Ohio’s Little Cities of Black Diamonds

Posted by | April 11, 2011

From the Athens News, December 9, 2002
SAN TOY: GHOST TOWN OR A BLACK DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH?
By Matt Zuefle

In 1996, on my last visit to San Toy, Ohio, I had to stop and ask directions twice. Driving down a long, unpaved road to the bottom of a deep, wooded valley, I came to a crossroads with a signless post marking the intersection. This was the San Toy of my seeking. My very own Appalachian city of Cibola. I had heard about it since I had starting working in the area, and now I had found it.

Sunday Creek Coal Mine #2 Celebration in San Toy, OH. No date.

Sunday Creek Coal Mine #2 Celebration in San Toy, OH. No date.

Only a couple of houses down the road were occupied; these, along with a small church that was being refurbished, were the last viable traces of an incorporated community that once was home to hundreds of people. Out in the woods were the foundations of the old company store and a school, along with the brick skeleton of the jail.

The remains of the old town were now scarcely visible; the new community of sycamores, sumacs, beeches and poison ivy were moving back. I hear it hasn’t changed much.

San Toy, sometimes spelled Santoy, is only one of the many old mining communities that historian Ivan Tribe of the University of Rio Grande dubbed “The Little Cities of Black Diamonds,” borrowing a term originally coined by a local newspaperman in the 19th century and used to describe the newly prosperous city of Nelsonville.

The “black diamond” was of course coal, and coal helped more than 50 such small communities in Athens, Hocking, Perry, Morgan and surrounding counties to found and flourish in the period between the 1860s and the 1920s.

Some of their names are familiar, such as Murray City, Glouster and Chauncey. Others, such as Hemlock, Congo, Hatfield Town and Orbiston are not as well known. Among them, San Toy is almost completely forgotten. To those who remember, it was a boomtown, albeit a short-lived one. It started out as a traditional (read temporary) mining town and was known as a rough place, complete with wild shoot-outs and moonshining.

When it was sold from the New England Coal Company to the Sunday Creek Coal Company in 1915, the new owners of the mine and the town vowed to make it a “modern mining system and a model community,” according to the recorded memories of resident W. G. “Shorty” Addington.

The aforementioned buildings were erected, along with a drug store, a hospital and a theater. In 1920 it was said to have 2,500 residents. By the end of the decade, the estimates ranged from 50 to 168. A changing economy, distant corporate decisions, and the consequences of the big strike of 1927 had conspired to erase San Toy from history.

Joe Fabiny, a local farmer and old-time miner whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know recently, was a young boy in nearby Moxahala when San Toy was still thriving. (Moxahala, or “Moxie” as many locals know it, is one of my favorite regional place names — as it sounds exotic, like something out of the deepest South.)

Joe is 87. His voice is strong and tempered by years of hard work. His father John was born in Slovakia in 1877 and moved to the United States around the turn of the century. John lived with his family in Moxahala and worked as a miner; in the late 1910s he worked in San Toy.

Joe remembers how his dad would gather provisions and walk 10 miles to work at the San Toy mines. He carried his lunch and water down into the shafts and was paid for loading coal by the ton. Joe can’t remember how much his dad earned, but he does remember that when he worked the mines at Congo in the 1930s he was paid 68 cents a ton. This usually worked out to about $3 a day, or more when enough cars and ponies were available to keep loading.

Joe, John and the other San Toy miners most often used carbide lamps, which utilized an archaic system of producing acetylene to fuel a live flame projecting from their helmets. Joe also remembers taking his dad to work at the at the Number 9 mine at Rendville and being surprised to find the area occupied by the Ohio National Guard during a labor dispute.

He even remembers the hour-long drive down old Rt. 13 in a Model T to Millfield the day after the big mine disaster. It was Nov. 6, 1930 when he and his father came to support the families and friends of miners while the rescue was still on. Eighty-two died, and it was destined to become the worst mine accident in Ohio history.

The heyday of the old “Black Diamond” communities varied. For some towns, the best days were already over by the 1880s; for others it was much later. By 1930, one of the San Toy mine houses had burned and the few families left in town were given a chance to buy their houses for $50 to $75 apiece. This was the last picture show. For many years, old residents gathered at various places for San Toy reunions, but it appears that these have ended now, too.

We have a rich cultural and natural history in our area. The glory days of the mining towns were a big part of it. Places like San Toy and good neighbors like Joe Fabiny remain as a testament to the drama and human spirit that preceded us in the southeastern Ohio hill country.

With the help of concerned individuals and active groups, we can preserve our rich local history. And it is a history worth preserving. The old mining towns are even becoming a tourism draw of sorts, attracting a new breed of “heritage tourist.” These new tourists are starting to take note of the old sites and several related annual festivals, including a “Black Diamond” auction that is emerging as an event of its own.

We shouldn’t underestimate how interesting our own area is. If you don’t believe it, turn off the History Channel, go out, and talk to one of the many people right next door who have lived history.

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