Alvin C. York - An Appalachian War Hero
Appalachia is filled with legends and heroes. Some them carry a guitar, some of them trekked the mountains on horseback to deliver healthcare to the folks off the grid, and some of them earned their legendary and hero status on the battle field. One of the most revered hero’s of all time is an Appalachian man from Northeast Tennessee. He was born in a two room cabin in Pall Mall, Tennessee in Fentress County near the Kentucky border. Alvin York became a legend and a war hero. He became a national hero and an international celebrity because of his bravery and accomplishments during World War I.
Before York left for the war he had never been further than fifty miles from his home in Tennessee. In October of 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, Alvin York was one of seventeen soldiers that were designated with the deadly and dangerous task of crossing enemy lines to take out a machine gun position. Their patrol captured a group of German soldiers but the fight ended up killing six U.S. troops and wounding another three.
Of those remaining, York was the highest ranking and was still well enough to continue the mission. He left his men to guard the prisoners and he attacked the machine gun position. In the fight he killed several enemy soldiers using his rifle before running out of bullets. Six more enemy soldiers rushed him with their bayonets. York thought quickly enough to grab his pistol and killed all six of them. The enemy officer that was operating the machine gun went for his own pistol and fired every round he had at York. Probably to the surprise of both of them, every shot missed. The German officer then offered his surrender to York to save his own life. York accepted. York and his men made their way back to their command post with over 120 prisoners. York received the Medal of Honor for this feat.
A national hero and international celebrity was made. In 1941 the hit film Sergeant York hit the big screen and was the highest grossing film of the year. Gary Cooper played the title role and won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Alvin York. The American Film Institute (AFI) ranked York 35th in the top 50 heroes in American movies.
York led a fascinating life after returning home from the war. He became an advocate for American military strength and took a hard line on Russia, even encouraging a first strike with an atomic bomb claiming that, “If they can’t find anyone else to push the button, I will.”
York passed away in 1964 at a Veterans hospital in Nashville and is buried in his home town of Pall Mall. The location of his family farm is now open to visitors as the Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park along the Wolf River in Pall Mall.
Chief Benge - Indian Raider of Appalachia
Bob Benge is a legend in Appalachian history and folklore. Bob Benge was raised as a Cherokee but his father (John Benge) was of Irish descent. Benge grew in power and rank to eventually become Chief Benge. However, he looked like the endless number of European settlers in the country, even having red hair and speaking fluent English despite being half Cherokee. He used that to his advantage and history records him as one of the most feared Cherokee leaders during the Indian Wars lasting from 1783 to 1794 between the Americans and Cherokee in what is now Southwest Virginia.
Records of Chief Benge are still debatable, but one thing for certain was that he wreaked havoc on the settlers of Southwest Virginia, raiding homes throughout the region and killing men, women and children, often scalping them as a show of brutal force. He even stole slaves and sold them elsewhere for profit. There is even historical claims that he engaged in cannibalism after killing several in a raid somewhere between Nashville and Kentucky.
It wasn’t until 1791 that Benge and his band of raiders began attacking in Southwest Virginia where he first raided homesteaders in Russell County. It is also historical record that he raided Gate City in the same year. His viscous attacks continued for years until April 6, 1974. He was ambushed in what is now Wise County by a militia led by Vincent Hobbs, Jr. who was the son of one of the original settlers of Lee County, Virginia. Hobbs gunned down Benge during the ambush and sent his scalp to the Virginia governor. The Virginia General Assembly gifted Hobbs with a silver-mounted rifle for his efforts.
The story of Chief Benge is a fascinating one and is one of the many amazing pieces of Appalachian history that should not be forgotten. Take some time to do some research into Benge and maybe even visit Chief Benge’s Scout Trail that runs for miles through Southwest Virginia.
Hurricane Creek Mine Disaster of 1970
Folks in Appalachia are well aware of how vital coal mining is in some pockets of the region. They are also very aware of the risks involved. Dotted all across Appalachia you’ll find memorials to miners that died in various mine disasters over the decades. The folks of Leslie County, Kentucky are nearing an anniversary date they wish never existed.
It has been almost 48 years since the Hurricane Creek Mine Disaster just outside of Hyden that took the lives of 38 men. The explosion happened in shafts 15 and 16 of a truck mine that had only opened the previous March. The company that owned the mine had been operating in the area for about ten years and employed about 170 miners, none of which were members of the United Mine Workers union.
