Saltville 1924: The Year Without a Christmas

Nestled in a small river valley in the heart of Southwest Virginia, present-day Saltville is little more than a dot on the map. As evidenced by the town’s name, this particular area in the valley has historically been rich in salt deposits. The salt in this valley attracted prehistoric animals into its environment like mastodons, sabre tooth tigers, and giant sloths. Native Americans resided in the valley, and it is likely they even had contact with Spanish Conquistadors in the fifteenth-century. Beginning in the late colonial period, settlers began commercially producing salt. The Preston and Palmer families produced so much salt in the valley and distributed it so thoroughly throughout the Southeastern United States that the town became known as the “Salt Capital of the Confederacy” during the Civil War – each state of the Confederacy even had its own salt furnace in the town.

Reconstruction Saltville witnessed itself grow into the stereotypical Appalachian company town, where the residents were owned and operated by the town’s business. The mineral deposits in the Saltville valley were irresistible to the young Thomas Mathieson, a British engineer who established the Mathieson Alkali Works along the North Fork of the Holston River in 1894. This new industry cranked out soda ash (sodium carbonate) used in the glass, paper, and textile industries.[1] By 1896, Mathieson produced the first commercially available bleaching powder, which became its main product. Mathieson manufactured other products throughout the next 60 years such as liquid chlorine, pesticides, fertilizers, and dry ice. Then in 1954, Mathieson Alkali Works merged with Olin Industries, a group of businesses that produced blasting powder, ammunition, and guns.[2] This new business became known as the Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation. Olin Mathieson lived on for another 22 years until 1972 when new EPA regulations forced it to shut down due to its chronic pollution.

Mathieson Alkali Works, and then later Olin, served such a dominant role in the life of Saltville that it permanently etched its memory on the face of the time. One only has to mention the words Mathieson, Olin, Olin Mathieson, or the plant to invoke memories of the town’s past identity. But the most haunting memory the town harbors of its resident company is that of the muck dam collapse of 1924.


Operations had changed at the Mathieson Saltville plant by 1908. More chemically complex products were being created, so more chemically complex waste followed. Jim Brown, a former manager of environmental technology for Olin Corporation, explained that Mathieson’s manufacturing of alkaline products resulted in slaker waste, fly ash, and cinders from the steam boilers at the plant. The company’s solution to its chemical waste problem was to pump it into a dam along the banks of the Holston River. “Mined limestone that had been burned, made into lime and slaked to make hydrated lime was the starting raw material for the process that resulted in soda ash. The mixture inside the muck dam was an ammonia still waste, a ‘slurry’ made of solid particles and liquor, that was pumped out to the pond. The solids settled out and the liquor, which was mainly water, was drained into the river, a process for which the plant had a permit.”[3] By 1924, the waste pond spanned 30 acres along the river; its walls, being nothing more than the dried contents of the dam, rose at least 100 feet in height. An unfortunate community of plant workers lived below the imposing dam in a neighborhood known as Palmertown.

Christmas Eve of 1924 was cold and rainy in Saltville, but its residents enjoyed themselves in anticipation for the following day. About twenty children attended a party at the Fewell house, Mr. Cal Fewell being the town’s undertaker. J.C. Scott came in for the holiday from Roanoke and stayed with his brother, J.H. Scott. The McCreadys were all home, the children in bed while George and his wife decorated the tree. Hiawatha and Leota Prater chose to stay home instead of going to the movie theater in Saltville, as Leota was too tired from cooking all day with her mother.

All was well until about 8pm on that cold and dreary Christmas Eve night. When without warning, the imposing muck dam above Palmertown ruptured and spewed forth a violent storm of alkali sludge onto the community below. The dam break was so great that boulders weighing 10-20 tons were thrown about 750 feet across the river. The sludge wave that inundated Palmertown was estimated to be 100 feet high and 300 feet across. A wave of muck even swept a quarter of a mile up the river and destroyed houses along the way. Tons of muck literally covered the river valley that night, sweeping away houses, barns, animals, trees, and residents.

