Beyond Citizen Science: Natural History as a Cultural Bridge in Appalachia

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 22, 2014

WSmith_headshotPlease welcome guest author Wally Smith. Smith is an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Originally from the north Georgia mountains, his work focuses on ways in which biodiversity science can be linked with ongoing efforts to develop economic opportunities in rural Appalachia, while preserving the region’s natural and cultural heritage.



When I first announced to colleagues that I was moving to the mountains of southwest Virginia several years ago to work as a biologist, I was met with skepticism about how I would take the move. “Are you sure?” a fellow graduate student asked. “That area is a little backwards, you know.”

As a lifelong Appalachian resident, I knew to take the question with a grain of salt. The perception of our region as uneducated, isolated, and hostile to new ideas is all too common in popular culture, and this trend often holds for the scientific community.

Students and faculty at UVa-Wise participating in a group hike to develop content for digital outdoor guides at the Sugar Hill Trail System, a local park in St. Paul, VA.

Students and faculty at UVa-Wise participating in a group hike to develop content for digital outdoor guides at the Sugar Hill Trail System, a local park in St. Paul, VA.

Many biologists like myself will spend entire careers at major research universities in urban centers far from the mountains, keeping rural portions of Appalachia seemingly foreign. Those of us who perform research in the region often visit only sporadically, with minimal interaction with residents, and few national science outreach initiatives venture into the mountains with educational programs.

Even those that do, like an innovative effort to bring science into rural classrooms by Durham, NC’s National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, are often summarized by media outlets as if they are conducting a trip to Mars. A 2011 writeup of this project in the Pacific Standard, for example, referred to the thought of taking outreach into rural communities as venturing “into the unknown.”

This historical gap between scientists and society in Appalachia has had a number of consequences for the mountains’ natural and cultural heritage. Appalachian schools, ignored by many outreach initiatives and constrained by tight budgets, often struggle to match national standards for science achievement. This isn’t to say that Appalachian educators’ methods are not effective, of course – the region has some of the most dedicated and outstanding education programs I’ve known – but teaching science becomes exponentially more difficult when expensive technologies, culturally-relevant curricula, and knowledgeable experts are out of reach.

Further still, false perceptions of Appalachia as a hostile, isolated region have historically hindered our understanding of the mountains’ wildlife.

Little Stony Falls, a popular hiking destination in rural southwest Virginia, has been a focal point for the development of citizen science tools in the region.

Little Stony Falls, a popular hiking destination in rural southwest Virginia, has been a focal point for the development of citizen science tools in the region.

While ecosystems near major recreation areas and population centers have been heavily sampled by biologists, more isolated areas – many again overlooked by those uncomfortable or just unfamiliar with rural communities – are still mostly a glaring hole in our scientific understanding.

This leaves us with a laundry list of unanswered questions, ones that become all the more pressing when one considers that Appalachia is a hotspot of diversity for wildlife like salamanders, fishes, and freshwater mussels (among other groups). Where do these organisms live in Appalachia? What habitats do they prefer? How do they respond to human-driven change?

In the fall of 2012, a group of students in my laboratory at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise decided to aim for this “holy grail” of bettering our understanding of biodiversity in the mountains, while bridging the ever-present gap between scientists and the people who call our mountains home. These students were a mix of local residents of rural southwest Virginia and those from more suburban areas near eastern portions of the state, but the questions they addressed were the same. How, for example, can you link scientists and their research with residents who may live a day’s drive from the nearest major research lab or lecture hall?

Like any scientific question, we had to start with what we know. One of the first things our student group noticed was a body of research from the field of cultural cognition, a growing field in the social sciences that examines how individuals perceive and interpret scientific information. One of the most striking finds from this research in recent years was that rural residents, like many found across Appalachia, are best engaged with new scientific material when it is presented in a way that ties into an existing cultural background.

In other words, it might be best to teach ecology to Appalachian students using wildlife from their own backyards than it would be to do so using species from a tropical rainforest. Looking more locally, we had information from our own area that these examples of “big” scientific concepts were in high demand: a survey of southwest Virginia educators conducted in part through our lab found that over half of those surveyed strongly agreed that local case studies were greatly needed to improve science education.

QR codes linking to digital guides have been incorporated into trailhead signage and marketing materials for a number of regional trails, including this new preserve along the Clinch River in Wise County, VA.

QR codes linking to digital guides have been incorporated into trailhead signage and marketing materials for a number of regional trails, including this new preserve along the Clinch River in Wise County, VA.

After examining this research, the student group developed an idea. What if they crafted tools to introduce the topics that biologists research using local habitats and wildlife, all while encouraging Appalachian residents to become scientists and collect data of their own? The result was Southwest Virginia CSI (Citizen Science Initiative), a project designed to link Appalachian biodiversity with people across southwest Virginia and beyond.

The approach of Southwest Virginia CSI has been relatively simple. Appalachia is blessed with large amounts of public land that residents and visitors alike take advantage of for outdoor recreation, including hiking trails, lakes and rivers for paddling, and dispersed areas for hunting and fishing. The students first decided to harness these public lands as focal points for science education, developing digital interpretive guides to hiking trails that illustrate how local natural features relate to the scientific big picture.

