Book Excerpt: ‘Lost at Thaxton’

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 27, 2014

Michael JonesPlease welcome guest author Michael Jones. Jones was planted in West Virginia and cultivated in South Carolina, with roots extended deep into Virginia soil. He is a graduate of Clemson University, author, entrepreneur, technology consultant, and history lover. His book, Lost at Thaxton, recounts the terrifying 1889 train wreck in Thaxton, VA that took place on the section of track managed by his great-great grandfather, Tandy Jones.


The handsome old fellow you see below right is my great-great grandfather, Tandy Jones. This particular photo hung in an old, oval frame on the wall of my grandmother’s home in Thaxton, VA. As a young boy, I always felt those eyes were following me no matter where I went in the room. You might chalk that up to the active imagination of a child, but I will bet that if you take just a moment to stare into those eyes, you just might feel the same. If you were like me, you would at least pause before getting into any mischief while you were in the vicinity of that watchful gaze.

Tandy Jones

I did not know much about Tandy. In fact, I really knew only one piece of information my grandmother had told me. He was a railroad section master for Norfolk & Western in Thaxton, whatever that meant. Little did I know that Tandy’s chosen occupation would lead me to spend the better part of two years researching and writing Lost at Thaxton.

It started one summer evening in 2011 while on a beach trip with family. The discussion turned to history, as it often does when I get a chance to steer it that way, and at some point someone mentioned a terrible train wreck at Thaxton. Tandy was in charge of the section of rail where the accident took place, but I had never heard any mention of the wreck in my lifetime. I wanted to know more about the story.

As I began to dig into the history of the wreck, I was surprised to find that there was significant loss of life, and the details of the accident were unbelievably terrifying and heartbreaking. Yet there seemed to be no particular memorializing of the wreck or of those who lost their lives that night in 1889. The wreck of passenger train Number Two at Thaxton seemed to slip away completely from the pages of history.

Historical markers in Virginia are located at the sites of the “Wreck of the Old 97″ in Danville and the “Wreck at the Fat Nancy” in Orange. The markers describe those wrecks as two of the worst in Virginia history, although both paled in comparison to the number of lives lost at Thaxton. The events that transpired after the wreck that night raised the horror of this deadly accident to unimaginable heights.

Lost at Thaxton was written to give a fitting memorial not only to those lives that were lost, but also to those who lived on and carried the scars of this tragedy with them in one way or another. It is common for us to focus on the details of the wreck and the train itself, but often we lose sight of the actual people who were part of it. I reviewed over four hundred individual sources of information to compose their story. Those sources included historical newspapers, books, court documents, personal letters, state and federal records, and personal interviews with descendants of passengers and Thaxton area families. I researched each of the seventy-four known passengers and crew on the train that night individually in order to provide the most accurate telling possible of a story long forgotten.

"The wreck at Thaxton, viewed from the northern side of the washout." Photograph courtesy of Norfolk and Western Historical Photograph Collection, Norfolk Southern Archives, Norfolk, Virginia. Digital image courtesy of Special Collections, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia.

“The wreck at Thaxton, viewed from the northern side of the washout.” Photograph courtesy of Norfolk and Western Historical Photograph Collection, Norfolk Southern Archives, Norfolk, Virginia. Digital image courtesy of Special Collections, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia.


Excerpt from Lost at Thaxton, Chapter 4, “Forewarning”:

When the train stopped at Blue Ridge, Baggage Master William Ford was still at work sorting the passengers’ luggage. He could hear rain pelting the tin roof of the baggage car, and he peered through the door to get a look at the weather. Water was covering the tracks, and Conductor Johnson was nearby, standing in the rain with an umbrella. It sounded like Johnson was speaking with the Blue Ridge telegraph operator.

“What is the matter?” Johnson cried out to the operator.

“The track is flooded to Liberty, run with great care, there is great danger!” came the reply. The telegraph operator was reading a telegram sent from Thaxton. It was the message sent less than an hour earlier that night by Conductor Butler, after his freight train had run into a fallen telegraph pole just beyond the Thaxton station.

Inside the mail car, Postal Clerk Lewis Summers overheard the somewhat distressing conversation between Johnson and the Blue Ridge telegraph operator. He surveyed the condition of the track from the door of his mail car. Water flowed over the rails, and he could barely make out the track as the water rippled over it. Several men scurried about with lanterns to inspect the condition of the road.

