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Monday, August 15, 2016

"Pest House" Probably Never Existed on Red Ash Island

For decades, various local history buffs and even some National Park Service (NPS) personnel have recited accounts which usually go something like this: "When a smallpox epidemic swept through the towns of the New River Gorge during the 1890s, health officials decided the unoccupied Red Ash Island was the perfect location for a quarantine camp."

While such claims seem somewhat believable at first glance, they don't seem to stand up to scrutiny very well. There is much evidence that the "pest house" in question was not  located on Red Ash Island. Instead, the evidence points to a location near the mouth of Ephraim Creek, on the opposite side of New River across from the so-called "island."

Circa 1899 panorama showing "Red Ash Island" (view enlarged)
Photo credit: U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior/U. S. Geological Survey.
The panoramic photo above was (re)created from several USGS photos described as "New River Gorge National River, West Virginia. New River, viewed from the cliffs behind Fire Creek. 1899. Photos cmr00112 through 00117 form a panorama."

A close examination of the photo's details match well with a date prior to 1900 but after 1891.  Interestingly enough, a baseball diamond can be clearly seen in the photo, but there are no structures on the island.  For some unknown reason, this photo was mistakenly identified as a "1945 aerial photo of  Red Ash Island" in a 2007 Park Service archaeological  survey [1].  This apparently lead to several false conclusions, including the belief that "In the 1940s, a baseball diamond was built next to the cemetery to provide a place for miners to participate in recreational activities "

The photo clearly shows the ball field existed many decades prior to the 1940s, but oddly enough, this photo, actually from about 1899, shows a ball field on the "island" during the time when a smallpox "pest house" supposedly existed on the island. I'd think this would make for a less than ideal situation.

Quoting from the 2007 NPS document [1]: "During the late nineteenth century, smallpox victims were quarantined and treated on Red Ash Island. Historical accounts discuss three structures associated with the housing and care of the smallpox victims (Bragg 1995)." [2]

Since practically all of Melody Bragg's "accounts" were regurgitations of Shirley Donnelly's "Yesterday and Today" newspaper columns that had been published during the 1950-1980 period, I think it's safe to assume that the source for the information contained in her 1995 writings was Donnelly. I'm also going to assume that some of the factual details got "lost in translation" when the they were reprinted. Ergo, it would probably be a good idea to take a look at Donnelly's original columns.

Two of Donnelly's early columns on the "pest house" were published in 1956 that describe its location.. In the first 1956 column [3] quotes Ben D. Keller, who had been one of those quarantined in the pest house in 1902, as specifically stating the pest house was "located on Ephraim's Creek between Sewell and Fire Creek." In the second [4]  he quotes a second person, Sylvester V. Berry, as saying "I remember it well. It was down next to Sewell."

In a third column published in 1958 [5] Donnelly says that Ben Keller had "recently wrote me to get me straight on the location of the Fayette County pest house where they sent people with smallpox long ago." Donnelly then quotes Keller as saying "The pest house was in the mouth of the hollow about halfway between Fire Creek and East Sewell..."

The timing of the events Ben Keller recounted to Donnelly line up well with event documented in a court case [6] involving a man named David Jenkins, who in December of 1903, was arrested, loaded into a boxcar, and transported by the C&O Railway to the county pest house near Fire Creek. This narrative states that Jenkins was carried from the boxcar to the pest house, with no mention of him being transported in a boat across New River to an "island.

USGS 1913 topo map, surveyed 1911, showing Red Ash Island, Pennbrook, and FIre Creek.
East Sewell, not shown on the map, would have been directly across the river from Brooklyn.

Some years later, in 1967 [7], Donnelly writes again about Red Ash Island saying it was the burial place of some of the dead from the 1900 Red Ash Explosion. He also mentions that there was a baseball diamond.on the island "in the early times of the mining town."  He cites a local legend regarding "some of the soldiers" of Andrew Lewis' army who died on their return from the Battle of Point Pleasant being buried on the island but goes on to say "This is most likely apocryphal but it still goes its rounds."

In a 1969 column [8], containing much information attributed to Edwin Grafton, Donnelly states "Fayette County had a pest house where people with smallpox were sent to recover, or die. It was at Pennbroke [sic] and was maintained for something like five years or more."