Over thirty infractions were reported in the first three months of operation. In fact, the mine was notorious for violations. The Bureau of Mines made it public in November of 1970 that the mine was in “imminent danger” due to blasting safety hazards but allowed the mine to keep operating. The mine had until December 22nd to clean up the hazards, but the Bureau was grossly short on inspectors and the mine was not checked for compliance.
One year to the date of the passage of the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969, on December 30, 1970, thirty eight day shift miners entered the 36-inch tall mine at 7 a.m. and went down about 2,400 feet. A few minutes after noon that day the underground explosion rocked the area, killing all thirty eight men and leaving only two survivors from that shift.
As horrible as the disaster was, the weather was not favorable as people from the town scrambled to try to get to the miners. A foot of snow fell that day. All of the bodies were recovered and moved to a local school gymnasium. Some of the bodies were so mangled that the only way to identify them was by the social security numbers etched onto their belts.
A memorial now stands at the site of the disaster (planned by the families and friends of the killed miners) in remembrance of the 1970 Finley Mine explosion. The emotional effects of the disaster are still felt this day throughout Leslie County.
The Infamous Haunts and Mysteries Of Appalachia
When autumn begins, there is no better place to be than in the heart of Appalachia. The fall colors come out in full force, and the last quarter of the year is filled with family and fun during the holidays. Fall festivals can be found across the countless small towns of our beautiful and truly unique region. But the season kicks off with Halloween! And when you think of Halloween, no matter where you are in the country, you think of some of the most notorious locations for history and haunts. Appalachia is ripe with plenty of attractions for those that enjoy going all out for the holiday.
One of the most infamous haunted locations in America is the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Lewis County, West Virginia in the town of Weston. The building itself is the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in all of North America and was completed and opened in 1864. It reached the peak of occupancy in the 1950’s. The hospital was packed and was constantly in run down conditions by then. With changes in treatments for the mentally ill, the hospital finally closed its doors in 1994. The local economy in the small community of Weston was devastated and has never fully recovered since the closing of the hospital.
Taking a ghost tour of this location isn’t for those that easily afraid. Countless people, including professional ghost hunters and experts in the paranormal, have reported seeing ghostly apparitions, hearing and recording unexplained voices and other terrifying sounds, and have claimed to have left the location with evil “attachments” that followed them home. It has been the focus of many television shows including Ghost Adventures (Travel Channel), Ghost Hunters (SyFy Channel) and Paranormal Challenge.
The West Virginia Penitentiary also makes the list as one of the most haunted locations in America. Located in Moundsville, this imposing structure was inspired by the infamous Joliet Prison, but only smaller. It housed some of the meanest and cruelest criminals of its era and they were stuffed into cramped cells. All sorts of murders, violence and brutality happened within these walls. The prison sees over then thousand visitors each year and is home to well over a hundred executions either by electric chair or hanging. Visiting this haunted location is not for the faint of heart. It has also been the subject of many television shows investigating the history and insane amounts of paranormal activity within these cursed walls.
If you hop across the border into Virginia, you’ll find another notorious haunted site that has been the focus of paranormal investigators and television documentaries. St. Albans Sanatorium in Radford will make the hair on your arms stand up. The building itself has a morbid history, originally being an all boys school where conditions were so harsh and competition among the students literally became deadly. After the school closed it was transformed to a sanatorium where brutal conditions were reported over the years. Visitors have claimed to see ghostly figures, shadow figures, objects moving, and voices caught on tape in the basement area, which was also used as a small bowling alley for the patients. The building even comes equipped with its own “suicide bathroom.” The history of this location is enough to make your skin crawl. Once the sanatorium closed its doors it sat dormant for years. Eventually a well know hospital bought the building and began some renovations. However, renovations were abruptly stopped amid rumors of reported paranormal activity around the workers. The hospital sold the building and now it is owned by a private citizen and opened for ghost tours and investigations.
You can find countless haunted locations throughout Appalachia with a quick web search. How daring are you? Have you visited one of these locations? Tell us your ghostly Appalachian stories and experiences! We’d love to hear them and share them with our followers on Facebook and Twitter.