As Summers returned to his work, he mentioned what he had overheard to his assistant, James Rose. Summers was not overly concerned about the situation, but Rose looked a bit nervous. Rose decided he would stay extra alert as they pushed forward. If the train did run into trouble, it was not uncommon for those who had enough warning to jump from the train at the last moment. A desperation jump in the midst of a wreck could mean going home with just a broken leg instead of inside a wooden box. Rose was taking no chances.

Lost at Thaxton cover

Conductor Johnson stepped out of the rain and onto the second-class coach, where he met with Superintendent Cassell. The telegram reported flooding east of Thaxton, and communication was down at least from Thaxton east to the town of Liberty.

Liberty was about five miles from Thaxton, and that stretch of rail had no communication at the moment. Cassell gave instructions to Johnson to stop the train at the next depot, which was Buford. Once he arrived there, he hoped to determine the location of any trains that were east of Thaxton and make sure they managed the situation properly to avoid collisions.

With this plan in mind, they pressed on for Buford, about five miles east of Blue Ridge. Cassell headed back to the first-class coach to discuss the situation with DuBarry while the engine struggled to get going. The steep incline through the mountains was a challenge, especially when the train started from a complete stop. It was the first battle that engine Number 30 waged against the elements that night. In this case, man-made horsepower was up to the task and conquered the challenge presented by the mountain. They were further behind schedule, however, because the train pulled away six minutes late from the Blue Ridge station.

They had not gone far before Mother Nature once again taunted the train. About halfway between Blue Ridge and Buford, a watchman stood alongside the tracks and signaled with his red lantern for the train to stop. They were near a small community known as Ironville, and once again there was water running over the track. It was half past midnight, and it was becoming clear that the weather was determined to torment train Number Two for a while longer. Cassell got off the train to inspect the latest issue.

He noticed that the water was up over the wooden railroad ties but not over the track itself. Since the area was part of his division, Cassell was familiar with it, and he had seen the water higher at Ironville on several occasions. He decided that it was safe for the train to proceed cautiously through the high water. They crept along as if they were working through an invisible traffic jam until the entire train had cleared the flooded area.

"Interior photo representing First-class coach Number 63. This was the coach where most of the passengers were killed." Courtesy of Delaware Public Archives

“Interior photo representing First-class coach Number 63. This was the coach where most of the passengers were killed.” Courtesy of Delaware Public Archives

Unfortunately, they were still not ready for “full steam ahead” to Buford. Cassell knew that there was a road crossing just ahead where the section crew frequently battled with dirt and rocks washing down across the tracks. The crossing had been a nuisance recently thanks to all of the rains during the spring and summer. He asked Conductor Roland Johnson to step off and walk in front of the train with a lantern to examine the crossing just to be on the safe side. Roland tried his hand as a track inspector and found no issues. They quickly resumed the trip toward Buford.

After eavesdropping on the telegram conversation at Blue Ridge, Postal Clerk Lewis Summers had decided to sit by the door to his car until they cleared the heavy incline. Once he was comfortable that the train had made it through the trouble spots, he made one final check to ensure no letters were left to handle. His work for the night was done.

He put away his supplies and tied up the remaining sacks. Summers wanted there to be no delay when the time came to board his return train home at Lynchburg later that night. Once he had everything in order, it was time for a quick nap. It was a little known fact, but sacks of United States mail made a mighty fine mattress when stacked just right on a table. Summers had already learned this trick, and blissful sleep quickly arrived for him near the back of the postal car on his own handmade bed stuffed with fluffy correspondence.

He was already fast asleep when the train pulled into Buford about twenty-seven minutes behind schedule. Any passengers still awake were likely frustrated by the slow pace and frequent stops. It had taken nearly twenty minutes just to cover the five miles from Blue Ridge to Buford. One of those restless passengers was Frank Tanner, and he was ready for a smoke.

He nudged his friend John Kirkpatrick and asked if he would like to accompany him to the second-class car to relieve some stress through the time-honored tradition of burning tobacco rolled in paper. Kirkpatrick was mentally and physically tired from his long day of wrestling with the bad check issue in Roanoke, and he just wanted to go back to sleep. He handed Tanner a cigarette, and unknowingly the two friends spoke to one another for the last time.