For example, while a trailside wildflower may look beautiful and make for an excellent photograph, it also might form an outstanding example of relationships between plants and their pollinators, the delicate dance of co-evolution that drives the unique colors and structures we enjoy in the forest each spring and fall.

Since the project’s start in 2012, students have produced 13 of these digital guides to regional trails, all freely available through the Google Earth and EveryTrail smartphone applications. And since their inception, the guides have taken off. This set of guides alone has been viewed almost 70,000 times, bringing scientific research directly to rural residents through the lens of local wildlife. QR codes linking to the guides’ digital content have even been installed at a number of trailheads through partnerships with government agencies and local nonprofit groups.

That trailside wildflower mentioned above, though, may be more than just an educational tool. It might also be a sensitive or threatened species – one from a larger population that biologists don’t know exists. Our group has therefore partnered with iNaturalist, an online citizen science platform, to allow Appalachian residents and visitors to upload their photographs of regional wildlife to an online home that scientists worldwide can view and use.

The resulting group website, called Evolving Appalachia, allows users of our digital guides and others to contribute their own wildlife sightings that, if identified correctly and with enough information included, become real scientific data that are deposited alongside professional scientists’ collections worldwide.

The Green Salamander is one species that has benefited from citizen science collections in rural Appalachia. Observations by local citizens have led to the design of a formal study of the species by biologists; to date, this work has located nearly 30 previously-unknown populations of this amphibian.

The Green Salamander is one species that has benefited from citizen science collections in rural Appalachia. Observations by local citizens have led to the design of a formal study of the species by biologists; to date, this work has located nearly 30 previously-unknown populations of this amphibian.

For perhaps the first time, rural Appalachian residents can now learn about and contribute meaningfully to science without having to travel to a major university’s lecture hall or wait for scientists to come to them. In the two years since our project’s inception, over 3,000 observations have been recorded on iNaturalist through Evolving Appalachia, and many of the residents submitting observations have had the opportunity to network online with professional biologists to get feedback on how to identify a particularly confusing specimen. Out of these observations, several have actually led to publications in scientific journals, providing updates on species’ ranges, some found far from where they were thought to occur.

This year, our project continues to move forward. Our students have partnered with a local string band and Appalachian storyteller to produce narrated audio content for recreational paddlers through a local outfitter, and several communities have incorporated the students’ work into their tourism marketing packages. Just last month, we launched a new home for our content through a partnership with the Clinch River Valley Initiative, an award-winning effort to develop economic opportunities along southwest Virginia’s Clinch River – one of the most biodiverse rivers on the continent.

If anything, our iNaturalist project’s name, Evolving Appalachia, has had more meanings than one. Yes, we’re allowing citizens to contribute to the scientific understanding of how Appalachia has changed (and continues to change) biologically. But we’re also hopefully evolving perceptions of how science and scientists can interact with the region.

We have found overwhelming support and participation from local residents and none of the negative stereotypes that so often color the region, finding instead that Appalachia has a desire to learn about its natural heritage – and to share what we already know. In short, we’ve found an answer to that question I was asked so often when I first moved here: yes, we’re sure. Biologically speaking and otherwise, there’s no better place to call home.

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Dams on the Upper Yough: What Almost Wasn’t

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 21, 2014

chris preperatoPlease welcome guest author Chris Preperato. Preperato is a film-maker and historian who works for George Mason University. He’s also a kayaker, frequently spending his weekends between the West Virginia panhandles. His project, a History of the Upper Yough, combines those explorations of the history of the Youghiogheny River in western Maryland, and its impact on both the boating and local communities.


There was supposed to be a dam at Sang Run.

And another at Swallow Falls. A third major dam in Crellin for water storage would have completed the plan. The Youghiogheny flows free today from its origins above Silver Lake until it crosses the Pennsylvania border. But engineers, politicians, and power companies spent the first half of the twentieth century trying to reduce it to a series of lakes.

1944 Report on the Youghiogheny Basin

1944 Report on the Youghiogheny Basin

The most unique proposition came in 1910. The owner of the Youghiogheny Power and Light company proposed a centuries worth of cheap, renewable energy for Baltimore, MD. Stricken with an incurable disease at the age of 75, Mr H.P. Tasker decided he had a plan that would benefit society. With a ninety-nine year lease, and power offered at $3 per horsepower, all the city had to do was provide the transmission wires. More miraculously, he proposed doing so without building a single dam.

The rates he was proposing were “absurdly low,” and yet even under scrutiny of the city’s engineers, the plan held up. Even with the cost of transmission lines and property purchases for the right of way, the power paid for itself. And yet, like most hydro-electric plans in the Youghiogheny valley, nothing came of it. The same is true of a 1914 proposal that created the Youghiogheny Water and Power Company. A plan would come together, politicians would approve it, and the money would never materialize.

Construction on the Dam, 1924

Construction on the Dam, 1924

One of the marvels there is a tunnel which is being drilled straight through a mountain…The stupendous undertaking of this company is an engineer’s romance.
-The Baltimore Sun, July 10, 1924

In 1921, the Youghiogheny Hydro-Electric Company was given the right to build dams on Deep Creek and the Youghiogheny.

