The local headlines from Christmas morning 1924 did not tell of a “Merry Christmas.” Instead, the newspapers told of homes destroyed, lives lost and local heroes who faced this moment of calamity with great courage and compassion. The Christmas of 1924 will always be known in our area as the year the Muck Dam broke in Saltville.
I have heard stories of the “night the Muck Dam broke” from my Grandma Overbay and a dear friend of our family, Novella Perkins. Both of these remarkable women have passed away and I find myself wishing that I had listened a little bit closer as they told the stories they remembered of that terrible Christmas Eve in 1924.
I decided to do a little more research into what happened that night almost 89 years ago. I found two resources that tell the stories of those who experienced the tragedy in Saltville. The first is a book by Jerry Catron, The Great Saltville Disaster. The second is a scrapbook of newspaper articles and photos that is housed at the Saltville branch of the Smyth-Bland Regional Library. These two resources answered most of the questions I had about the muck dam.
First of all, what was “muck?” The best explanation I have found comes from an interview with Jim Brown, who was a manager of environmental technology for Olin Corp. The Mathieson Alkali Works commenced operation in 1893. It produced “alkalies in the form of soda ash, baking soda, caustic soda and other alkaline commodities.” In order to “hold the waste from its chemical processes, Mathieson built a dam, known as the muck dam because of the nature of its contents.” According to Brown, the “dam was made of slaker waste and fly ash and cinders from the boilers that produced steam at the plant. 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 to the pond. 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.”
On Christmas Eve 1924, the residents of Saltville were going about the usual business of Christmas. It was a cold and drizzly night. The children were eagerly anticipating the arrival of Santa. Christmas parties were being held. Some of the residents of Saltville were in town at the movies. A group of men was gathered at Mr. G.L. Smith’s store. The following account, told by D.S. Musselwhite, is found in The Great Saltville Disaster. “I was with a lot of other men and boys who were gathered at Mr. G.L. Smith’s store after supper listening to his new radio. We could distinctly hear the strokes of the town clock at some broadcasting station—one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight. Several of the fellows looked at their watches and it was exactly eight o’clock by my watch. Then came the Lord’s Prayer, solemn and impressive. It was not halfway finished when the door flew suddenly open and a woman, gasping for breath from running, rushed in and exclaimed, ‘My goodness, men, run quick! The muck dam has broken and we’ll all be washed away.’ It was Mrs. Landon Smith, who will be long remembered by the people of Henrytown as their Paul Revere. She had run from her home up the river to warn the people below.”
Another account of the moment the muck dam broke comes from Mr. J.H. Scott. His brother, J.C., was visiting from Roanoke on this fateful night. They heard a “roaring” sound, but dismissed it as some sort of accident at the plant. When they went out to see what was going on, they saw “dimly outlined against the sky, great mountains as it were, moving by the house.” They were hit by an “avalanche of water and muck.” The impact carried J.H. Scott about “fifty feet from where he had been standing.” When he went to look for his brother, he found him, with a cut on his head, “lying partly covered with muck, dead.”
The wave of muck was estimated by most accounts to be “nearly a hundred feet high and over 300 feet wide.” It “swept into the river and over a hill and through the village, sweeping houses, barns, trees and everything else in its path, or else burying them to a great depth under its white slime.”
The dam was holding back about 30 acres of muck and water when it broke. The force of the break caused “great boulders weighing fifteen to twenty tons” to be “hurled across the river, over the hill on the opposite side, a distance of over two hundred and fifty yards.”
The break of the dam threw the town of Saltville into a state of chaos and fear. Many people were found fighting for their lives, as they were swept away in the muck. Others, who had walked out to see what was going on, were hit by debris and killed. The theater full of movie-goers was instantly emptied, as people rushed to find family members and help those who were struggling to get out of the muck. The merriment of Christmas parties was abruptly replaced with terror and shock. Saving the lives of those who had been caught in the path of the muck was now everyone’s top priority. Almost all of the workers at the Mathieson plant went to help in the effort. Only necessary staff stayed behind to keep the boilers and furnaces running.
The rescuers bravely waded into the muck, as they brought people to safety. Some of the survivors recalled that the muck ate little holes in their skin and the chemicals left scars on their eyes.
One of the most well-known and dramatic tales of rescue was that of the little Prater girls. Their parents died in the incident. The two little girls were found by Wyndham Roberts, John Helton and Dave Hicks, “who were passing some wreckage when they heard a child calling for its mother. They found the voice came from under the roof of a building which had been washed away (the rafters had kept the roof itself intact).”
“Quickly a hole was cut in the roof, according to Wyndham. A small hand came through the hole and a little girl said ‘Please don’t kill us! My little sister is here in bed with me. Mama and Papa are downstairs and we have been calling for them all night, but they won’t answer us.’ The men assured the two children they had come to rescue them, not harm them. The children were unaware of what had happened. They had been put to bed upstairs with some of their Christmas toys. When found, they were still in bed, and the bed was resting on the muck and pressing up against the roof rafter.”
A total of 19 people perished in the disaster: Charles Emory Clear, age 5; Opal Jane Pauley, age 10; James C. Scott, age 72; Christena Walk, age 8 months; Lora B. Walk, age 7; Lonnie M. Walk, age 10; Ida Lee Stout, age 24; Mary Louella Stout, age 4; Roy Lee Stout, age 1; Hazel Jackson, age 2; Maxie Jackson, age 18; Nannie Jackson, age 45; Bessie G. Prater, age 10 months; Hiawatha Prater, age 25; J.D. Prater, age 49; Junior Prater, age 1; Leota Prater, age 19; Leslie Prater, age 3; and Mamie Prater, age 36.
There are many stories from this terrible night in Saltville’s history. Those who lived during the event have carried it with them and, it seems, that not a Christmas Eve could go by without them recalling the horrors they endured that terrible night. There are many stories from that night. I have only shared a few. There are other stories that have not yet been preserved. If you have a story to add to the library scrapbook, you may email it to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 685-6589.
Margaret Linford is a professional genealogist and is president of the Smyth County Genealogical Society.