Episode 59 Christmas Eve Nightmare in Saltville

On December 24, 1924, Saltville, Virginia was covered in what witnesses described as a “blanket of white”. The town’s muck dam ruptured, sending tons of alkali sludge pouring into the community. Was the deadliest dam failure in Virginia history intentional? Who was responsible?

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“When twilight fell on Palmer,
It was on Christmas Eve;
When Alkali spread terror,
The people to Deceive.
They thought it was a storm wind,
And rushing to the door;
Were driven back inside,
To never come out any More.”
-Henrietta Belcher, 1979

Saltville, Virginia is a small town in the foothills of Southwest Virginia Clinch Mountain range. Situated in a valley along the Holston River, Saltville was named for the abundance of salt deposits in the region. In its early days, referring to Saltville didn’t mean you were talking about one town. Saltville included its suburbs of Palmertown, Henrytown, Allison’s Gap and Chinch Row. 

Saltville, Virginia | Photo: Wikipedia

By the late colonial period salt was being commercially produced in the region. Salt was a valuable commodity for cooking and preserving food along with its importance in the tanning process as animal hides were preserved with salt.  With the arrival of the railroad in Saltville in 1856, the production of salt in the region increased and its value increased. The town was a key source of salt for pioneers and provided much of the salt for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Soon after the War began in April of 1861, President Lincoln had issued a blockade that would expand from the Potomac to the Rio Grande Rivers. The order blocked transport of essentials for the Confederate forces…including salt. This would eventually lead to a salt famine in Confederate states. 

Before the war, you could buy a sack of salt for about 50 cents. A sack would get you 50 to 75 pounds of salt. After the war began and the blockade was imposed, that sack of salt would increase to $1.25 and even as high as, $2.50. 

Some southerners had no means of buying salt or had the money but no access to it. Which led them to desperate measures to try to obtain salt for curing. Some went as far as digging up the soil under their smokehouses. They would add water and boil the mixture until it was muddy and dark and usable salt.   

Throughout the war, salt would be a commodity worth fighting over. In fact, two civil war battles would be fought in Saltville as Union forces tried to gain control of the saltworks. A mission they accomplished near the end of the war when they gained control of the town and destroyed the saltworks. 

View of Saltville during Civil War | Photo: Harper’s Weekly Engraving, 1865

Following the war, the railroad expanded through the Saltville valley which created more opportunities for business and industry in the region. 

In 1893, British engineer Thomas Mathieson arrived in Saltville to supervise the construction of a plant that was financially backed by his wealthy father, Neil Mathieson. Seven businessmen teamed with Mathieson engineering to open the plant along the Holston River,  known as Mathieson Alkali Works. 

Olin Mathison Plant–Saltville, Va. Post card 1910

The plant turned local deposits of salt, coal and limestone into soda ash, with the first shipment leaving the plant in July of 1895. Within A year later, the company produced the first commercially available bleaching powder in the states. Until this time, all of the bleaching powder and most of the alkali consumed in America had been imported from England. Mathieson further expanded when they began production of baking soda.

The products produced in Saltville would be shipped to all manner of industries…used in medicines, soaps, glue and more. The demand for production was high and the opportunity to expand was significant for Mathieson.

The company’s utilization of the salt reserves ushered in the modern chemical industry in the United States. The company expanded and opened new plants in Niagara Falls, N. Y., and Lake Charles, Louisiana. By 1898, Mathieson’s growth led to Saltville growing. A boom of construction began to provide houses, churches and bars for the company town. 

The Mathieson production cycle in Saltville would last about 75 years as the company produced other products including dry ice, pesticides, liquid chlorine and fertilizers.

 In 1954, Mathieson Alkali merged with Olin Industries, known for its production of blasting powder, ammunition, and guns. The Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation continued operations in Saltville until 1972. The company has been the source of pollution in the region for some time but EPA guidelines established in the early 1970s led to the company shutting down their operation. 

Some would wish that decision had been made back in the 1920s, when Saltville faced a major disaster.

The Mathieson’s Industrial progress led to a new problem in the Saltville Valley. Waste. An ammonia still waste known as muck was a messy and bothersome byproduct of the plant.  The company’s solution to the problem came in 1908 when they built what was known as the Muck Dam, to contain the waste.

Muck Dam, circa 1910 | Photo: U.S. Geological Survey.

The byproduct was pumped out to the dam that was constructed from waste produced by company boilers. Eventually the muck in a pond on the banks of the North Holston River would drain into the river. 

To understand what unfolded on Christmas Eve 1924 its important to know what this muck was. Margaret Linford is a genealogist who grew up in the area. In December of 2013 she wrote a piece about Saltville for Southwest Virginia Today.  She wrote that she had come across an interview with a former manager of the Olin Mathieson Corporation. According to The manager, Jim Brown, the “dam was made of slaker waste and fly ash and cinders from the boilers that produced steam at the plant …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.”