Wall Street Journal December 13, 1923

Wall Street Journal December 13, 1923

They were the third company to be given the rights. And like those previous companies, their surveyors found that building a series of dams (three on the Youghiogheny and one on Deep Creek) was the best course of action. But the demand for power had risen in the intervening years. They determined that building the dam on Deep Creek would be “economically self-sustaining.”

What followed was a month’s long process of buying up land titles and moving houses to higher ground. In total, 8,000 acres were purchased, including about 140 farms and 50 houses. They also had to relocate miles of highway and build new bridges across what would soon wider spans. Rail lines were extended to the dam, and temporary housing was built for the construction workers. A little over four years and $9 million later, the dam came online at 4:00pm on May 26th, 1925.

Ultimately, the Youghiogheny River in Maryland was saved by war.

In the midst of World War II, damming was no longer a private endeavor. The New Deal brought the federal government into the damming business, and the war made power a national security issue. Between the time Deep Creek Dam was built and the war began, power demand had risen 170% in Pittsburgh. Its growth during the 1940′s was exponential. With the steel foundation of the war machine being forged at the mouth of the Youghiogheny, the headwaters were called on once again to provide for those downstream.

1944 House Report on the Youghiogheny

1944 House Report on the Youghiogheny

The Yough River Reservoir was already under construction in Confluence; approved earlier by the Flood Control Act of 1936. In addition to adding power generators to that dam, the familiar dams at Swallow Falls, Sang Run, and Crellin were back. This time, they were joined by two smaller dams. The first was the Victoria Dam on the Middle Yough, and the second was a re-regulation dam located below Bruner Run.

Pittsburgh Press Nov 26, 1944

Pittsburgh Press Nov 26, 1944

At a cost of $38 million, they would provide 162,000 kilowatts of power. And with the federal government in charge, money was no longer an issue.
For those that had long viewed the Youghiogheny as “wasted water,” this plan was definitive and comprehensive.

The dam in Crellin would finally tame the river at its source, and the remaining dams would firmly regiment the river’s path to Pittsburgh. The Yough would tumble through twelve miles of tunnels, its downhill rush harnessed by turbines for power; free flowing water foiled by concrete walls.

But building dams, much like fighting a war, requires resources. The bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred just five days before the Youghiogheny report was sent to Washington. At a time when the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams towered above the river banks, and the TVA was littering the American South with dams, the government couldn’t spare the resources to build the Youghiogheny dams. The men and equipment to build those dams were instead sent to build ships and tanks. The power to build planes and the atomic bomb came from larger dams out west. In a final twist of irony, the biggest and best plan to dam the Youghiogheny was simply too small to matter.

One Response

  • Elizabeth says:

    There is also the Yough dam in Confluence PA, we call it the Youghogeny River Lake, it spans from PA into MD. It’s a very popular place for fishing and boating, and other water activities.

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Just Trembling All Over—the Textile Strike of 1934 in Huntsville, AL

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 20, 2014

taylor_m_politesPlease welcome guest author Taylor M. Polites. Polites, a Huntsville, AL native, is a writer and teacher living in Rhode Island with his small Chihuahua, Clovis. His first novel The Rebel Wife was published by Simon & Schuster in 2012. His fiction, essays and articles have appeared in anthologies, local and regional magazines, and newspapers, including Provincetown Arts, the Cape Codder, artscope Magazine, and the New York Times Disunion Blog.


At the height of the Depression and in the midst of New Deal economic experimentation, more than 4,000 textile mill workers in Huntsville, AL, walked off their jobs, beginning a strike that eventually spread from Alabama to Maine. It was one of the largest national labor demonstrations in history—and the largest ever in the South.

Contemporaries estimated the strike to involve a million millworkers, although modern historians estimate the numbers from 400,000 to 500,000. The strikers fought to improve working conditions, wages, and workers’ rights. The enormous sacrifices and questionable gains of the strike left lasting effects in the region as management remained aggressively opposed to labor organization and workers now doubted unions’ efficacy.

“Group of workers. Boy on left refused to pose.” Merrimack Mills, Huntsville, Alabama. Lewis Wickes Hine. November 1910. Library of Congress.

“Group of workers. Boy on left refused to pose.” Merrimack Mills, Huntsville, Alabama. Lewis Wickes Hine. November 1910. Library of Congress.

Situated at the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in North Alabama, Huntsville had been a pioneer in the Southern textile industry. Well before the Civil War, local entrepreneurs had built small, water-powered mills like the Bell Factory at the Three Forks of the Flint River and the Cabaniss Factory north of Hazel Green.

After the devastation of the Civil War, steam power assisted the falling water of the Cumberland Plateau to drive a burgeoning textile industry in a region looking for alternatives to cotton culture. Late 19th century industrialists believed textile mills would modernize the Southern economy. By the end of the century, there were thirty-one mills in Alabama with over four hundred thousand spindles and eight thousand looms.

In Huntsville, like elsewhere in the South, Northern money fueled the construction of large mill complexes that became cities unto themselves. Northern capitalists found Southern labor cheaper and more compliant, and labor organization was almost non-existent. First, the Dallas Mill in 1891, then the West Huntsville Mill in 1892. Later, the Lincoln Mill (originally the Abingdon Mill), Lowe Mill, and the massive Merrimack Mills complex, all began around 1900. A 1919 Chamber of Commerce brochure touted the mill industry in the city, reporting over three thousand jobs supporting over eight thousand people. Merrimack Mills included a planned mill village with hundreds of houses, a company store, school, infirmary, auditorium, gymnasium, café and barbershop.