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‘Journey into the Wild and Wonderful’ documentary seeks to include every WV county

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 26, 2014

Please welcome guest author Wayne Worth. Worth, of Clarksburg, WV, is the producer of a new documentary, Journey into the Wild and Wonderful.


Journey into the Wild and Wonderful is a video history of every West Virginia County told by folks who are invested in promoting and preserving the best of their county’s heritage. However, to understand the passion behind this project and why one would desire to undertake such an endeavor, you first have to understand the history of its producer.

My name is Wayne Worth. I was born on October 5, 1978 in Manchester, CT, and the first 10 years of my life were full of uncertainty and perpetual transition. It started when I was six months old with my biological father’s incarceration. Like many 23 year olds who experienced a turbulent childhood and spent the majority of their lives in the child welfare system, my biological father became a young adult with no direction, support, or family.

As a consequence organized crime became the means of support, employment, and family for him. It cost him 32 years behind bars, and overnight, my biological mother became a single mother. Being only 19 years old, and also coming from an abusive childhood experience, my bio-mother had her own issues to deal with (i.e. severe anxiety and depression). For six years she gave it all she had to provide me the best life possible, considering our circumstances. However, it was the abusive people (i.e. mainly significant others) that she had in her life which ultimately resulted in my admission into the child welfare system.

From the age of six through ten I was in a foster home of 18 people and then a group home of 20. My experience of family was a foster sibling, friend, or staff member of a facility who were all just temporary situations, waiting on their next destination. I can still remember vividly looking through my bedroom window at the group home, in tears, as another roommate left with a new family. It’s a feeling that no 9 to 10 year old should ever experience. It would be the last for me.

At age 11 I was adopted by a single father in Marlinton, WV. He at the time had two other adopted children (my brothers Michael and Chris Worth). My adopted father (Jud Worth) later married a wonderful lady, whom I proudly call Mom today (Margaret Worth). She brought her one-year daughter (Katie) into the family from a previous marriage, and then four years later, Sarah (my youngest sister) was introduced to the family. I became a child of the mountains.


Growing up in Pocahontas County, WV not only defined my connection to the land, but also instilled in me the value of family and community. The principles that I stand for and the success I experience in life, all originated in Pocahontas County. My experience of being supported with the utmost love and compassion for who I was, of setting goals for myself, and of being expected to contribute of myself, had a profound impact on my future, and was something that I wanted to share with the world.

At the age of 20 I moved to Huntington, WV where I attended Marshall University. In 12 years living in Huntington I had both my fair share of victories and failures. However, I lived life to its full potential. I had this thirst for learning and growing, and through that process I began to understand my contribution to the world.

I now wanted to make a difference and continue to learn, connect, and grow. That sort of desire directed me into the field of social work, where I had the opportunity to not only help others find the resources to navigate through the uncomfortable path to success, but also had the opportunity to become connected with other systems that were making a difference in the community and our state.

This process inspired me to want to learn, connect, and grow more with a state that provided me a family, community, and opportunities for success. So, in 2005 I jumped in my 1988 Chevy Corsica and drove to every county seat in West Virginia and started to learn the history and culture of all of our counties.

I later took two more driving tours (2007 and 2009) to even gain a better understanding our state. In my travels I learned that what defines our values and culture, and what is most important to us, is our history. It was my new found understanding of this that inspired me to undertake this project, Journey into the Wild and Wonderful. I now wanted to share with the rest of West Virginia our story, county by county.

I started producing Journey into the Wild and Wonderful in March of 2012, with three objectives: 1) I wanted to provide our state’s citizens and the world with an online video documentary (i.e. snapshot) of the history of every West Virginia county, told by people in those counties who were knowledgeable of and invested in preserving and promoting their county’s history. 2) I wanted to provide every eighth-grade West Virginia history teacher, free of charge, the opportunity to use this in the classroom and expand the knowledge-base of West Virginia history beyond what is learned in the textbook, for future generations. 3) I wanted to just contribute to a state that has given me so much in life, including life.

