Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

February 8, 2014

February 1957: ‘Bishop One’ remains a riveting memory in coalfields

— — Within hours of the blast that ripped through the mine on Monday, February 4, 1957, it seemed the whole world was talking about Bishop.

Thirty-seven men perished nearly 350 feet below ground in a rumbling methane explosion that rocked underneath the state lines of both West Virginia and Virginia. The unique Bishop location featured the tipple (preparation plant) on the McDowell County side while the regular entrance was located in Tazewell County at the nearby Horsepen facility.

Many coal mine explosions happened in the winter, when the deadly gases seem to lay heavier in the tunnels. Bishop had another blast within the year and there was yet another one at Amonate a few months later that killed 11 more men. Coal miners understood that winter time was not a good time in the deep shafts where the great bituminous veins crawl and spread underneath the ground of what is now known as Four Seasons Country.

There had been scores of other tragedies. A huge explosion at Bartley in McDowell County which killed 91 miners in 1941 was another example of the dangers of mining in those days. A fellow never knew when he left home if he would return. Of course, the great explosion in March 1884 which killed 113 men at Pocahontas remains one of the signal events in the history of the famed Pocahontas coalfields. There are others across the region and to the families affected, each is equally heartbreaking.

My buddy Ray Glover at the Daily Telegraph also recalls that fateful day at Bishop. His father, Clifford “Blue” Glover, narrowly escaped death by being close enough to the Horsepen shaft near what was called the Daniel Main section of the No. 34 coal mine.

Glover and a few friends were near enough to the stairs at the site to find their way to safety at the Pocahontas Fuel Company facility.

The explosion happened at approximately 1 a.m. on the third shift, or “hoot owl” shift as many of the workers called it.

Near that same entry where Glover found his way to safety, the cage that carried miners up and down to work was hurled upward so hard it was jammed against the top of the structure. Mr. Glover was interviewed and said “that shaft is what saved us after the explosion.”

Inspectors arrived from Charleston and across the region. It was indeed their opinion that Glover was right and had it not been for that shaft which allowed the gas to blast its way to the surface, it is likely that all 176 men working on the third shift would have been killed. Ray and I, in addition to our newspaper duties, also work at Tazewell High School. I am proud to say that during that same week, a memorial service open to the public was held at THS.

It was a time when almost every local community was near or a part of a coal mining operation and nearly every family was affected by the good times and bad ones. Many were the days when a soft knock at a classroom door to have a child called out to hear news about a mining accident took place.

I believe J. L. Walthall was superintendent of schools at the time and he was instrumental in helping then-principal Eugene Ross coordinate the service in cooperation with local ministers at the high school. Our schools, and there were many little community elementary schools around, were often used for such events and that service at Tazewell remains one of the cherished memories for several affected families and their friends. “Community” was a central component of this area and from the mine to the school to the stores or theatres, the citizens felt connected. In that time of severe emotional trial, the local high school was given the opportunity to be, for a time, the heart of the community.

Thankfully, some 57 February's later, the pain of “Bishop One” has been softened through time while the memories of loved ones lost glows in hearts across our mountains.

Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.

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