From 1908 to 1913, Lewis Hine travelled to Huntsville and other mill towns of the South on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee to document the condition of children working in the textile mills.

His photographs critically influenced the strengthening of child labor laws—and they captured fascinating insights into life in Huntsville’s mill villages. Just like adults, young children worked long hours, tending the large machines that spun the thread (spinners) and wove the cloth (weavers), sweeping, changing spindles and bobbins (doffers), and filling batteries. Children were given boxes to stand on so they could reach the spindles and loom shuttles. They reported to work after a few hours of school in a building Hines described as “tucked away upstairs over the store” and “equipped with antique, dilapidated benches and chairs.”

“Charlie Foster has a steady job in the Merrimack Mills. School record says he is now ten years old.” Huntsville, Alabama. Lewis Wickes Hine. December 1913. Library of Congress.

“Charlie Foster has a steady job in the Merrimack Mills. School record says he is now ten years old.” Huntsville, Alabama. Lewis Wickes Hine. December 1913. Library of Congress.

A generation later, these mill families faced even greater hardship as the Great Depression devastated an industry already in decline. The mills were overwhelmed with stock. There were not enough orders to run at full capacity. Workers lost their jobs through these declines and the notorious “stretch-out,” a system that increased worker productivity without increasing wages.

Mill owners argued that technological advances enabled them to staff fewer people on the machines. A skein winder at Huntsville’s Lincoln Mill complained of her situation—two women were required to do the work formerly done by four and were threatened with termination by the floor boss if they did not comply. Workers said they were being pushed to the limit, overworked and exhausted, yet still not earning a living wage. One man said, “When you get out, you’re just trembling all over.”

The New Deal legislation of the first hundred days after Roosevelt’s inauguration, including the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), changed labor-management relations, particularly the right of workers to organize and negotiate. The power to make changes, however, remained firmly in the hands of the mill owners, who determined wages, prices, and quotas—the complaint and appeal process was burdened in a bureaucracy designed by the mill owners to be unresponsive.

In the wake of the NIRA, the United Textile Workers of America (UTW) engaged in a massive enrollment effort and grew from around 15,000 members in February 1933 to over 250,000 in June 1934. Many of these new members came from the textile mills of the southern piedmont and demonstrated the appetite for organization felt by labor in a region that was generally hostile to labor organization. The same movement swept through many industries in Alabama—mine workers, steel workers, and even sharecroppers.

Because of that expansion in membership, John Dean, a veteran UTW organizer, came to Alabama from the Northeast to assist in union enrollment. He, along with UTW state official Albert W. Cox and experienced organizers Mollie Dowd and Alice Berry, began a campaign to address workers’ concerns. Making Huntsville the base of operations, they proposed the list of grievances that would remain the core of the striker’s goals: eliminating the “stretch-out,” establishing a $12 per week minimum wage and a 30-hour work week, reinstating all workers fired because of union organizing, and recognition of the workers’ right to organize.

“Gracie Clark, 268 A Street, has been a spinner in the filling room of Merrimack Mills for three years. Her insurance policy gives her age thirteen years now.” Lewis Wickes Hine. November 1913. Library of Congress.

“Gracie Clark, 268 A Street, has been a spinner in the filling room of Merrimack Mills for three years. Her insurance policy gives her age thirteen years now.” Lewis Wickes Hine. November 1913. Library of Congress.

Huntsville would remain at the epicenter of the movement in Alabama. Dean and his compatriots met with the forty-two locals in the state, and forty of them voted to strike. On July 16, 1934, over four thousand Huntsville mill workers walked off their job. By the 18th of July, about half of the total Alabama textile mill labor force, some 20,000 workers, had joined the strike.
There was an air of celebration for many strikers. Workers at the Merrimack Mills sang:

We are twelve hundred strong,
And the strike is still on,
And the scabs are still standing,
But they won’t stand for long.
Hallelujah, we are union!
Hallelujah, here we rest!

Crowds of workers gathered at mill gates, blocking entrance to anyone who might want to work and preventing products from leaving the plant. Eventually, the strikers organized armed guards to patrol the mills. The effectiveness and duration of the strike surprised many, particularly national labor leaders.

The mood of celebration was short-lived. Some mill owners, struggling through the Depression, were happy to take the wage holiday and sit out the strikers. The UTW had not accumulated money to provide support to the strikers. The government relief that many strikers expected was cut off by the state relief administrator, Thad Holt. Strikers had to rely on their own limited resources. Institutional force was also brought to bear. Police brandished Gatling guns and tear gas. Mill owners begged Alabama’s Governor Miller to use state forces to suppress the strike, but Miller refused—unlike leaders in other Southern states, where violence became rampant as the strike spread.