My journey started in Wyoming County, WV at Twin Falls State Park. I was very nervous. However, David “Bugs” Stover, Wyoming County Circuit Clerk and Scott Durham, Superintendent of Twin Falls State Park (my very first interviews) gave me the encouragement and confidence to continue the project.

To date, I am 42 counties into the project with 13 counties to go, and have interviewed over 90 people. I have a website and a Facebook page that has over 600 followers. To my followers, Journey into the Wild and Wonderful reminds them of the strengths of their heritage and brings them to a happy place in their own history.

The one thing that I have learned in this process is that our own personal history is connected to our overall local history. It’s what gives us a sense of pride, foundation, and direction. That is why we have fairs and festivals. They are opportunities to celebrate our personal connection to our heritage and what is most important to us. As a producer of such a project, you start to understand your own personal connection to a history and a story that is greater than yourself. A project like this changes you. As it grows, you grow with it, until you become one with it. For me, when I walk into an interview, I meet a stranger. When I walk out of the room four hours later, I have a friend for life.


I hope you get the chance to have Journey into the Wild and Wonderful inspire you as much as it has me and the 90 others I have interviewed thus far. You can follow and support this one-of-a-kind journey into West Virginia’s history told by our wonderful people by going to the website or to Facebook. Please share with your family, friends, and historical organizations. If you live in West Virginia and know an eighth-grade West Virginia history teacher, share the website with them and encourage them to use it the classroom. It will enhance their curriculum and enrich their students with knowledge of where they came from and the possibilities in front of them. It’s free! My gift of paying it forward! My gift to a state that has provided me so much…a state I call home!

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Book Excerpt: ‘Downstream: Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing, and the Waters of Appalachia’

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 25, 2014

two authors togetherPlease welcome guest authors David L. O’Hara (left in photo) and Matthew T. Dickerson. O’Hara is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Classics, and directs the philosophy program at Augustana College (South Dakota), where he teaches courses in environmental philosophy, ecology and deliberate living, and an annual course in tropical ecology in Guatemala and Belize. He has written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Books and Culture, and Orion. Dickerson is a professor at Middlebury College (Vermont), where he has taught essay-writing courses on nature and ecology and on the literature of fishing. His other books include The Road and the Torc (an historical novel), A Hobbitt Journey (on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien), and two other narratives about fly fishing, trout, and ecology: A Tale of Three Rivers and Trout in the Desert. We’re pleased to offer you ‘Timber Barons, Splash Dams, and the Brook Trout of the Upper Tellico in Tennessee’, from chapter 5 of their newly published , (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014).


Matthew and I are driving the Cherohala Scenic Skyway, a beautiful two-lane road that connects the Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests. “Scenic Skyway” is a good name for this road; for a little while it lifts you out of the valleys of the Smokies and brings you to the top of the mountains, following their ridges.

OHara_Revised cover-page

Building roads in the mountains is tricky business, and the results are often ugly scars across the mountain face. Here I feel like I’m being treated to the work of engineers who thought first of beauty and of submission to the contours of the land, then only later about speed. This is not a road to hasten you on your way; it is a road that is both a means of transit and a beautiful end in itself. We glide over the mountains at a leisurely pace, and begin to coast down into eastern Tennessee.

We’re headed for the town of Tellico Plains, where we’ll meet a guide who will take us on the upper Tellico River. The Tellico River is a little more than fifty miles long, many of those miles suitable for trout. This is the longest free-flowing coldwater river in Tennessee. It’s also one of the most heavily fished and heavily managed put-and-take trout streams we’ve visited. One state biologist we spoke to described the lower Tellico as “a circus.” Every week from mid-March to mid-September, stocking trucks full of hatchery- raised rainbow trout drive along the river, stopping to pour in trout for anglers to catch.

Something like 135,000 trout are put into it every year, most of which are promptly taken out by anglers. The river is closed to fishing two days a week for stocking, presumably both to give the stocking trucks time to work, and also to prevent anglers from following the trucks and removing the fish right after they’re placed in the water. Each week on the day it reopens the lower Tellico becomes a fish market. People line the banks to fill their creels with fish that have lived in the river for only a day or two.

