Saltville Muck Dam Collapse
Backstory and Context
Drawn to the Saltville Valley for its rich mineral deposits, the young British engineer Thomas Mathieson established the Mathieson Alkali Works in Saltville in 1894. This chemical processing company produced soda ash from the abundant limestone and it made the first commercially available bleaching powder. By 1908, Mathieson Alkali began creating more complex alkaline products, which resulted in more chemical waste, known locally as “muck.” Jim Brown, a former manager of environmental technology for Olin Corporation, explained that Mathieson’s manufacturing of alkaline products resulted in slaker waste, fly ash, and cinders from the steam boilers at the plant. The company’s solution to its chemical waste problem was to pump it into a dam along the banks of the Holston River. “Mined limestone that had been burned, made into lime and slaked to make hydrated lime was the starting raw material for the process that resulted in soda ash. The mixture inside the muck dam was an ammonia still waste, a ‘slurry’ made of solid particles and liquor, that was pumped out... The solids settled out and the liquor, which was mainly water, was drained into the river, a process for which the plant had a permit.” By the 1920s, this muck dam, as it came to be known, stretched for 30 acres along the river and the walls, being nothing more than the dried contents of the dam, rose 100 feet above the surrounding communities of Palmertown, Chinch Row, and Henrytown.
Christmas Eve in Saltville of 1924 was a cold and very rainy day. There were Christmas parties, out of town guests visiting, a Western movie showing at the theatre in town, Christmas dinners being cooked, and plant workers anticipating the end of their shifts. However, the amount of rain that fell during the week leading up to Christmas proved to be too much for the muck dam, as the walls of the muck dam became supersaturated and structurally compromised. Around 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the section of dam above the community of Palmertown burst without warning. The dam break was so great that boulders weighing 10-20 tons were thrown 750 feet across the river. The sludge wave that inundated Palmertown was estimated to be 100 feet high and 300 feet across. A wave of muck even swept a quarter of a mile up the river and destroyed houses along the way in Henryrown. Tons of muck literally covered the river valley that night, sweeping away houses, barns, animals, trees, and residents.
Many nearby residents dismissed the noise of the dam break as commotion from the Mathieson plant. But once the news of the disaster broke, as many as 150 rescuers dashed to Palmertown. People were found trapped in the upper stories of their homes, or clinging to rocks and trees after having been swept away downriver. Fires were lit from any nearby flammable material to aid in the rescue. The injured were taken to a makeshift hospital in the rooms above the Mathieson General Store, and the dead were taken to the undertaker. Warden Poore, one of the most recognized rescuers, wasted no time in wading through the muck: “You couldn’t see a thing but a big white cloud and the dark. Old people were hollering and whooping… I was in muck up to my neck. It eat holes in me on my legs and chest, it had so much lime in it.” Poore reported that the rescuers tied ropes around each other and to the houses they passed. When a person was found alive and pulled out of the muck, “[t]hey would hit the ground and run like something wild after we got them out.” The sun rose on Christmas morning to a devastating scene. The once quaint little community of company houses of Palmertown now lay splintered in a thick, viscous layer of caustic muck. In all nineteen people were killed, of which twelve were children. Christmas ceased to exist in Saltville that year.
While the Mathieson Alkali Works was responsible for this catastrophe, the residents in town praised the company for its efforts in aiding and assisting those in need: setting up an emergency hospital, bringing in doctors from as far away as Bristol, rehoming those who lost everything, and replacing lost property and other possessions. An emergency fund was created by Mr. Robert Porterfield, founder of the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, that consisted of around $5,000, half of which came from Mathieson. The governor of Virginia communicated to the town in a telegram on December 26 that read, “Accept my deepest regrets at the sad catastrophe at your plant. Please convey to the stricken families my sincere sympathy in their hour of sorrow.”
Once the muck and debris were removed from the annihilated Palmertown neighborhood, Mathieson leveled out the affected area and rebuilt it for those who lost their homes in the dam collapse. This new neighborhood became known as Perryville and still remains today. The Saltville muck dam disaster continues to be the deadliest dam failure in Virginia.
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