In many respects, North Alabama remained the calm, committed core of the movement. One incidence of violence occurred in Decatur, where organizers from Huntsville were beaten and shot at. The most sensational incident was the kidnapping of John Dean himself. The strike organizer was taken from his room at Huntsville’s Russell Erskine Hotel on August 5th and deposited in Fayetteville, TN, with the warning he should not return. Within hours, he had returned with an escort of forty mill workers. Jim Conner, commander of the state’s American Legion, was indicted for the kidnapping, but the case was eventually dropped.

By mid-August, the national meeting of the UTW in New York City voted to join the Alabama strikers, and on September 1st, the demands of Dean’s strikers were recapitulated as hundreds of thousands of workers in the textile industry walked off their jobs in mills from Maine to Alabama. Francis Gorman became the leader and spokesperson for the national movement. As the strike spread, violence erupted. Strikers used “flying squadrons,” fleets of vehicles carrying armed strikers from mill to mill, shutting them down. Governors and capitalists deployed local and state forces, police, and militia to force the mills open. While violence became common in other states (Georgia, South Carolina and Rhode Island), Alabama maintained a tense calm. Some remember Huntsville being very quiet, the citizens living in a state of almost-siege with armed strikers and police facing off in the streets.

Finally, in late September, Roosevelt reorganized elements of the NIRA to create an independent review board that was not held captive by mill owners. Facing the intransigence of the bosses and the desperation of workers, Gorman declared victory on September 22nd and called off the strike. By early October, the mills in Huntsville were back in operation, and workers returned to their jobs.

But the gains declared by Gorman seemed a mirage. Yes, a new grievance structure was established that removed control from the hands of the mill owners. Yes, workers had the legal right to organize. But the stretch-out and wage system were referred to a committee to be studied, and little practical change in the daily lives of the workers was apparent. Many were turned away from their jobs as retaliation for their union efforts. New complaints piled up unredressed. Families were turned out of their homes. And the bitter taste left from the pyrrhic sacrifices of the strike lingered in the hearts of many.

The mill industry in Huntsville rebounded during World War II, but shortly after the war, another slow descent began as manufacturing moved offshore. Once employing hundreds of thousands of workers, the industry vanished. Today, many of those mill buildings and villages still exist in Huntsville, having been repurposed into a community theater (the former Merrimack Hall), artists’ studios and shops (Lowe Mill) and commercial space (Lincoln Mills). They are the last reminders of this once-critical industry in the region, and the movement it generated.

Sources: Irving Bernstein, Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker 1933-1941; The Decatur Daily; The Huntsville Times; Janet Irons, Testing the New Deal; Mickey Maroney, editor, Historic Huntsville Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 1; The New York Times; Thomas McAdory Owen, History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography; Jacquelyn Proctor Reeves, editor, The Huntsville Historical Review, Vol. 33, No. 1; Patricia Ryan, Northern Dollars for Huntsville Spindles; John A. Salmond, The General Textile Strike of 1934 From Maine to Alabama.

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‘Fire: An Urban Menace’ opens at Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 19, 2014

Please welcome guest authors Deborah Montanti and Anne G’Fellers-Mason. Montanti is the Executive Director of the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Anne G’Fellers-Mason serves as the organization’s Special Projects Coordinator.


The Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum and Archives collects artifacts, documents, and photographs to help tell the stories of the land and people who constituted Tennessee’s oldest town. Founded in 1983, the gallery space opened in the Jonesborough Visitor’s Center under the care of town government. A friends organization soon formed to help grow the archives and create the exhibits that would be on display to the public.

Original exhibits dealt with life on the frontier, cloth weaving, blacksmithing, the lost State of Franklin, and much more. In 2001, the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia was formed. At that time, the Town of Jonesborough turned the care of the museum over to the Heritage Alliance and the friends group dissolved.

Hand-painted detail on the water pumper.

Hand-painted detail on the water pumper from the ‘Fire: An Urban Menace’ exhibit.

The Heritage Alliance is dedicated to the preservation of the architectural, historical, and cultural heritage of our region and to providing educational experiences related to history and heritage for a wide range of audiences. As a pivotal part of this mission, the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum plays a large role in school programming and educational tours of the town.

The Heritage Alliance works hard to change out exhibits and update the displayed information and the ways in which it is presented. The museum was originally designed with built-in cases, platforms, and an extensive series of ramps and elevated exhibits in the center of the space. The construction was sturdy and meant to last indefinitely, but as time and technology moved on, updates became necessary.

The first remodel the Heritage Alliance did was to pull the center ramps and elevated exhibits out of the museum. This allowed for a more open space with less congestion. The open area also affords space to bring in traveling exhibits and provides room to display larger artifacts like the threshing machine, the cream separator, and the nineteenth century hand cranked washing machine.

Rotating exhibits in the center have included information on farm machinery, domestic practices, and the 1913 Washington County Courthouse. Currently in the process of remodeling the remainder of the museum, the Heritage Alliance is only two people, so progress is slow and ever ongoing. Thankfully, a wonderful corps of dedicated volunteers help every step of the way.

Detail of the 'Fire: An Urban Menace' exhibit.

‘Fire: An Urban Menace’ exhibit: first hand engine from 1888 (l), fire extinguisher on wheels (center), water pumper (r).

