Red Ash Island
Red Ash Island has a very interesting history with an equally extensive cemetery to match. Along the New River and near Thurmond, W.V., sits a piece of land known as Red Ash Island, which is seasonally connected to the deserted town of Red Ash. This island is the resting place to the victims of the smallpox epidemic of the late 1800’s and miners who died as a result of mining disasters ranging from 1990-1940. This island has been the location of a quarantined community of small pox, burial grounds for smallpox and mining disaster victims, and an ideal spot for a baseball field for New River Gorge miners. Today, the island is an interesting spot for hikers and whitewater rafters to explore the graves which hold so much history of the area.
Backstory and Context
Red Ash “Island” is an area of land that is seasonally separated from the town of Red Ash—near New River Gorge—when the river rises. The island contains a diverse cemetery consisting of small pox victims to coal miners; “the graves are unmarked or poorly marked with crude headstones.”1 Vegetation has mostly reclaimed the graves, but at one time the island was a quarantined location for victims of Red Ash who fell suspect to the smallpox epidemic that swept through the New River Gorge area in the 1890’s.2 People were being torn from their towns and families, and sent to the island where many died from the disease. Those who died were also laid to rest on Red Ash Island. During this time, three buildings were built on the island: one housed women and children, another was built to for men, and the third was built for medical personnel.2
On March 6, 1900, only 10 years after the smallpox epidemic heavily scarred New River communities, 46 coal miners were killed in what was said to be a methane explosion at the Red Ash Mine.2,3 An article in the Charleston Gazette claims, “the night before, the closing crew failed to close vent doors, which allowed gas to build up in ceiling pockets in the drift mine.”2 It was suspected that a spark from one of the miner’s headlamps resulted in the explosion the following morning. Five years later on March 18th, another explosion took place at Red Ash Mine because of similar incidents.2,3 The explosion killed 13 miners and 11 rescue personnel perished in a subsequent explosion the following day, attempting to retrieve their bodies.3 Over the next 40 years, more miners of the Red Ash mine were buried on the island. The town of Red Ash was eventually abandoned by the 50’s.2
About 10 years before the town of Red Ash was deserted, a baseball field was constructed on the island for the coal miners to enjoy; “this provided important recreational outlet for miners from Red Ash and the many surrounding mines.”1 Today, other means of outdoor recreation are fulfilled on the island for hikers of the New River Gorge area. Hikers can see remains of the Red Ash community as some foundation piers and stone walls remain. And of course, there are the graves on Red Ash Island to explore. “Red Ash can be accessed year round by parking at the public boat launch at the former mining community of Brooklyn, WV. Travel beyond the locked National Park Service gate is easy by foot or bicycle. Motorized travel is prohibited beyond the locked gate.”1