Cade’s Cove: Caught Between the Crossfire
Before European settlers made their way to Cade’s Cove, a tourist spot today nestled in the Great Smokey Mountains, it was part of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee called it Tsiyahi, meaning place of the river otter. Although they never lived there, it was rich hunting ground for elk and bison during the summer months. After the Revolutionary War, the Cherokee recognized the newly formed American government and sought peace (formerly being allies with the British). Despite the peace and assimilation with settlers, Andrew Jackson pushed the Cherokee out of the Southern Appalachians toward Oklahoma for settlement on reservations. Some of the Cherokee refused to leave (branded as renegades) and later reclaimed parts of western North Carolina.
Sometime around 1850 the removal of the Cherokee opened up Cade’s Cove for settlement without fear of Indian attack. A few years later the Civil War began and the mountain folk of Central Appalachia were not able to escape the ramifications of it, even in a more isolated place like Cade’s Cove. History tells us that no slaves worked in the Cove and the mountain folks of the area had very little culturally in common with the South, and had very few ties to the Confederacy, beyond the state of Tennessee being a member of it. The vast majority of folks in these mountains were not slave owners and opposed the institution of slavery. Of the young men that were from Cade’s Cove that went off to fight in the Civil War, most joined the Union and most of the residents were pro-Union. Cade’s Cove, a pro-Union settlement, was in the middle of enemy territory, surrounded by people that were in full support of the Confederacy and loyal to Tennessee in the fight.
Beginning in 1863, the people of Cade’s Cove became the victim of a series of raids from Confederate soldiers taking exception to the region’s pro-Union bias. A regiment known as Thomas’ Legion often raided the Cove, burning barns and stealing livestock, Eventually, the folks of Cade’s Cove decided to fight back the raiders. Children placed in strategic locations served as lookouts for Confederate soldiers. They fought back the raiders and the attacks came to a stop. The goal of the Confederates didn’t appear to be to ransack and defeat the people in the Cove as much as it was to harass them for the pro-Union leanings.
Despite the raids coming to an end, the Civil War still ravaged the people of Cade’s Cove as it did the rest of the nation. The wounds and memories linger across time. Visiting Cade’s Cove today you can still see the scars of the war found on the gravestones along the 11 mile loop that countless tourist drive each year.
Consider the long history of the region the next time you visit the Great Smokey Mountains. For more interesting reading on Cade’s Cove click on the following links.
Mary Breckinridge: The Nurse Pioneer of Appalachia
The story of Mary Breckinridge and her service and dedication to helping children and families in Appalachia is truly legendary.
Mary Breckinridge was not a native of Appalachia. She was from Memphis, Tennessee and trained in nursing in New York in 1910 before moving on to London, England for advanced Midwife Training. Mary followed this path because of her passion for helping children. This passion was born from tragedy. She was widowed when her first husband died suddenly. Later she married a man from Kentucky and they had two children together. Her first child, a girl named Polly, was born prematurely and died. Her second child, a son, died at the age of four due to appendicitis.
In the early part of the 20th century for every 1,000 births in America, 100 babies died within their first year. That rate was even higher in Appalachia, with many families living off the beaten path away from towns and cities. Health care in the far reaches of these mountains was almost non-existent. Addressing this problem became the life’s focus of Mary.
After a time in Europe to help French refugees with medical care after World War I, she came back to Kentucky and made Leslie County her home. This was the time before the coal boom in Eastern Kentucky, and before there were paved roads and rail transport. She became a pioneer in her chosen industry that made house calls on horseback! With some public support and funding, she invited other nurses from England and Scotland to work with her in Hyden and was able to help countless families with their skills in nursing and midwifery. At the time there was no such thing as training for midwifery in America. Mary was breaking new ground right here in Appalachia.
She founded the Frontier Nursing Services in 1925. Nowadays her name is commonplace in Eastern Kentucky, especially around Leslie County. She founded the Frontier Nursing University in Hyden and has a local hospital named after her. She died in 1965 at the age of 84, still leading the Frontier Nursing Services. In the forty years of service her nurses delivered over 14,000 babies and treated about 58,000 patients. She was honored by the United States Postal Service in 1998 with a Great American series of postage stamps.
Her story and life’s work is amazing and should be celebrated. For more information about Mary Breckinridge you can visit the following links:
PLAY BALL! - Baseball’s Rich Appalachian History
We’re upon another season of Appalachian League baseball. The game has been a part of our lives here in this region for as long as baseball has been played in our country. However, there is a much longer and somewhat forgotten history throughout our region about our national pastime. It is much older than the Appy League, and goes back to the years after the Civil War, to a time when companies set up shop in our Appalachian region and began mining coal.
