Dammed If You Don't: The Palmertown Tragedy of 1924 in Collective Memory

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Virginia Tech

On December 24, 1924, a wall of water and alkali muck engulfed Palmertown, a small community in Saltville, Virginia. Houses were swept away and by the time all of the bodies were pulled from the wreckage, the death toll had reached 19-an immense loss for the tight-knit community. A dam, owned by Mathieson Alkali Works, loomed approximately 100 feet above Palmertown, keeping at bay the chemical muck produced by the company plants. Despite the extent of the damage, the flood is largely absent from discourse and no historical marker exists to memorialize the tragedy. Furthermore, Palmertown and neighboring Henrytown were expunged in the mid-twentieth century when Olin Corporation rebuilt the dam overtop of the town sites. Stories of the event have been passed down for generations, immortalizing a specific story of the disaster in the memories of many local residents of Saltville, so why is it not memorialized?

The cultural framework of Saltville determined how and why this disaster and others have been remembered or forgotten. In 1924, Saltville residents were accustomed to tragic events; to some extent these events were seen as part and parcel of life in a company town in Appalachia. Yet, nearly a century after the tragedy, the process of unearthing of difficult events can illuminate much of the community's collective history and restore the fragmented communal memory. The memorialization of the Palmertown Tragedy of 1924 establishes a framework for acknowledging an arduous past and identifying the roots of a town's resilience.

Palmertown, Saltville, Memorialization, Muck Dam, Disaster, Company Town, Appalachia