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A fourteen-year-old Frank Sanders recounted that he was out with his girlfriend in a T-Model Ford near Lovers’ Leap when they came upon a cross burning by the Ku Klux Klan. Not wasting any time, he directed the T-Model back into town to visit Rogers’ Confectionary for a Coke. When Sanders and his girlfriend arrived, they witnessed a panicked crowd of people and assumed that the cross burning incited the commotion. Before he could ask, a bystander informed the couple that “the muck dam has busted.” Sanders’ little brother James attended the Fewell’s party in Palmertown.[4]

D.S. Musselwhite and a group of other men congregated at G.L. Smith’s store in the nearby community of Henrytown to listen to the radio broadcast that evening:

I was with a lot of other men and boys who were gathered at Mr. G.L. Smith’s store after supper listening to his new radio. We could distinctly hear the strokes of the town clock at some broadcasting station—one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight. Several of the fellows looked at their watches and it was exactly eight o’clock by my watch. Then came the Lord’s Prayer, solemn and impressive. It was not halfway finished when the door flew suddenly open and a woman, gasping for breath from running, rushed in and exclaimed, ‘My goodness, men, run quick! The muck dam has broken and we’ll all be washed away.’ It was Mrs. Landon Smith, who will be long remembered by the people of Henrytown as their Paul Revere. She had run from her home up the river to warn the people below.[5]

Warden Poore, then 24 years old, worked that evening delivering goods from the Mathieson General Store to families in town. Poore received word of the muck dam collapse from a house on his delivery route. He drove straight to Palmertown to help.

Herman Cannon was fourteen at the time and upstream from Palmertown. He recounted hearing an explosion at about 8pm and thought someone set off dynamite in celebration for Christmas.

Ed Smith, who resided in Palmertown, was also out delivering goods from the Mathieson General Store. A house in Palmertown was next on his delivery list

Ellen Smith and her sister Maxie heard something similar to a plane and a big thunderstorm as they walked home up the mountain from Henrytown around 8pm. They reportedly heard children crying and people yelling.

Leota Prater’s mother and sister-in-law arrived at their house, a day earlier than they planned. Her husband Hiawatha got home from work just shortly thereafter. None of the three had any time to remove their coats when it happened.

Thirteen-year-old Juanita Prater McKenna (Hiawatha’s younger sister) took in a Western movie at the theater in town with her mother and younger brother, her father had to work at the plant that night. Juanita’s brother-in-law reached the crowded movie theater in the middle of the show with news of the muck dam.

The roaring explosion sent the curious in Palmertown to their front doors at about the same time that the wall of muck slammed into their houses.

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J.H. Scott initially dismissed the roar as noise coming from the plant. But he and his brother J.C. felt compelled enough to open the door to look outside. J.H. Scott reported that they saw “dimly outlined against the sky, great mountains as it were, moving by the house.” The muck then slammed into the house with such force that it threw J.H. out of the back wall of the house and into the backyard, about 50 feet from where he stood at the front door. J.H. Scott got up immediately and went back into the house to check on his brother. He found J.C. partially covered in muck with a fatal wound on his head.[6]

Juanita Prater McKenna said that her brother’s family “hadn’t pulled their coats off when it happened.” “My brother and his wife was the last ones they found. It was a month to the day. They had just washed right around the side of the house.”[7] Hiawatha and Leota were discovered on January 24 because the red dye in Leota’s coat began leaching to the surface of the muck. “Some folks said that the muck would eat you,” she said of her brother and sister-in-law’s discovery, “But they wasn’t disfigured at all.”[8] Hiawatha and Juanita’s brother Rob recollected that after walking through the muck all night searching for his missing son, their father was never again the same. “Everybody told us my daddy walked all over all night that night, calling for Hiawatha,” recalled McKenna.[9]

As soon as the muck settled, as many as 150 rescuers dashed into Palmertown and began searching for bodies. People were found trapped in the upper stories of their homes, or clinging to rocks and trees after having been swept away downriver. Fires were lit from any nearby flammable material to aid in the rescue. The injured were taken to a makeshift hospital in the rooms above the Mathieson General Store, and the dead were taken to the undertaker.