Today, the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum features the clock that kept time in the 1847 Courthouse. Current exhibits showcase information on the history of education in Washington County, Jonesborough’s connection to the Appalachian Trail, Victorian style home interiors, Federal style home interiors, and much more. There’s also a rotating veterans exhibit that changes every 6 months in order to honor as many Washington County veterans as possible. As a part of the ongoing changes, the newest permanent exhibit is Fire: An Urban Menace. The latest exhibit tells Jonesborough’s history with fire and fire prevention.

On New Year’s Eve 1873, the town of Jonesborough closed out an already difficult year on a final, disastrous note. At 5:00 clock that evening, a massive fire spread through town, wiping out many of the buildings on West Main Street. This was only one of several fires that wracked Main Street Jonesborough during the late 1800s.

Townspeople organized bucket brigades to combat the blazes, but they were woefully ineffective in curbing fire early. Finally, after the fire of 1887, the third devastating fire in three decades, the citizens of Jonesborough decided to raise money to purchase fire-fighting equipment. In 1888, the town purchased a ladder truck made in a local wagon shop and a small hand engine. The equipment did not stop fires from occurring, of course, but it did prevent the rapid spread and helped to preserve Jonesborough’s historic buildings for generations to come.

Jonesborough’s first hand engine, a small water pumper, and a “Fire Extinguisher on Wheels” from the 1930s are all on display as part of the Fire: An Urban Menace exhibit in the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum. The fire-fighting equipment has been on display before, but this is the first time the three pieces have had a permanent exhibit home of their own. Before, the large pieces had to be moved to make space for traveling and rotating exhibits.

View of the 'Fire: An Urban Menace' exhibit.

Water pumper from ‘Fire: An Urban Menace’ exhibit.

Due to limited storage at the museum itself, the equipment usually had to be transported by truck to another town. The constant moving threatened irreparable damage to the historic items, and it was in their best interest to find a permanent solution. Under the stewardship of the Heritage Alliance, the layout of the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum has changed over the years, allowing for greater turnover in exhibits. Updating the museum is a slow and steady process, and it would not be possible without the help of wonderful volunteers and the support of the Town of Jonesborough.

In early 2013, display cases in one corner of the museum, cases that had been built into that space in the 1980s, were pulled out to make room for the fire-fighting equipment. The engine, pumper, and extinguisher were moved, for a final time, from their place of storage and returned to the museum. The Heritage Alliance is blessed to have a dedicated corps of volunteers, including a master builder and craftsman who worked to construct the platforms the fire-fighting equipment now rests upon. He also constructed the display case for Jonesborough’s 1939 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map.

Founded in 1867 by Daniel A. Sanborn, the Sanborn Company sent teams to cities across the country to analyze their buildings for various fire risks. Their detailed maps specified the design of every building, including the placement of windows and doors. They also listed the population of the city, the city’s fire preparedness, names of streets, and the placement of geographical features such as rivers and creeks. Jonesborough paid for their first Sanborn Fire Insurance Map in 1888.

The Sanborn Company continued to map Jonesborough off and on until 1939. The maps start with just Main Street and the immediate area surrounding Jonesborough’s central hub, but later maps, such as the 1939 map, branch out to include many of the outlying streets and areas. The Sanborn Maps have been invaluable to the preservation and restoration of Jonesborough.

Guy Ellis Sabin
1853 – 1888

Excerpt from a letter by Mrs. S.J. Rhea
as printed in Mr. Sabin’s obituary.

“Dear Cousin – You probably have heard by telegram of the death of Mr. Guy Sabin. I know your heart is here and you are mourning the sad intelligence . . .

Between two and three o’clock this Wednesday morning the courthouse bell rang and the sky was lurid with a great fire. In the spring Mr. Sabin had organized a Fire Company and bought an engine, and when the bell rang, he arose, and told his boys to lie still and be good boys, until Papa came back.

As Mr. Sabin was always leader in every good effort to benefit his neighbors, he ascended the ridge of an adjoining house to protect it, and fell to the ground, breaking his neck and dying instantly.”

When Jonesborough was designated a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, the maps provided information on how the buildings once looked and also on buildings that had been demolished along the way. The Heritage Alliance continues to refer to the Sanborn Maps for school programs, town tours, and ongoing preservation efforts in town.

The Fire: An Urban Menace exhibit highlights the importance of the Sanborn Maps and the fire-fighting equipment to the Town of Jonesborough. In a most fitting manner, the Jonesborough Fire Department helped lift the equipment, which, with iron wheels, is anything but light, onto their platforms. The fire department helped preserve the buildings in the late 1800s, and they continue to help preserve Jonesborough’s history to this day.

Visitors to the museum can see the equipment, including the exquisite hand-painted detail on the water pumper. Additional panels provide information on the ladder truck, poetic coverage of the great fire of 1873 as printed in Jonesborough’s local newspaper, and the gallant story of Fire Chief Guy Sabin, who gave his life to save the town he loved.

Jonesborough’s fire-fighting equipment was pivotal to the salvation of the town, and it is only fitting that the equipment now has a place of honor and a safe haven of its own where it can be appreciated and studied. When you visit the “Storytelling Capital of the World,” make sure you stop by the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum and view the hand engine, pumper, and extinguisher in their well-deserved retirement. Jonesborough is a town full of stories, and there are many to be told in Fire: An Urban Menace.