As coal camps became common throughout Appalachia, the need for some form of entertainment and community bonding was necessary in the daily lives of friends and families. Baseball fever began to catch on after the Civil War and many of the small towns throughout the region formed their own teams. These teams weren’t professional teams, but the players (mostly coal miners in Central Appalachia) were very competitive and took the game seriously. Baseball was a way to bring the community together in these coal camps, and teams would play other local teams from surrounding towns and counties, mostly for bragging rights.
In fact, Raleigh County West Virginia had an A League, a B League, and a United Mine Workers League. For those that weren’t very good at baseball, softball was another fun alternative to keep everyone in the community interested in the game. These teams sprang up everywhere!
Baseball flourished in the early 1900’s up until World War II. After that many parts of daily life changed. Technology in the coal mines changed. What once took 300 miners, by 1950 maybe only 80 miners were needed for the same work. That changed the dynamic of coal camps and coal mining towns everywhere. Also, the advent of television and movie theaters and cars being more accessible changed how we chose our entertainment. By 1950 most of these community teams had disappeared.
Although this is a big part of history during that part of the 20th century, most of it has been lost and forgotten. If you have memories of baseball during this era in your town and have a story to tell, please share it with us. If you have old photos you’d like to share, please do! This is a lost part of history that needs to be saved. It was such an important part of our communities that it should never be forgotten.
To read more about baseball in this era, here are some helpful links:
God’s Country and the Devil’s Bathtub
Burke’s Garden in Tazewell County, Virginia is one of those rare places where the wonder and natural beauty of the place sort of takes your breath away. Driving across a mountain on a narrow crooked road to find the place, you’d just think that you were in another valley until you get out and take a look around. You’ll see that off in every distance you are surrounded by mountains. In fact, you are standing in what people have long called God’s Thumb Print.
The place seems relatively flat even though you are standing right in the middle of the Appalachian mountain chain. Burke’s Garden is one of the best areas for farming in the state, explaining why the Amish settled here long ago. The area used to be a huge limestone dome formation, but collapsed and the eroding limestone makes the land great for farming. It was discovered by a settler named James Burke who was following elk into the territory (a territory where native Americans hunted for game). It wasn’t long after Burke brought others to the place that they noticed their old potato peels growing into potatoes. They realized how fertile the land was and it became Burke’s Garden. The aerial photograph shows exactly how this place got its nickname.
If you are a hiker and don’t mind climbing over some huge rocks along the trail, you’ll find another hidden gem in Southwest Virginia near the town of Dungannon in Scott Count, Virginia. If you follow Devil’s Fork Loop Trail far enough you’ll run into a spectacularly beautiful watering hole to sink down into and relax or swim. This beauty is called the Devil’s Bathtub and was even highlighted at one point on the Weather Channel.
You can find a pretty significant social media buzz about this place with a quick online search. Make no mistake about this location. Despite its unique features and beauty, you have to hike at least a couple of miles to get to it and the seven mile round trip trail is no easy hike. In fact, hikers have rated this one as being difficult. However, if you have the energy and desire this place is worth the effort, especially if you’re going to spend some time relaxing once you get there. Don’t be surprised to find other hikers waiting for you when you arrive. It is a very popular trail!
Promise Zone for the Coal Counties?
In January 2014 eight counties in Eastern Kentucky were declared as a “Promise Zone” by federal and state officials with the vision of helping these counties build more diversified economies, promote job growth, and overall wellbeing. The vision of the council behind the Promise Zone is to develop a competitively trained workforce, a healthy environment, a more active civic life, and a continued growth in culture through the arts and rich histories of the region. Given our organization’s mission, the idea of a Promise Zone is certainly right in our wheelhouse.
Just to be clear, the Foundation For Appalachian Advancement is not a political organization. In fact, far from it! However, the mission of the Promise Zone is very similar to ours as we work to operate in all of Appalachia. The concept itself is a great idea. It’s very likely that there are, and have been, political disagreements on the “how” part of achieving the vision and goals of the Promise Zone.
The “how” is a political argument that our Foundation will not engage in. That is for the citizens and elected officials in each region to decide for themselves. It is important that we encourage the debate about extending the Promise Zone to include other counties in Appalachia that have seen terrible job loss in the coal industry.
