Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 27, 2014

Va. Historic Resources director delivers powerful keynote speech

BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

POCAHONTAS, Va. — In the 30-year history of the modern ceremonies honoring the 114 coal miners who died in a March 13, 1884 explosion in the Pocahontas East Mine, there has, perhaps, never been a more meaningful keynote address than the one delivered Saturday night by Julie V. Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Through the years, other speakers have announced significant state funding, and still others have brought national attention to the historic cemetery, but Langan brought illumination about the importance of the cemetery and of the town of Pocahontas. When State Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, D-Russell, introduced Langan as “a friend of Pocahon-tas,” he didn’t mention that she had been a friend of Pocahontas for 20 years.

During her remarks, Langan explained that she and three of her colleagues from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources visited Pocahontas in the mid-1990s to gather documentation that would have Pocahontas designated as a National Historic Landmark.

“Much to my regret, that effort failed, not because the town wasn’t worthy, but for political reasons that had nothing to do with the merits of the nomination or the history of this place,” she said. However, she added that although she wasn’t successful, “that experience remains one of my all time favorite projects.” Perhaps it is no coincidence that in less that two months after Gov. Terry McAuliff appointed Langan as director that she came to Pocahontas to share insights about how the state feels about Poca.

She spoke briefly about Virginia’s historic markers program that has been around since 1927. She said the state’s more than 2,400 markers are like, “sound bites of history along Virginia’s roadways. She pointed out that Virginia “is also a national leader in the number of properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places and we have more rural historic districts than any other state in the country.”

Langan said that prior to coming to Pocahontas, she went to the state archives to review the history of Pocahontas and used her hands to show the width of the shelf that contained information on the coalfield capital. She pointed that while a 36-inch wide space on the shelf might not mean anything to most people, she held her hands about 18-inches apart to indicate the space that Monticello takes up.

“I was shocked to see that there is more shelf space devoted to your small town than to Monticello or Mount Vernon,” she said. “So, why should that be? Why the attention to this small town?”

Langan explained that Pocahontas is nationally significant because it was the first town built to exploit the Pocahontas coalfields, “which contain the finest industrial coal in the world,” she said. She said Pocahontas became the economic hub of the region. “The demand for labor attracted new ethnic groups to the area — people who did not otherwise settle in Virginia such as Hungarians, Italians, Greeks and Russians.”

She said that the 1884 mine explosion — “the deadliest disaster in the history of the Pocahontas coalfields” — that brought the cemetery into existence “was laid out along ethnic and occupational lines which is clearly evident from the headstones,” she said. “This cemetery is one-of-a-kind in Virginia — there is no other cemetery to compare.”

She said that the coal miners who came from all over the world to pursue the American dream came even though they knew the work was dangerous. “The fact that they came, that this town sprung up in the middle of nowhere, that after the boom there was decline, is emblematic of our collective American experience.”

She said that that as people still “honor a historical event so poignant and tragic that it still has power to bring us together,” that it’s important to remember “the importance of place and the value of preserving special places that can teach us about our past.”

Thomas B. Childress organized the event and told the story with the assistance of Austin Sparks, Audrey Murphy, Jay Morrison, Madison Shupe, Alexis Hulsey, Landon Cook, Chyn Salterhagen, Halie Ross, Cecelia Sluss, Leandra Stinson and Jake Ambler.

Others on the program included Reverend Russ Hatfield, Karl Miller, Jerry Gravely, Patricia Synan and the Reverend Carlos Hess.

—  Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com