaches of the hollows between Mellin and Macfarlan Creek.

Stop, close your eyes and listen. You can almost hear the train whistle, the shouts of workmen and the clanging of machinery. With the rustle of the wind, the comes floating back to greet the modern visitor with the tales of which legends are made.


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