Have you ever been reading, writing, or had an experience and then soon after see or read something that exactly relates to that experience? That’s the case when I read Matthew Ferrence’s new book Appalachia North (West Virginia University Press, 2019).
Recent posts on this website described my interest at finding the cultural differences between northern and southern Appalachia and the importance of descriptions of location or place to a novel. Ferrence discusses both topics in his memoir based in part on previously published essays about his leaving and later returning to his Pennsylvania Appalachian roots.
He writes about the culture of northern Appalachia, the Appalachian Regional Commission zone located above the Mason-Dixon line, a region he describes as a space not totally Appalachian, but not quite “regular” American either.
It’s About the Geology
Ferrence also reflects on another topic that repeats in Appalachian studies. The sense of the region’s past and future are always connected to water—rivers, streams, creeks. The dominant landscape relies on the acts of erosion from water carving out plateaus to look mountainous. The geology of northern Appalachia is that of forces that lead streams into creeks, small rivers, and the Ohio River. The Little Cities of Black Diamonds (LCBD) is often described as in the Hocking River Valley, reflecting the importance of that river in the ecosystem. The region of narrow valleys and high hills with creeks and runs rushing from steep watersheds was originally covered by continental glaciers.
Traveling the backroads of the Little Cities, looking at a detailed map, or studying the history, it’s clear that many of the locations picked for coal mining and clay production were selected because the valley was created by that manner of water erosion.
The LCBD lie to the north and east of the Hocking River, centered on the valleys of Sunday Creek to the west and Monday Creek to the west. It’s said they are named for the days on which early settlers discovered them. These creeks and their tributaries drain watershed laying between six hundred and fifty and one thousand feet high, creating narrow valleys unsuitable for agriculture.
Directions are often given based on locations of tributaries. One states, “The depot is left of the turn in the road at the creek crossing.” An early photo of this spot shows a small wooden one-lane bridge over a small creek for local traffic. Another is the direction to a mine, on Little Bailey Run, a run being a small, but quickly flowing stream.
Sometimes the creeks and rivers aren’t friendly. Because of the topography, floods can be brutal in southeast Ohio. Collecting old photos and postcards of badly damaged buildings and rails after a flood’s rampage was a hobby during the Little Cities’ boom period.
Bridge to Memories
Perhaps my fondest memory of a creek in the region was one that my father pointed out on his last trip. He couldn’t believe that the little rickety wooden swing bridge—a little over a foot wide and about two yards long over the creek—was still there sixty-five years later. I pointed out to him that it probably wasn’t the same rickety bridge, but I was also in awe of the fact that he found it along this isolated dirt road so many years later, and that evidently youngsters were still using it to visit their friends across the creek as he did after school many days.
This proves to me that the past is not only connected to the future, as Ferrence notes, but also to the present in unique and memorable ways.
Information for this article was also obtained from Little Cities of Black Diamonds by Jeffrey T. Darbee and Nancy A. Recchie (Images of America, Arcadia Publishing, 2009).
Next time: The Color Line in Little Cities of Black Diamonds
Ann Otto writes based on factual as well as oral history. Her debut novel, Yours in a Hurry, about Ohioans relocating to California in the 1910’s, is available on-line at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kindle, and at locations listed on her website at www.ann-otto.com. Ann’s academic background is in history, English, and behavioral science, and she has published in academic and professional journals. She enjoys speaking with groups about all things history, writing, and the events, locations, and characters from Yours in a Hurry. She is currently working on her next novel about Ohio’s Appalachia in the 1920’s and prepared for future works by blogging about a recent World War 2 European tour. She can be reached through the website, or on Facebook @Annottoauthor or www.Goodreads.com.
Maybe the best way to introduce the history of the Little Cities is through the eyes of one of the main characters of my book in progress with the working title of Little Diamonds. The story begins in the battlefields of World War I, but Dewey Powell is now on a train returning home to the Little Cities of Black Diamonds.
The tipples were the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes. Dewey looked at his watch and saw that it was ten o’clock. He’d dozed off to the clickety-clack of the train on the tracks after breakfast. The train creaked as it turned a corner on the rails. Since New York City they had entered Ohio through Youngstown and Canton before landing in Columbus several days ago for the parade and celebration welcoming hundreds of returning soldiers home at the Capital building.
He looked out the train window again. Now, the hills, occasional oil rigs, clay factories, and more frequent coal tipples told him he was almost there. In an area of only fifteen square miles, more than seventy small crossroads, towns, and large mining communities in sections of Perry, Hocking, Athens and Morgan counties were known as the Little Cities of Black Diamonds.
Ancient glaciers had created a region of narrow valleys and high hills to form the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The farming wasn’t good, but the coal, clay, oil and natural gas below the surface were rich. The region started when the Hocking Valley Railroad arrived in 1869. Other railroads followed into the valleys and hollows where the coal was.
Every time a man bought a new piece of land to dig, he’d give it a name, often his own, and a town would grow up around it. Most were company owned towns with fewer than two-thousand residents and relied entirely on coal for employment. It began on a single main street with homes, churches, and schools. Always centrally situated was the railroad depot.
The train slowed down as it reached the Nelsonville train depot. Dewey saw the old opera house and the town square where, like other cities in the region, commercial buildings had second story porches attached by decorative brackets. A man stood on one waving a Knights of Labor banner. Newly paved streets led up to the depot which was filled with a variety of friends, families, and curious on-lookers. You could tell the buggy drivers and mail clerks from the idlers. A baggage handler was reading a newspaper in the sun until the next mailbag arrived. An express boy walked anxiously alongside the train.
The station agent could see approaching trains from either direction from a bay window on the east track side. Station signs attached to the depot showed mileage to the line’s eastern extreme in West Virginia and on the other end of the depot was another, showing the next western stop in Ohio.
As the train whistle sounded, Dewey put his head out the window and could feel the steam from the engine as it slowed to a halt. Sailors and soldiers jumped off the train to cacophonous cries from the crowd.
Place and Location as a Character
Many stories are so connected to a location that a place becomes one of the characters, and such is the case with Little Cities of Black Diamonds. But this region provides characters of many places, each with their own history and story. To those of us who are passionate about preserving the past, each are diamonds of another type. Their history reflects issues in the nation’s past-- unionization, African-American and European-ethnic heritage, the consequences of a one-product economy, rural transportation—to name a few. I hope you will enjoy reading about these characters of place as much as I enjoy learning and writing about them.
Next Time: Appalachia North
Ann Otto writes fiction based on factual as well as oral history. Her debut novel, Yours in a Hurry, about Ohioans relocating to California in the 1910’s, is available on-line at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kindle, and at locations listed on her website at www.ann-otto.com. Ann’s academic background is in history, English, and behavioral science, and she has published in academic and professional journals. She enjoys speaking with groups about all things history, writing, and the events, locations, and characters from Yours in a Hurry. She is currently working on her next novel about Ohio’s Appalachia in the 1920’s and prepared for future works by blogging about a recent World War 2 European tour. She can be reached through the website, or on Facebook @Annottoauthor or www.Goodreads.com.