Upstream of this circus, in its headwaters, the Tellico gathers the rain that falls on a broad swath of mountains, carrying that water down from the Smokies toward the Tennessee River. The Tennessee, together with the Cumberland, drains most of Tennessee. Water from the Tellico eventually flows through Tennessee and south into Alabama, watering cities like Chattanooga and Huntsville, before turning north again, to cross Tennessee a second time, flowing parallel to the Cumberland for a short while before both rivers join the Ohio River.

The Tellico gained notoriety in the 1970s when it gave its name to the infamous Tellico Dam, the dam that impounded the waters of the Tellico and the Little Tennessee Rivers in the Tellico Reservoir, flooding native American historical sites and endangering the snail darter, a small river fish that most people had never heard of until it became a political byword.

Sampling for aquatic invertebrates on the upper Bald River.

Sampling for aquatic invertebrates on the upper Bald River.

In the springtime, the Tellico boasts some class IV whitewater, some of the best—and roughest—water available for kayakers. Its major tributaries include the Bald River, with its majestic falls, and the North River. The Tellico is a powerful river, and when it floods it floods hard. The banks give us a view of how high the floodwaters can get. Building bridges here takes careful engineering. The steep sides of the Smokies concentrate rainfall and snowmelt into narrow channels, and calm rivers can quickly become torrents.

In the 1880s clearcutting timber harvest began in earnest in this region. By the early 1900s a railroad reached Tellico Plains to allow the fine Tennessee hardwoods that covered these mountains to be carted away to build homes in Michigan. The timber baron who brought the logging operation here promised that he wouldn’t leave a stick standing in his efforts to turn the forest into capital, and he very nearly kept his promise. One logger said of these hills, “all we want to do is get the most we can out of this country, as quickly as we can, and get out.”20

When you remove the trees, floods happen more quickly. Rain that would have coated leaves and soaked bark, rain that would have been absorbed by the debris on the forest floor, and rain that would have been drawn up into root and branch, simply runs downhill with nothing to impede it. The soil and leaf debris are carried away into the river, which is bad news for anything that breathes clear water, like hellbenders and trout, or for anything that needs unsilted beds for its eggs and young, again, like trout, and like the riverine benthic invertebrates. Fine sediment suspended in the water fouls the gills of trout and suffocates them, like smoky air does to creatures with lungs.

Trout can ride out brief periods of muddy water if they can find less silty slack water to hide in, but a lot of runoff will kill trout quickly. Not much survived in the Tellico once the logging began. When it rained—and it rains a lot in the Smokies—the rivers turned from clear glass to chocolate milk, and the bodies of trout floated downstream, their gills full of suffocating mud, and their white bellies turned to face the sun. “Splash dams” made the flooding worse. To get the logs downstream more efficiently, loggers on the Tellico built temporary dams that could form deep holding ponds for logs.

A non-native rainbow trout Dickerson caught on the Tellico.

A non-native rainbow trout Dickerson caught on the Tellico.

As the dams filled, the stream below became a trickle, exposing natural cover. When the ponds were full, the dams were opened abruptly, sending a devastating wave of lumber and water that scoured the river and swept away everything in its path. This logging and flooding happened not just in the Tellico but throughout a great swath of the Smoky Mountains. Between roughly 1900 and 1935, many of the native brook trout populations of the southern Appalachians were completely destroyed by logging operations.

We humans may cause a lot of harm, but we also often recognize it when we have, and sometimes we try to make it right. Eventually, upstream calamities become evident downstream. And the people of Tellico Plains were not indifferent to the abuse of their watershed. In 1901 a newspaper editorial in Tellico Plains protested that “The general government ought to step in before it is too late. If the timber is all stripped from these hills the streams will dry up and the ultimate loss will be serious and widespread.”

That voice crying out in the wilderness was eventually heard. In 1911 the Weeks Act authorized purchase of forested or once-forested land in the watersheds of navigable rivers to preserve and restore these important waters. Thus began the acquisition of what was to become the Cherokee National Forest in 1920. Of course, sometimes our medicines can be worse than the disease, or they can have unwanted side effects.

Around the same time as the Weeks Act state fisheries officials found it easier to replace the lost native brook trout with rainbow trout imported from Western states, since rainbows are much easier to breed and stock. Even where the brook trout survived the logging, the rainbows outcompeted them, and the numbers of brook trout continued to decline as the rainbows migrated upstream throughout the watershed.21

The attempt to restore the fishery partly helped the beleaguered native brook trout by restoring its habitat. But when we re-built its house, we put a few gorillas in its living room, and then told it to sit down and make itself at home. It’s probably possible to share a house with apes, but don’t expect them to share your food with you. You’ll probably move out quickly, which is what the brook trout have done.