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Warden Poore, one of the most recognized rescuers, wasted no time in wading through the muck: “You couldn’t see a thing but a big white cloud and the dark. Old people were hollering and whooping… I was in muck up to my neck. It eat holes in me on my legs and chest, it had so much lime in it.”[10] Poore reported that the rescuers tied ropes around each other and to the houses they passed. When a person was found alive and pulled out of the muck, “[t]hey would hit the ground and run like something wild after we got them out.”[11]

Carl V. Eskridge published a pamphlet about the dam collapse shortly after the accident, and in his account, he tells the heartbreaking story about the rescue of the two Prater girls, Fronia and Virginia:

Mr. Wyndham Roberts, one of the searchers, tells the pathetic story of how he, with two other men, John Helton and Dave Hicks, while passing some wreckage, heard a child calling for its mother. On examination the voice was found to come from under the roof of a building that was washed away, but the rafters still held intact. Quickly a board was knocked from the roof by the men and a little hand was thrust through the hole, and the little girl pleaded, “please don’t kill us, my little sister is in here in bed with me. Mama and papa are downstairs and we have been calling for them all night, but they won’t answer us.” They were assured by the men that they would not harm them, but had come to their rescue. The children did not realize what had happened. They had been put to bed upstairs and they had some of the Xmas toys with them. When found, the bed they were in was resting upon the muck and was pressed up against the rafter of the roof. The remainder of their home was gone, and with it, father (Harry Prater), mother and sister. This incident so touched the hearts of the men that they wept like children.[12]

Though some survived the ordeal. Robert Fuller, his wife, their eight-month-old baby, and his brother- and sister-in-law, Arthur and Gladys Pauley, were at home when the muck crashed into theie house. Fortunately, a sixteen-foot-long piece of timber floated in the house and everyone climbed on top, floating out of a doorway into the darkness. At some point downstream, Mrs. Fuller grabbed an overhanging tree limb with the baby in her arms and made her way out of the muck. Robert then jumped off while fifteen-year-old Gladys fell off and swallowed some muck in the process. Robert carried Gladys to shore, as he could touch the ground through the muck. All members of the family were safely rescued when their cries for help were heard.

The sun rose on Christmas morning to a devastating scene. The once quaint little community of company houses now lay splintered in a thick, viscous layer of caustic muck. Rescuers continued to crawl and trudge through the muck until the afternoon.

It was a gruesome scene that met the eyes of an observer on Xmas morning as he looked down the valley of the Holston… The whole landscape was covered with a coat of muck which gave an appearance not very unlike that of a great snow field. Houses stood halfway up in the white alkali; debris strewed the surface, while drowned chickens, pigs, calves and other domestic animals were lying on every hand of what had once been a fine apple orchard; nothing remained except a few trees which were completely whitewashed by the flying muck-spray to their topmost branches. Others could be seen father down the bottom, dragged out by the roots as one might pull weeds from a garden.[13]

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Once the muck and debris were removed from the annihilated Palmertown neighborhood, Mathieson leveled out the affected area and rebuilt it for those who lost their homes in the dam collapse. This new neighborhood became known as Perryville and still remains today.