For more information on the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum and Archives and the Heritage Alliance, visit our website and like us on Facebook! When you visit town, also be sure to check out the Chester Inn Museum, a State Owned Historic Site Operated by the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. The operation of the Chester Inn is partially funded under an agreement with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Tennessee Historical Commission. Our sister museums are always excited to have guests!

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Book Excerpt: The Clinchfield No. 1 — Tennessee’s Legendary Steam Engine

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 18, 2014

Mark A Stevens and Alf PeoplesPlease welcome guest authors Mark A. Stevens and A.J. “Alf” Peoples. Stevens has served as an editor and publisher of both weekly and daily newspapers in Tennessee and Louisiana in an award-winning journalism career spanning more than 25 years. He has been recognized for his work by Washington, D.C.-based Presstime Magazine, the Tennessee and Louisiana press associations and the Society of Professional Journalists. He is president of MAS Communications, a South Carolina publishing and marketing company. In 2010, he received the Unicoi County Historical Society Walter Garland Award for History Preservation. Peoples is a third-generation railroader. In 2014, he retired as a locomotive engineer from CSX Transportation. His first job was as a car marshal with the Clinchfield Railroad in 1969. Today, he is active as a member of the board of directors of the Clinchfield Railroad Museum and the Unicoi County Heritage Museum. He is a member of the Carolina-Clinchfield and Watauga Valley chapters of the National Railway Historical Association. In 2014, the East Tennessee Historical Society named Alf and Mark as recipients of its Award of Distinction for their work in preserving the history of the Clinchfield No. 1. The Clinchfield No. 1: Tennessee’s Legendary Steam Engine is a follow-up to last year’s The One & Only: A Pictorial History of the Clinchfield No. 1, published by MASproduction and available on


The following is a partial look at Chapter 7, titled “The Hatcher Brothers.”


Ed runs. George fires.

That’s as succinctly as H. Reid could make his apt description of the Hatcher brothers, who became as synonymous with Clinchfield Railroad history as the iconic steam locomotive the two powered through the South for eleven years. Ed and George were the sons of Fanny Lasure Hatcher and George L. Hatcher Sr., a Clinchfield Railroad conductor. The brothers had nine other siblings and grew up in a large home in the Canah Chapel community of Erwin. Ed was born on January 27, 1917, and George on October 14, 1920, which, he likes to point out, is also the birthdate of General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Clinchfield No 1 cover

Ed was confident and a star athlete at Unicoi County’s only high school. He went on to play for East Tennessee State College in nearby Johnson City, where he became an All-American fullback on the football team.

He was easy-going and employed a dry sense of humor. Like his older brother, George was a good athlete, known for many years, even late in life, as a star runner and bicyclist. Growing up, the brothers were inseparable, so it surprised no one to see them working side by side on the railroad.

Ed went to work for the railroad on January 25, 1940, and George signed on for railroad work on December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. George reported for railroad work the next day, but a little more than six months later, he enlisted in the war effort with the U.S. Army Air Corps on June 25, 1942. On January 9, 1943, he left to serve in the war. Soon after, Ed left his railroad job behind and also signed up to fight in the War to End All Wars.

Before George became a household name as the No. 1’s exuberant fireman, he made Erwin history in another way: as a German prisoner of war and a member of what would become known as “the Erwin Nine.” Nine young men from the small town of Erwin, population 3,350, had all volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps. None served together, and all were shot down at different times and in different locations.

Amazingly, though, despite there being more than fifty prison camps throughout Nazi Germany, all nine Erwin men were captured and sent to the same POW camp, Stalag Luft IV. Their stories are told in Hilda Padgett’s excellent volume, The Erwin Nine, and in George’s own thirty-eight-page book, titled simply My World War II Experiences. After he and his fellow prisoners were liberated by the Fourteenth Armored Division of the Third Army, George returned to work for the railroad on October 22, 1945, followed soon after by Ed. Both had survived the war and were eager to return to a familiar life in Erwin.

Ed and George both served as engineers on freight trains for the Clinchfield. Both had run steam engines, but by 1968, when the No. 1 was overhauled, they, like all their co-workers, were operating diesels. With nearly fifty years’ experience between them, the brothers were just what general manager T.D. Moore was looking for in a team to run his prized steam locomotive. He also wanted loyal men who would embrace the job with a passion and a duty, and the men needed to be strong and have the stamina to do the hard work.

The Clinchfield No. 1 leads an excursion in 1973. The famed steam locomotive was used for hundreds of excursions from 1968 until 1979 and visited seven states from her Erwin, Tenn., base with the Clinchfield Railroad. She is now housed at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, MD.

The Clinchfield No. 1 leads an excursion in 1973. The famed steam locomotive was used for hundreds of excursions from 1968 until 1979 and visited seven states from her Erwin, TN base with the Clinchfield Railroad. She is now housed at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, MD.

The restoration of the No. 1 was already under way when Robert Rice, assistant road foreman, called George at his home and asked if he could come down to see Moore. When George arrived, the general manager asked him straight out: “Will you be the fireman for No. 1?” “Well,” George recalled in a 2014 interview for this book, “the first thing I said was, “Who’s going to run it?” And Mr. Moore said, “Your big brother.”