Consider the coal counties of Southwest Virginia, or West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania that also lack economic diversification. Should this vision and mission of the Promise Zone be extended to them, as well? If not, then why not?
If it is important, perhaps the citizens of those regions would be best served by contacting their local leaders and encouraging them to work with their Governor to bring this to fruition.
Economic diversification in these parts of Appalachia is just as vital to us as it is for other states outside of our region that have strong and resilient economies and growing job opportunities. Nothing in Appalachia seems to come easy. It is a duty that we all must undertake from the grass roots to ensure that our region moves forward in the areas of job growth, educational opportunity, and cultural advancement.
As far as our part with the Foundation For Appalachian Advancement, we hope we can spark a debate and discussion that leads to positive change.
Pound-Jenkins Rail Tunnel
There is growing interest along the Kentucky-Virginia border to reopen the old Chesapeake and Ohio railroad tunnel through the mountain that connects Jenkins, KY and Pound, VA. “Our beautiful mountains are a unique attraction,” says James Hibbitts, Director of Foundation For Appalachian Advancement and resident of Pound, VA. “Upgrading our local hiking trails on both sides of the border should be a priority.”
Local officials and citizens as part of a grassroots effort are working to make the old rail tunnel and local trails a unique destination for hikers and tourists.
However, more citizens on the Virginia side are needed in the grassroots effort to keep interest going to help ensure additional funding for the project. To be a part of the grassroots effort, contact James Hibbitts at email@example.com.
The Pound Gap Massacre
There are countless small towns throughout Appalachia, and each can boast of a unique history all their own. One such place is Pound, Virginia and what came to be known as the Pound Gap Massacre. The Pound Gap, as it is called, is located on the border of Virginia and Kentucky, currently between Jenkins, KY and Pound, VA. Today we call it U.S. Route 23. Many pioneers and hunters used the gap to settle into eastern Kentucky. Daniel Boone often traveled the gap, referring to it as “Sounding Gap.”
In 1834 the Kentucky General Assembly passed an act to improve the road, which made driving livestock to Virginia and other southern markets much easier. It also made the gap vitally important during the Civil War. However, it wasn’t until 1892, long after the Civil War, when the gap became known for the Pound Gap Massacre. Ira Mullins, a local moonshiner, was ambushed. Dr. M.B. Taylor (also known as The Red Fox) and two confederates slaughtered Mullins and members of his family by a rock near the gap. Five of seven were killed at what is now called Killing Rock at Pound Gap. If you are an avid hiker you’ll find a trail named after the massacre. The Red Fox Trail & Killing Rock runs through Jefferson National Forest. Dr. Taylor was later hanged at the Wise County Courthouse for the murders.
Al Capone in Appalachia?
Was Capone ever in our region? Maybe. Did his organized crime organization have a presence in the region during the days of prohibition? Probably. We may never know the truth, but it certainly adds to an interesting chapter of Appalachian history.
It’s no big secret that in these Appalachian mountains a good amount of moonshine has been made over the years. And during the early part of the 20th century our nation experimented with prohibition which led to one heck of a black market for the stuff. And as with many myths and legends that live on in the form of tall tales and stories passed down the years, it is speculated (confirmed in the minds of some!) that none other than notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone made his presence felt in Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky.
Many of you may already know this, but during the 1920’s Johnson City, TN was known as Little Chicago. Most people assumed that was because of railroads coming through town. (Chicago was the leading rail city at that time-often referred to as Big Chicago.) Some, however, think it was called that because of ties to organized crime and the Capone crime family. There is no direct evidence to this but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to make the argument. After all, illegal booze was Capone’s money maker and Central Appalachia was known for moonshine. Also, Johnson City would have been a perfect stopping point on the way to his other home in southern Florida (now a well known route for smuggling booze during Prohibition).
Also, there were many newspaper articles dating back to the mid 1920’s referring to the growing crime in Johnson City surrounding the illegal industry of alcohol and the growing number of “thugs” in the region.
During that era Johnson City was one of the hardest hit areas in the nation with a nuerological disorder called “jake leg” that was a result of consuming alcohol that had been tainted. Those that survived the disorder carried a unique hitch in their step as an effect of consumption. Part of the local folklore was that Capone even had a house in Wise County, VA where he stayed to conduct business.