While the Mathieson Alkali Works was directly responsible for this catastrophe, the residents in town praised the company for its efforts in aiding and assisting those in need: setting up an emergency hospital, bringing in doctors from as far away as Bristol, rehoming those who lost everything, replacing lost furniture, personal possessions, and livestock.[14] Mathieson quickly worked to reroute its waste pond to a nearby sinkhole until a more permanent dam could be constructed. The plant also rewarded the rescuers for the bodies found at $25 per body. An emergency fund was created by Mr. Robert Porterfield that consisted of around $5,000, half of which came from Mathieson. The governor of Virginia communicated to the town in a telegram on December 26 that read, “Accept my deepest regrets at the sad catastrophe at your plant. Please convey to the stricken families my sincere sympathy in their hour of sorrow.”[15] Mayor M.S. Dunham also reached out to the town on December 31 with the following statement:

As Mayor of the town of Saltville, I wish to take opportunity at this time to thank the people of Saltville in their work both of rescuing the people in the recent disaster and for their help to the injured and homeless. If proper information can be secured as to who did the heroic rescue work, I will see that they get proper recognition.[16]

In all, nineteen people died on that fateful Christmas Eve night as counted by Mayor Dunham, and just as many suffered injuries. It is said that the Mayor cried as the bodies were brought to the undertaker on that first night.

The cause of the dam collapse has never been determined, though it likely resulted from a failure in the structural integrity of the dam wall. Many believe that the recent rains increased the dam’s density, which added pressure to the wall. One man was arrested under suspicion for the wall collapse. Roy Patrick was detained and held without bond under the charge of using dynamite to rupture the dam in retaliation for Mathieson refusing to hire him. Patrick refuted the charges, saying that the people who “have it in for him” were behind the whole scheme. A grand jury decided that not enough evidence existed to convict Patrick of the crime, so the charges were dropped.


Catastrophic events often bring people and communities together in ways that they normally do not intersect; and it often happens in cases when nearly everyone is touched by the tragedy. Saltville is no exception to that rule. The people affected by the dam collapse continued on with their lives as well as they could, as tough Appalachians are wont to do. Many of the “heroes” of that night refused to see themselves as such, asserting that they only did what was right. It was well into the afternoon before many of the men returned home to their families. Mary Virginia Smith remembered her father going out on Christmas Eve and assisting in the rescue efforts. He finally returned on Christmas afternoon, so covered in the muck that it looked as if it had been plastered to him. Smith recalled that her father quietly washed his hands and warmed them over the stove, and when her mother entered the room he said to her, “Mary, their toys and a little Christmas tree were floating down the river. And the little children were gone.” Then he cried. Christmas of 1924 essentially failed to exist for this town. The devastation and loss of life overwhelmed any Yuletide sentiments on that day. But the memory of this tragedy did not die with those who survived that fateful night. The muck dam collapse survives in the collective memory of Saltville and in the history books as another environmental disaster in an Appalachian company town.

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[1] Olin Corporation, “About Us,” Olin Corporation, https://www.olinchloralkali.com/en-us/About-Us/Our-History (accessed December 2, 2016).

[2] Baker Library Historical Collection, “Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation,” Harvard University, http://www.library.hbs.edu/hc/lehman/company.html?company=olin_mathieson_chemical_corporation (accessed December 2, 2016).

[3] Margaret Linford, “Remembering the Muck Dam break in Saltville on Christmas Eve 1924,” SWVAToday.com, http://www.swvatoday.com/opinion/columnists/article_41a800a2-6c18-11e3-aab4-0019bb30f31a.html (accessed December 5, 2016).

[4] Frank B. Sanders, “A Night to Remember,” Saltville Progress, March 11, 1965.

[5] Linford, SWVAToday.com.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tim Thorton, “Christmas Even Nightmare, The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com/webmin/news/christmas-eve-nightmare/article_48b8db35-2fcd-59f4-ba97-cf8335433894.html (accessed December 6, 2016).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Don Petersen, “A night filled with fear,” The Roanoke Times.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Carl V. Eskridge, The Great Saltville Disaster, 8-9.

[13] Ibid., 8.

[14] Ibid., 12.

[15] Ibid., 13.

[16] Ibid., 14.

©K.Martin-Gross 2016

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