By Robert (Bob) W. McCoy, Jr.
In 1974, a United States Army Corps of Engineer planner described Matewan as having the most severe flooding problem in America. It is not a very difficult case to make in view of the fact that since 1949, Matewan had been flooded 36 times.
In 1953 alone, in the short period between February 15 and March 15, there were four floods that damaged the community. Over the years the floods have varied in degree from the minor backing-up of Mate Creek to the catastrophic floods of 1957, 1963, 1977 and 1984.
Flooding has been a problem in the Tug Valley since its earliest history. In 1863, a devastating flood of a greater than 100 year magnitude occurred. The pioneer settlers of the Matewan area avoided the ravages of the Tug by building on high ground well away from the river.
During the period 1890 – 1940, a time during which the Williamson Coal Field boomed, the lack of flood free developable land forced building in the flood plain along Mate Creek and the Tug Fork. Matewan blossomed during these years into one of the loveliest communities in southern West Virginia.
With the exception of a few years in college and the Army, I have resided in Matewan all my life. I was a young boy in the late forties and early fifties. I can remember the tree-lined streets, the attractive, well-kept homes, and the business district. I can also recall the floods that devastated my community.
In 1953, my father and mother, Bob and Henrietta, had just moved the family from the McCoy Building to the house beside the Wilson & Co. grocery store building. We were now operating the store as Bob’s Food Center. This same year the flood waters got into the store twice. It was during one of these floods when my dad fell into the flood waters walking along the top of the fence between the store and the house.
The 1957 flood caused enormous damage throughout much of Matewan. Frank Morrell, who was fire chief, brought a motor boat to the house to rescue us. The family, along with my dog Ruff, were boated to safety. After the flood waters had subsided, I followed my father and mother through the mud to the store to survey the damage. All was lost.
At home, it was the same. The family piano, along with many other unsalvageable personal effects were thrown out. Mother washed out the mattress and box springs of their bed and they were reused. A Small Business Administration Loan put us back in business. I recall my parents’ concern. Could we recover from this flood?
The 1957 flood was thought to be so severe that no future flood could equal it. The 1963 flood proved everyone wrong. The high water mark of this flood bettered the 1957 flood by several feet and again inflicted heavy damages on the community.
I can remember, after returning to our flood-damaged high school in 1963, that thick clouds of dust rose in the hallways from the mud-soaked wood floors when students changed rooms between classes.
I was Mayor of Matewan during the small flood in 1974, when Matewan was designated a disaster area. We received a small disaster assistance grant to repair flood damaged community facilities. This flood proved to be good training for an inexperienced 29 year old who would face several more floods in his tenure as mayor.
No one who lived in Matewan during the April 4, 1977 flood will ever forget it. After several days of steady rain, the river began to rise more quickly than ever before. Due to the rapidly rising water, many were unable to get property out of harm’s way. Every automobile in the two new-car dealerships in town and almost every personal automobile in Matewan was lost. My mother’s two-story frame house, which was across Mate Street from the bank, became a refuge for several older people whose homes were already flooded.
They were at the house with my grandmother, wife, nine year old daughter, and mother. Until the 1977 flood, this had been considered high ground and had never before flooded. But when I arrived, water was coming in the front door. We moved what belongings we could to the second floor and waited to be rescued. The water continued to rise inch by steady inch. Store display windows broke under the pressure of the water. Beds, Easter baskets, cars, and a coon dog sitting on top of the dog house to which he was chained floated down Mate Street.
It was very dark and one could hear other houses buckling under the pressure of the torrent of water. We were afraid that the water would knock our house off its foundation and cause it to collapse. Gasoline leaking from the B&C Oil Company bulk storage facility caused an oil slick that emitted potent fumes. Floating automobiles bumped into the house with heavy thuds. A large propane tank banged into the house, causing it to release its gas with a loud hiss. Would the house hold? Would the gas tank explode? Never had I feared for my life and the lives of my family more than that night.
Late that night, about the same time the water covered the top step inside the house, Virgil Hamilton made his way to our house in his small boat and rescued us.
The next day, I surveyed the damages. The water and sewer treatment facilities were gone; City Hall, the fire trucks and equipment, the new medical clinic that we had labored so hard to get, the bridge to Buskirk, and the community church, the oldest building in town, were all destroyed. Fully one-third of the private dwellings had been washed away.
The next two weeks were miserable. It was unseasonably cold and there was no electricity or water. People who were unaffected by the high water took the others in their homes. Some slept on floors, in cars, or on the mountain side.
In due time help arrived. Coal companies with heavy equipment moved buildings, debris, and mud from the streets. Neighbors arrived to assist. Later, Federal Disaster Assistance monies were granted to rebuild the bridge, medical clinic, water and sewage treatment facilities, and to repair other public facilities.
Low interest Small Business Loans were made to affected individuals and businesses who lacked the necessary capital to rebuild. However, even with the millions of dollars in grants, insurance proceeds and loans pumped into our community for rebuilding, the net effect to the community was still a huge loss.
The May 1984 flood, the second largest flood in this century, again ravaged our town. Having suffered through 33 floods in the previous 35 years, there was less in property and human spirit for the river to take.
In the 1950s, when the flooding problem increased, a valley wide effort to gain flood protection was pursued. Local leaders trooped to Washington to petition our Congressional delegation for help. Over the next 25 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was directed to study the feasibility of various flood protection plans. The Panther Creek, Knox Creek, and Tug Fork dam proposals were studied and restudied, all with the same finding: the projects were not considered to be cost feasible.
The 1977 flood brought national attention to the terrible flooding problem in the Tug Valley. The television images of the residents of the Tug Valley evoked sympathy and help. United States Senator Robert C. Byrd was successful in achieving legislation to waive the cost-benefit ratio law requiring that for each dollar of federal money spent, there must be corresponding dollar in property protected. This measure allowed for the authorization of the series of flood protection projects that would eventually protect Matewan and other communities in the Tug Valley from further flooding.
There have been other costs associated with the floods that our community has suffered which are difficult to measure in dollars and cents. With each flood, there were families and business people who left our town. They left voids in churches, Woman’s Club, Rotary Club, and the PTA. These people were good citizens and good neighbors, each making a contribution to our town. They are sadly missed.
(Editor’s Note: The anniversary of the great Tug Fork River flood is Monday, April 4. This story helps explain the flooding history the region has suffered through the years.)
(Robert W. McCoy, Jr. was Mayor of Matewan from 1974-1986 and has owned an insurance and real estate business in downtown Matewan for many years. This article originally ran in the old Matewan Journal.)