Category Archives: West Virginia History

WVU Press Re-publishes “The Book of the Dead”

“Written in response to the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster of 1931 in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, The Book of the Dead is an important part of West Virginia’s cultural heritage and a powerful account of one of the worst industrial catastrophes in American history. The poems collected here investigate the roots of a tragedy that killed hundreds of workers, most of them African American. They are a rare engagement with the overlap between race and environment in Appalachia.

Published for the first time alongside photographs by Nancy Naumburg, who accompanied Rukeyser to Gauley Bridge in 1936, this edition of The Book of the Dead includes an introduction by Catherine Venable Moore, whose writing on the topic has been anthologized in Best American Essays. Read more at West Virginia University Press…

WV Mine Wars Museum Wins NEH Grant

On August 2, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced that the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum is the recipient of a $30,000 challenge grant for The Blair Centennial Project, our long-term plan to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain in 2021!

The NEH grant committee called the Blair Centennial Project “A bold and collaborative effort to use the humanities to foster cultural tourism and give a challenged community hope for the future through respect for the past.” Read More…

Best American Essays

The Book of the Dead“—my essay on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster and the poet Muriel Rukeyser from the Fall 2016 issue of Oxford American—will be included in the The Best American Essays 2017. One of my favorite writers, Leslie Jamison, edited this year’s collection. From the publisher’s listing:

The best-selling essayist Leslie Jamison picks the best essays from hundreds of magazines, journals, and websites, bringing her incredible ability to “stitch together the intellectual and the emotional with the finesse of a crackerjack surgeon” (NPR) to the task.

Crackerjack! Preorder your copy

“The Book of the Dead”

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Above the Hawk’s Nest Dam on the New River. Photo by Lisa Elmaleh.

My longform nonfiction piece about the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster, “The Book of the Dead: In Fayette County, WV, Expanding the Document of Disaster,” is now available online at The Oxford American‘s website. It was originally published in the magazine’s fall issue and recently won a Commendation from the Stack Awards.

My online archive of Hawk’s Nest Tunnel workers, hawksnestnames.org, is a companion project that houses primary source documents and victims’ names.

Finally, check out this “Photographer’s Day Book” feature from The Oxford American, in which Lisa Elmaleh tracks her pursuit of Hawk’s Nest images for the magazine. I’m so thankful to Lisa for making these photos.

Stack Awards

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The Stack Awards recognize the best work in independent magazines from all over the world. I was short-listed for a Stack Award in Nonfiction for my essay, “The Book of the Dead,” published in the Fall 2016 issue of Oxford American. 

West Virginia-based photographer Lisa Elmaleh was commissioned to provide art for the story. A new website archives some of this history: The Book of the Dead: An Archive of Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Workers. 

Cedar Grove Radio Documentary

Cedar Grove is a story about transition–bridging the past and the future. The hour-long radio documentary reveals surprising hidden histories through the work of renowned novelist Mary Lee Settle and the voices of women from her hometown of Cedar Grove, WV. The piece was co-produced by me, Allegheny Mountain Radio, and West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Settle is the author of 21 books, including her five volume fictional opus, The Beulah Quintet, which spans two continents and 300 years of Appalachian history. Beulah Land is a fictional place grounded in the reality of Settle’s family homeplace at Cedar Grove, a town in West Virginia struggling amid coal industry decline. West Virginia native Catherine Moore visits Cedar Grove and interviews the “real” residents of Beulah Land, searching for stories of survival and resiliency in the face of enormous challenges.

The scenes and characters that emerge take us through wilderness, Underground Railroad operations, the coal mine wars of the early 20th century, and John F. Kennedy’s visit to the Cedar Grove in 1960.

A collaboration with photographer Roger May also produced a robust visual document of life in present-day Cedar Grove. Original music by Caleb Samples. Funding provided by the West Virginia Humanities Council and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

For audio, photos, and more, visit the project website. 

Two New Projects

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.00.59 PMThe Paint Creek Audio History Project is a geo-located series of radio stories featuring the voices of people who live on beautiful Paint Creek, WV. These ten stories became the basis of an audio driving tour delivered via mobile app, as well as a new website for the Paint Creek Scenic Trails Association.

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Cedar Grove draws from the writing of Mary Lee Settle and a chorus of voices from her hometown of Cedar Grove, WV. The project features a photography collaboration with Roger May. Gibbs Kinderman is the executive producer, the editor is Ben Shapiro. Cedar Grove was co-produced by Allegheny Mountain Radio and West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and me.

These projects would not have been possible without support from The West Virginia Humanities Council, the National Coal Heritage Area Authority, the Fayette County Commission, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

BBC’s Digital Human

Diane Schou of Green Bank, WV, pictured with her catalogued list of the symptoms of electrosensitivity.

Diane Schou of Green Bank, WV, pictured with her catalogued list of the symptoms of electrosensitivity.

I recently collaborated with the BBC show Digital Human to produce a piece about the electrosensitive community in Pocahontas County, WV. I traveled to Green Bank to spend some time with Diane Schou, who moved to the mountains to escape health issues she says are related to the electromagnetic radiation we’re all exposed to in our daily lives. Green Bank is a designated Radio Free Quiet Zone because of a radio telescope located there, so cell phones and wireless technologies are banned. Diane and about 50 other electrosensitive people have sequestered themselves in its protective zone.

The Digital Human episode is called “Magic,” and it’s a pretty thoughtful reflection on all the ways we treat technology as a supernatural force:

Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd law goes “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So does that apply to the modern digital world? Aleks Krotoski asks the question with some surprising results. From people living under the ‘curse’ of electro-sensitivity to the rituals we all go through to ward off evil spirits like updating our anti-virus software.

Listen here.

View a gallery of my photos of Green Bank here. 

“O Beulah Land” in Oxford American

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O Beulah Land,” my wandering longform essay about writer Mary Lee Settle, the women of Cedar Grove, and Appalachian transition, was published in the summer issue of Oxford American: The Southern Magazine of Good Writing. 

They also published a companion web-only piece–an audio teaser to my forthcoming hour-long radio documentary and some photographs of Cedar Grove by my pal, the photographer Roger May.