This column tells about a remarkable video titled “This Bridge … A History of Coal in Montgomery County, Virginia” made by Chris Valluzzo in 2006.
Montgomery County coal has a long history. Anecdotal reports tell that blacksmiths were using local coal in their forges as early as the time of the Revolutionary War.
The earliest known documentary reference to coal in the county dates from a 1799 land plat that mentions a “bank of stone coal…on the head of the north fork of Toms Creek.”
That’s today’s Coal Bank Hollow near the intersection of business route 460 and bypass route 460 north of Blacksburg.
Montgomery County coal seams outcrop along the length of Brush Mountain that parallels the northern boundary of the county and along Price’s Mountain between Blacksburg and Christiansburg.
Reports that coal from Merrimac fueled the Confederate ironclad of that name during the Civil War are well founded. Today, the sleepy little community of Merrimac lies tucked away on the Huckleberry Trail down behind Montgomery Regional Hospital.
In 1905 Merrimac was a booming new coal-mining hub that sparked the building of the Huckleberry railroad. The owners of the newly formed Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railroad Company knew the history of the ironclad and named both their mine and its support community Merrimac.
By the 1930s, coal mining in Montgomery County was a major local industry. Coal production from large, deep mines such as Merrimac on Price’s Mountain and McCoy and Big Vein on Brush Mountain, had direct railroad access.
Perhaps over a hundred smaller mines, such as the Slusser mine on Coal Bank Hollow, trucked their coal to the railroad.
Hard numbers are lacking, but there may have been 500 or more coal miners in the county in 1935 with half of those belonging to the United Mineworkers Union.
After World War II Montgomery County coal grew increasingly noncompetitive with coal from other regions, including with coal from Virginia counties such as Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise. By 1970, commercial coal production in Montgomery County was over.
In the late 1980s, Radford University sociology Professor Mary La Lone and her students began regional heritage preservation projects. This work produced a 1997 article and book of oral history of Montgomery County coal miners and their lives.
That led in turn to her promoting the Montgomery County Coal Mining Heritage Park, that exists today in Merrimac in the form of a long wooden bridge paralleling the Huckleberry Trail and passing by the remains of the Merrimac mine.
Chris Valluzzo picked up on La Lone’s work as a documentary filmmaker. Valluzzo is an Annandale native who started as a Virginia Tech undergraduate in 1992 and is today employed there as a video producer and director.
After graduating, he attended New York Film Academy and eventually came back to work for Montgomery County in 2002.
With interest high in the county’s coal heritage at that time, because of to La Lone’s work and the incipient Coal Heritage Park, the “This Bridge” became his first documentary video — made while working for the county.
His video has remained obscure, with the Radford University Library until recently being the only library in the world to own a copy.
Embarrassingly, this columnist was unaware of the video when he made his April 19 lecture at the Blacksburg Cultural Center to close out the coal-mining exhibit that had been running there for four months.
The 30-minute video’s principal focus is on professional and oral history. Professionals who appear in the video include professors Grace Toney Edwards, Anita Puckett, Crandall Shifflett, Peter Wallenstein and Bob Whisonant.
Former coal miners and their family members who appear in the video include Charles Church, Garland Proco, Lee Linkous, Harry Dudley Scott, Oscar Sherman, John Slusser and many others.
Some of these latter have passed on since 2006, making the video an especially valuable record.
Recently, this columnist put Valluzzo in touch with the professional archivists at Newman Library. There were many hours of interviews that never made it into the final 30 minutes. Hopefully, some of these out-takes can be salvaged and permanently archived.
The Coal Mining Heritage Association of Montgomery County began in 1994. Fortunately it remains a vibrant and active organization. Its Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/CMHAMontCo.
It publishes a newsletter called the “Scuttle Bucket,” holds regular meetings at the McCoy firehouse and holds an annual “Coal Miners Day” in the park behind the firehouse.
To get a DVD copy of “This Bridge” send $17.50 to the Coal Mining Heritage Association at PO Box 511 McCoy, VA 24111.
To be put on the mailing list to receive the “Scuttle Bucket” write to the same address.
It would be wonderful if someone would volunteer to make a typed transcript of the video as a permanent contribution to the archival history of Montgomery County coal mining.
Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.
Later this year there may be a public showing of the video with a commentary by Valluzzo. Stay tuned.
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of southwest Virginia.