Eagle Scout Candidate Honors Fallen Miners
photo courtesy of The Times Leader
In the corner of a quiet park rests a small headstone that means many things to many people. It represents the past and present of the village of Bellaire, as well as that of St. Clairsville and the surrounding Belmont County. This stone is a recently engraved memorial. For some, it is the only headstone for their loved ones, lost in the underground explosion in Hanna Coal Co.'s No. 10 mine, known as the Willow Grove Mine.
A serif font declares simply: “Willow Grove Mine.” Under this title is a beautifully embellished sketch of the mine in its former glory. Rolling hills in the background of the etching add depth and dimension. Below that, the monument reads “March 16, 1940, an explosion ripped through the Willow Grove Mine resulting in the death of 72 Ohio Valley men.”
Every so often, an unpretentious young man treads out of a nearby church and over to the park. He tends to the landscaping around the memorial and, as he puts it, "watch[es] over it." Like the memorial, the young man weeding the area is also quite meaningful to the community. He is Nassis James Albert, also known as Jimmy, the 18-year-old Eagle Scout candidate who spent over a year planning and researching in order to make the Willow memorial and a nearby plaque a reality. Jimmy is the embodiment of a Scout: he wears his beige, patched uniform proudly. His short, brownish golden locks of hair are kept trimmed and tidy. When he relaxes into an easy grin, his eyes sparkle with ornery amusement.
“Sometimes people forget the past, and sometimes when I speak to people they don't know what happened,” Jimmy says. “This shows that people remember and people care. They will never be forgotten and I know this goes beyond my project and goes beyond me.”
Jimmy grew up just two miles away from the exploded mine, and he remembers pondering over it at a very young age. When his uncle told him the history of the mine, Jimmy could not believe that no memorial existed. Many would have long forgotten their shock over the years, but Jimmy is not like most people.
The Willow Grove Mine Memorial project started in earnest in order to fulfill an Eagle Scout requirement. Two years ago, Jimmy approached his Scout leader, Dave McLeod, with the idea for the memorial.
"Jimmy is one of the most courteous teenagers I know," Dave says. "It goes beyond caring. He worries about what other people are thinking, and it isn't all about him, which is not always the case for most teenagers."
Jimmy spent the past year investigating the event and trying to locate a wooden plaque rumored to have been commissioned by the United Mine Workers. He involved his community to make sure the names of the miners were spelled correctly, in addition to referencing local genealogy files accessed through the Cumberland Trail Genealogical Society and with the help of St. Clairsville public librarian Sheila Perkins.
At first, it seemed as though the plaque had been lost permanently, so Jimmy began efforts to create his own memorial. As he ran out of time to apply for his Eagle Scout badge, Jimmy paused momentarily to wonder if he should continue with the project. But he knew even then how meaningful the project could be. Soon after, he received permission from Bellaire Village Council to install a memorial in the city park.
Jason Gallagher, manager of the original Gallagher & Son's Monuments, recalls the day Jimmy walked into the store.
"I knew I wanted to donate," Jason says. "My wife's dad and uncle are coal miners and three of my employees are former coal miners. Bellaire would probably not exist without coal mining. My grandpa felt that everyone should have a permanent memorial, and so do I."
Jason donated the material for the monument. When the UMW heard about the project, they donated the $500 cost to engrave the names of the miners and etch a likeness of the mine on the stone. As his plan slowly came to fruition, Jimmy says the original plaque turned up in storage at the UMW District 6 office. The plaque currently resides in the St. Clairsville Public Library, where it will remain on display temporarily and later be returned to the UMW.
Dave says Jimmy organized various subcommittees to help with the detail work. “When he needed things done, or flowers planted, he organized the troop and other adults to do a task,” Dave recalls. “I don't want to say I had any more or less work than one of our 14-year-old Boy Scouts shoveling and mixing concrete.”
Jimmy and Dave say they are still approached by families and friends wishing to express their gratitude.
"Willow Creek Mmine was considered one of the safest in the area," Jimmy says. "After that explosion, there were a series of laws put in place and inspections in surrounding mines. It is sad, but it's said that people have to die before actions are taken. I have a lot of respect for miners because they have so much courage.”