I told him I’d only fire her for Ed Hatcher and no one else. I had a regular job and made it clear that I was not to be called for anybody else…Ed Hatcher was a good engineer. He could run them like nobody else. I would know what he was going to do, and he knew what I was going to do.”

Over the years, the brothers, immediately popular with the media, enjoyed playing down their skills and playing up tall tales. A couple of examples:

Ed said to Sandlapper magazine in 1971: “We got this job because we scored lowest on the engineer’s exam.”
George told Dot Jackson, columnist for the Charlotte Observer, in 1972: “Well, they got 90 engineers workin’ for the Clinchfield. When they started runnin’ this thing again, why they had us all draw straws t’see who’d have to do it. Ed drawed the shortest ’un and I drew the next shortest.”

The Hatchers actually took immense pride in being the driving force behind the No. 1. “The truth is,” Moore once said, “the Hatchers don’t like anyone else touching No. 1. They love that old engine.”

Brooks Pepper, the West Virginia Hillbilly columnist, wrote in 1969: “A description of the One Spot, its train and its railroad, would be incomplete without mention of its crew, the brothers Ed and George Hatcher. The Hatchers have been in the cab of the old engine on nearly every one of its trips, Ed at the throttle and George at the coal scoop. Both men are engineers of some years’ standing, and both have regular runs. From the careful attention the brothers give the engine and the skill with which they run and fire it, it is evident that they are genuinely fond of it. The One Spot returns the care by not breaking down.”

Engineer Ed Hatcher takes a look at his train from the cab of the Clinchfield No. 1. This is one of the many excursions Ed and his brother, George (the train's fireman) would lead between 1968 and 1979. Behind the coal tender is a diesel locomotive designed to resemble a box car or passenger car. The excursions were often too much in the mountains of North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee for the little steam engine, which was built in 1882.

Engineer Ed Hatcher takes a look at his train from the cab of the Clinchfield No. 1. This is one of the many excursions Ed and his brother, George (the train’s fireman) would lead between 1968 and 1979. Behind the coal tender is a diesel locomotive designed to resemble a box car or passenger car. The excursions were often too much in the mountains of North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee for the little steam engine, which was built in 1882.

Bill Cannon once wrote that Ed Hatcher “pampers and pets the Number One with plenty of tender loving care.”

His first time aboard the No. 1 was a learning experience for George, who remembers that he “had to use a lot of muscle to open the throttle. I had to learn how to fire the engine,” he said. “You might not believe this, but when you shovel coal, the fire box lights up so you can’t see nothing but white hot. So I had to learn to count the scoops of coals to know where to put them. I put nine scoops of coal. That way, I had a level fire…Each and every steam engine has a different personality. A diesel is clean and very efficient, but, for some reason, we had all fallen in love with the steam engine. I was honored to be offered to fire the One Spot. My seniority really shouldn’t have let me fire a steam engine, but I jumped at the chance.”

The brothers were instant celebrities, and the passengers wanted to hear the No. 1’s whistle pierce the mountains and bounce through the valleys. In his marvelous book Trains, Trestles & Tunnels: Railroads of the Southern Appalachians, Lou Harshaw wrote, “What great charisma the two Hatchers have! Their coveralls were immaculate, pressed knife sharp, and their handsome ruggedness portrayed perfect images of the railroad folk heroes of the earlier days.”

The Hatchers were the perfect men for the job, and they took their roles seriously. “A lot of people would want to talk to us, have our autographs and talk about the engine,” George said, “and they’d get in the cab and want to know what makes it go and how do you fire it. And, you know what? It never got old. I was proud to work on a steam engine. I was proud to work on the No. 1. I welcomed the people asking questions. I’d let people ride it for a little while. I asked Mr. Moore about that once. I said, “I know I’m not supposed to, but once in a while if there’s a special reason, can I do it?” He said, “Now, George, I don’t want anyone getting hurt, but, OK, go ahead.”

Brothers George Hatcher, fireman, and Ed Hatcher, engineer. Photo by Roger Cook.

Brothers George Hatcher, fireman, and Ed Hatcher, engineer. Photo by Roger Cook.

One of those passengers was nine-year-old Julie Kilby, daughter of Tom Jennings, the Clinchfield’s road foreman for engines. “I kind of grew up riding the No. 1 Spot,” Kilby recalled. “I was very fortunate to get to know George and Ed Hatcher and all the guys on the train, and one of the things I was very fortunate to do was ride the engine itself…There was a certain whistle it would do. I had the whistle remembered, and it would go, “Doo, Dooooo, Do, Do.” So I tried to do the whistle like that…It was almost like a rope-like handle that swung down. I had to reach up kind of high for it, really, and I was standing in the seat with Ed holding me.

I just remember trying to pull it down, and I thought it would be so easy, but the steam coming from just the whistle, it was hard for me to do. I had to…get my knees up and really pull with two hands. It totally took me back, because I thought it would be so light and not hard to do at all…Even the way that they had their signature whistle, it was hard to do. Again, a lot of respect for what they did and how they did it. Those guys worked hard. I loved George and Ed…I can still smell the coal burning, and to me, it’s like a childhood memory for me—like warm cookies baking might be for someone else.”

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