By Bill Archer
For The Register-Herald
The McDowell County Commission has tracked down the location of an unmarked cemetery near Havaco — a small un-incorporated community a few miles west of the Welch city limits — and are preparing to work with volunteers from the Boy Scouts of America to initiate clearing efforts at the site.
The unmarked burial site is located in the Little Egypt section of Havaco, not far from the site of the March 26, 1912 explosion at the Jed Mine. The Jed mine disaster claimed the lives of 83 coal miners. The remains of most of the victims lie in unmarked graves behind a row of houses in Havaco, but 100-plus years of unchecked growth has made the Potters Field that grew from one of McDowell County’s most deadly mine disasters essentially unknown, and almost gone from memory altogether.
McDowell County Commission President Gordon Lambert said that the commission has been working with the scouts to identify potential community service projects that the scouts can undertake during the 2013 National Jamboree, July 15-24, at the Summit Bechtel Scout Reserve in Fayette County. Travel time from Fayette to McDowell counties may present a challenge, but county officials have worked with officials from the Boy Scouts to make the project possible.
“We know that the Boy Scouts will not be able to operate any machinery, so we’re going to rely on the AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) to help us when we need to use machinery.”
Jerry Step with the county commission has been working out the details of the visit with representatives of the Boy Scouts. “I knew about the cemetery for several years,” Step said. “When I went to Havaco and started talking to residents there, I found out exactly where it is. The graves are located behind a row of houses. Several people in that community were very helpful.
“It’s not marked, and that’s something we need to address in the future,” Step said. “The first thing we need to do is get the site cleared and work on keeping it cleared.”
Lacy Dillon, a Wyoming County educator, wrote about the Jed Mine tragedy and kept the story alive. “There was no embalming and very little cleaning could be done,” Dillon wrote in his 1976 self-published book, “They Died in the Darkness.” Dillon researched West Virginia’s mine disasters and published accounts of the disasters in his book. “Some were re-clothed and placed in wooden boxes or coffins.
“On the hillside below the shaft on the opposite side of the valley, a crew of men were busy digging graves,” Dillon wrote. “As soon as a man was identified and coffined, he was taken to ‘Little Egypt’ and interred with little ceremony if his family did not take him elsewhere.
“Many of them were foreigners without relatives and had few friends,” Dillon continued. “Some were imported and no one knew anything about them. Few cared. Finally on Friday (March 29, 1912) the last bodies — 81 in all — were brought out and quickly buried. To this day, old time residents say that two were never found. Bodies not found are not counted.”
Dillon wrote that the managers of the Jed Coal & Coke Company provided food and clothing to the widows and dependents of the coal miners who died in the explosion. “These people were destitute to begin with,” Dillon wrote. “One-third of the victims were married and lived in coal company houses.”
Step said that Boy Scouts will be volunteering to work on two additional abandoned cemeteries at Gary No. 5 and Gary No. 10 as well as at additional projects in Davy, Welch and at Main Gary.
— Bill Archer is a writer for The Bluefield Daily Telegraph