So we’ve come to the Tellico for two reasons. First, we’re still looking for native Southern brook trout. The most remote headwaters of the Tellico are said to still hold a small but significant population of the Southern strain of indigenous brook trout. Second, we’re looking for hope, and the lower Tellico offers us a picture of what a trout river can look like after it has been restored, even if it has become a rainbow trout river. The once ravaged mountains have been reforested and the river is now managed as an active fishery. We’d like to see what that looks like, and what we can learn from it.

Green Cove Motel in 2008.

Green Cove Motel in 2008.

After putting our bags in the cabin we’ve rented, Matthew and I drive back upstream to the village of Green Cove. We’ve been told that the woman who runs the store at the Green Cove Motel is a wealth of local fishing lore, and we’re eager to meet her. The building looks like it has been here a long time; it has that settled look, like the way boulders, deposited in the forest by glaciers or having rolled down a mountainside centuries ago, look both natural and a little bit alien. And like boulders, the cabins of the motel look like they’ve been worn and weathered by years of forest rain. Green Cove is a quiet, shady, restful place.

Just behind the store, the river slopes and chatters down the rocks. The store caters to forgetful anglers by supplying them with basic groceries and basic fishing gear. Marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers for campfire s’mores. Peanut butter and bread, and Twinkies. Nets that look far too big for use on a mountain stream. On the shelf beside the counter is a set of clear plastic drawers full of hand-tied flies. Yellow and black seem to be predominant colors in the dry flies.

We spend the next half hour talking with Catherine, the woman who has run the store since 1964. When we ask about trout, she smiles and her eyes shine. Without the trout, there might be no Green Cove. People come here to fish, and faded photos of happy anglers and their trout adorn the walls. She tells us the fishing is so good because the river is stocked every week. In fact, the stocking truck puts fish in right here, right behind the store. Matthew and I steal glances out the back window. It’s true—even from here, you can see them in the pools. One long trout rises gently to take something from the surface of the river.

The story takes a slightly melancholy turn when she tells us that the store is for sale. She tells us she’s in her eighties now. She just doesn’t have the energy to keep up with it, she says, though she seems full of life here beside this river. Folks around here and her regular visitors don’t want her to sell the store, because they don’t want the change. The Green Cove Motel is a tradition, an institution. It is a part of the Tellico, the place where many people from near and far away step into the river and experience its life. Her eyes, focused on something distant, gaze downstream.


Footnote 20: Horace Kephart, a logger from Michigan, in 1901 said this about the forests up the Tellico River.
Footnote 21: Cf. Kurt D. Fausch, “A paradox of trout invasions in North America,” Biological Invasions (2008), 10:685–701

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Listen Here: Appalachian History Weekly podcast posts today

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 24, 2014

We post a new episode of Appalachian History weekly podcast every Sunday. Check us out on the Stitcher network, available on mobile phones, in-car dashboards and tablets worldwide. Just click below to start listening:

We open today’s show with guest author John VanArsdall. His Canjoeco Restorations of Blountville, TN specializes in meticulous, historically correct restorations of antique late 18th & early 19th century log structures. “Each building,” he says, “has its unique nuances and complexities of difficulties to overcome. What I do requires a whole lot of adaptation in order to overcome these and involves, most of the time, a lot of patience and thought, but most of all, experience.”

We’ll pause in between things to catch up on a calendar of events in the region this week, with special attention paid to events that emphasize heritage and local color.

We’ll wrap things up with a look at the Textile Strike of 1934 in Huntsville, AL. “At the height of the Depression and in the midst of New Deal economic experimentation,” says guest author Taylor M. Polites, “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.”

And thanks to the good folks at Smithsonian Folkways—from the 2002 album “Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian Folkways” — we’ll be able to enjoy some authentic Appalachian music from Marion Sumner in a 1996 recording of Lost Indian.

So call your old Plott hound up on the porch, fire up your corncob pipe, and settle in for a dose of Appalachian history.

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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 lag behind other parts of the nation in 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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