Many people dream of a white Christmas, especially in the mountains. For the residents of a small town in Southwest Virginia known as Saltville in 1924 this wish was granted, but not in a way anyone expected or wanted.
Saltville and its environs (Henrytown, Allison's Gap, Chinch Row and Palmertown) used to be known as 'The Salt Capital of the Confederacy' during the Civil War era due to the large salt deposits found underneath the earth. At this time in 1924 however, it was a company town. In the 1880's, the railroad had come to the Saltville Valley, known today as Rich Valley. This brought many industrial opportunities to the area culminating in the the establishment of the Mathieson Alkali Works. Using salt as a resource, this company produced bicarbonate soda, soda ash, and caustic soda which were used by other industries to produce a myriad of other items such as medicines, glues and soap. Eventually, they also began to produce baking soda, bleaching powder and dry ice. After time, the town and company became more or less inseparable. The company provided income, housing, doctors and a way of life for the town and its employees.
Industrial pursuits also come with their own set of problems, in this case, waste from production. As a byproduct of their work, an ammonia still waste, or 'slurry' was produced. This was pumped out to a dam the company had built to contain it. The dam itself was made of slaker waste, fly ash and cinders from the company boilers. Eventually, the solid particles of the slurry would settle and the remainder, being primarily water, would be drained into the Holston River. The plant did have a permit for this action. The walls of the dam were estimated to be around 100ft high. By Christmas 1924, this caustic and acrid pond covered 30 acres of land.
The weather on Christmas Eve of 1924 was typical of the area, 28 degrees Fahrenheit with a drizzle of rain. Residents were busy preparing for the holiday with their families. This all ended around 8 PM. Residents remember hearing a massive roar. Some went outside to see what it was, and saw what looked like mountains moving in the dim light. Then, the town was hit by a wall of water and white slurry muck. The dam had broken.
The wave of muck has been estimated to have been 100 ft high and 300 ft wide. Anything in its path was either destroyed, swept away or buried. There was enough force after the break to hurl large boulders weighing around 20 tons to be thrown across the river to a spot 250 yards away. All festivities ended as suddenly the focus now turned to helping survivors and surviving. Most of the workers at the Mathieson plant also ran to help. Rescuers would have no choice but to go into the muck, returning covered in the chemical. Some reported it ate little holes in their skin and scarred their eyes. In order to aid rescue efforts in the low light, items were set afire, including a house in one case as automobiles could not get close enough. Perhaps the most dramatic rescue story was that of the Prater girls. Three rescuers heard voices calling for their mother under the roof of a building that had been washed away. They cut a hole in the roof and a little girl's hand came out. She told them that her little sister was in bed with her and that they had been calling for their mom and dad downstairs but they weren't coming. The kids had no idea what had happened. They had been put to bed earlier with some of their toys. They were found perfectly safe in their bed which was sitting in the muck against the roof rafters. Their parents had perished in the disaster.
19 people lost their lives in the incident, including the parents of the Prater girls. The next morning, the landscape had completely changed. Everything was covered in the white muck, houses stood buried as in a huge snow drift, debris lay strewn everywhere along with dead livestock. Pieces of the dam wall were present also, barn sized they now lay where there had been homes the previous day. Above it all, the huge hole in the dam itself loomed over everything. The Palmertown area was the one which had been primarily hit, but secondary waves also destroyed much of Chinch Row (abandoned after due to damage) and caused minor flooding in Henrytown. No hospitals existed in Saltville at this time so a temporary one was set up in upstairs rooms over the general store owned by the Mathieson plant. The plant also donated beds, chairs, foods and other supplies out of the store to assist. Later, the plant also gave new homes, furniture and clothing to those who had lost everything.
The effects of the breakage were also not localized just to the Saltville area. The muck caused the alkaline levels in the Holston River to dramatically increase which was closely monitored further south in Tennessee. Also in Tennessee along the river, fish were dying in record numbers. While safe to eat as long as they were washed, fishermen retrieved thousands.
Many theories existed as to what caused the dam to finally break. Some residents reported hearing a large boom just before the dam broke indicating sabotage but no evidence of this was ever found. In the end, the general consensus was that the walls of the makeshift dam could no longer withstand the pressure of the massive amount of muck it was holding back. Oddly enough, no blame was ever put forth to Mathieson itself. In today's society, such would not be the case. Their relief effort help was also pretty large for the time, and completely voluntary. Something again, which probably would not happen today.