It is interesting to note that the name of Edwin Grafton had come up in an earlier Donnelly column [5], i.e., Ben Keller stated the pest house was "near the old Edwin Grafton home."

In the 1969 article [8] Donnelly provides more details about the pest house that in previous articles.

"Railroad authorities put in a short siding just west of where Ephraim's Creek flows into New River. Next the railroad provided a box car to transport the patients to the pest house."

"Whenever a new case of smallpox was discovered the railroad people sent a switch engine to get the car. A male nurse went with it to accompany the patient to the pest house"

"The smallpox doctor was Dr. Rappold. He was a coal company doctor from the New River section."

"The pest house complex was comprised of three buildings. One was on the open glen next to the mouth of Ephraim's Creek. A second was a house for men only a few hundred yards up in the woods from the creek. A third house was one occupied by the doctor."

"The pest house was abandoned nearly 10 years, then the buildings were torn down by the Pennbrook Coal Co."

Evidence also suggests that there have been more than one "pest houses" located in Fayette County over the years. For example, in a 1969 column [9] Donnelly writes about another pest house in Fayette County that was located in the hollow along Arbuckle Creek across the New River from Thurmond. 


After searching through Newspapers.com's entire archive of The Beckley Post-Herald, the newspaper in which the bulk of Donnelly's columns were published, I found absolutely no references by Donnelly to a "pest house" located on Red Ash Island, While he did say write in more than one column alluding to a belief that some of the dead buried on that island included smallpox victims, Donnelly consistently referred to the location of the "pest house" itself as being in the Pennbrook vicinity, e.g., near the mouth of Ephraim Creek.

Probably because the life of the mining community of Pennbrook was extremely short lived [10] the town's demarcation disappears on most USGS maps other than the 1913 map.  This, combined with the general lack of information on Pennbrook may have caused some "researchers" to be confused or uncertain about its location.

It's not like confusion about location hasn't happened before.  Take the photo below, for example. It's misidentified by the USGS folks as "Sunnyside" but to anyone who's studied the region, the photograph was obviously taken from the cliffs above Fire Creek, looking downstream toward Red Ash Island and Pennbrook.

Circa 1894 view of Red Ash Island, location incorrectly identified as Sunnyside by USGS {view enlarged)
Photo credit: U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior/U. S. Geological Survey.

Donnelly's writings clearly reveal the location of the "pest house" in question was Pennbrook. I suppose some might claim it is possible there was "another" pest house located on Red Ash Island at some point in time. Perhaps, but I'm sceptical...

While it might at first, seem logical that Red Ash Island would have served as a "perfect" spot for a "pest house," upon careful consideration, I would think most persons would come to the conclusion that this location was far from perfect. 

Pennbrook was on the main line of the C&O Railway, while Red Ash was on a branch line known as the Southside Branch.  Mainline C&O trains were frequent, during both day and night.  C&O trains on the Southside Branch were fewer and normally operated only during daylight hours. 

Transporting a patient from Red Ash across the swampy bog between Red Ash and Red Ash Island or across New River from Fire Creek would not have not been an easy chore under the best of conditions, and even less so during bad weather or the winter months. 


[1] Historical Archeological Survey: New River Gorge National River and Gauley River National Recreation Area · 2007 · Red Ash Island

Several of the conclusions outlined in the Red Ash Island section of this study are erroneous.

[2] 1995 Fayette’s sister mines held death for many. Window to the Past. Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, West Virginia.

The 2007 NPS document [1] cites its source as shown above. Unfortunately, without knowing the actual date this column was published, it's virtually impossible to fact check.

[3] Beckley Post-Herald · Mar 22, 1956 · Page 4 · Alumnus of Fayette County 'Pest House'

[4] Beckley Post-Herald · Apr 10, 1956 · Page 4 · More Memories of Fayette County Pest House

[5] Beckley Post-Herald · Aug 20, 1958 · Page 4 · "Another Tale of What Might Have Been"

[6] Jenkins v. Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company

[7] Beckley Post-Herald · Aug 10, 1967 · Page 4 · Red Ash Isle Yield Rare Indian Mattock

[8] Beckley Post-Herald · Mar 19, 1969 · Page 4 · Struck Central Mine Didn't Reopen

[9] Beckley Post-Herald · May 9, 1969 · Page 4 · People Didn't 'Enjoy' Poor Health Then

[10] Pennbrook (historical) · WVExp.com



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