The walls of the Muck Dam were about 100 feet high and the resulting muck pond, covered 30 acres of land with waste by December of 1924.

Break in Muck Dam, 1924 | Photo: Carole Rosenbalm Collection

Christmas Eve 1924 was a day of celebration and anticipation. As was typical this time of year, it was cold (about 28 degrees) and light rain. Saltville Valley residents were attending parties and gatherings with family and friends. 

All of the joy of the evening and excitement of Christmas Eve would be shattered around 8pm. Residents would later say they heard a massive roar, describing it as something akin to a plane roaring. Seconds later, the muck dam ruptured, immediately unleashing alkali sludge and water on the area of Saltville known as Palmertown.

Town historians estimate that the sludge that overtook the community of Palmertown and extended a mile up river was initially about 100 feet high and 300 feet across. 

Wave after wave of this muck swept away, and in some cases, covered up homes and barns that had been built near the dam. Some residents went outside to see what was going on. The dam rupture and resulting muck flood happened so quickly that some of those curious souls were killed by debris and muck moments after they had tried to process what was happening. 

Damaged homes in Palmertown | Photo: Carole Rosenbalm Collection

Christmas Eve 1924 was a night of horror, chaos and heroism in Saltville as people rushed into the darkness to find family members and friends and save the lives of those caught in the path of the disaster. 

Carl Eskridge would later write The Great Saltville Disaster, an account of the disaster and horror in Saltville. He wrote the following description of the men who went into action that night:

“Into the area of muck, men plunged, heedless of the imminent danger of another wave coming down and carrying them away. Onward they went, through the slimy, treacherous muck waist deep, disregarding the danger of being sucked down underneath or swept away by another wave.”

Oral histories from survivors tell of dangerous nature of the muck, with some noting that it ate little holes in their skin and the chemicals left scars on their eyes. The danger of the rescue was made greater as those trying to help survivors, who they could hear crying for help, could not get a clear view of where cries for help were coming from. It was dark and lanterns brought in offered very little help because the disaster was widespread.

Some rescuers set a wrecked house on fire to give them more light as they attempted to reach survivors. Bales of cotton were also set on fire and places along the banks of the river to offer light for those who were searching. 

People were found clinging to trees along the river, some clinging to boulders. It’s estimated about 150 men worked to rescue survivors along the river and throughout the Saltville Valley.

Palmertown in ruins | Photo: Herald-Courier

Carl Eskridge shared an account of the dramatic rescue of the Prater sisters, Fronia and Virginia. Their father, mother and sister had been killed in the disaster. As a group of searchers passed by some wreckage they heard a girl screaming for help. Screaming for her mother. 

Large scale view of damage following the dam break | Photo: Carole Rosenbalm Collection

The men were able to reach what had once been the roof of the home and pulled boards away until they saw a little hand reach up. The girl begged the men for help, yelling: “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 comforted the girls who had no idea their parents and sister were gone. The sisters were taken to a makeshift hospital that had been set up in the rooms above the General Store.

Later, the girls would share that their parents had put them to bed upstairs earlier in the night and had even allowed them to take a Christmas toy with them, never knowing that this would be their final memory together as a family. The upstairs of the Prater home was all that was left. The bottom of the home had been swept away by the muck.  

Carl Eskridge would say this incident so touched the hearts of the men that they wept like children.

In all, 19 people would die as a result of the Muck Dam disaster. 12 of them were children.

Hear the whole story of the disaster, along with theories as to who or what had been responsible for the dam break, in this episode of the podcast.

Men who helped with search & rescue efforts | Photo: Carole Rosenbalm Collection

Episode Sources

Remembering the Muck Dam break in Saltville on Christmas Eve 1924. Southwest Virginia Today. 24 December 2014.
Eskridge, Carl V. The Great Saltville Disaster. Bristol, Tennessee: King Printing, 1925.
Bolt, Caren S. (2016) ’Dammed’ If You Don’t: The Palmertown Tragedy of 1924 in Collective Memory
Saltville, Virginia 1924: The Year Without a Christmas. Appalachian Histories & Mysteries. 16 December 2016. 
City of Saltville History. City of Saltville. 
Patrick Held for Blowing up Muck Dam. Bluefield Daily Telegraph. 20 Jan 1925
The Muck Dam Disaster: Christmas 1924. The Mountain Laurel. December 1988.
Christmas Eve Nightmare. The Roanoke Times. 23 December 2004.  
Pieces of the Past: 19 people were killed in 1924 Saltville, Virginia, Muck Dam disaster. Bristol Herald-Courier. 11 January 2019.

Theme Song

Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Pantherburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use.

Additional Music

“Elegy” by Wayne Jones; “Passing Time”, “Fairy Tale Waltz”, “Dark Times” and “Drone in D” by Kevin McLeod. “Prelude No 1” by Chris Zabriske. All music licensed under Creative Commons

Categories: history, mysteries, podcasts, virginia

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