You Can’t Go “Home” Again, Part II – The Power Company Presence

Yes, things have changed a lot in my hometown area since I was a kid.  There are other big changes in the view from and on the farm where I grew up.  From the top of the hill where the house we built sits, you can see the Pleasants Power Station. 

You can't miss it.  The power plant looms large in the area these days.  It's located down the road a little ways in Willow Island, West Virginia.

It dominates the landscape, our history, and our memories.  It looks serene enough in the above picture, but on April 27, 1978, it was the scene of the worst construction disaster in US history. That day is seared into the memory of people living in Pleasants County in much the same way the 9/11 disaster is seared into the country's collective memory.

At the time, the second of the two 430-foot cooling towers for the new Pleasants Power Station was being built. The men worked on the next section of the tower from scaffolding attached to the previous pour of concrete.

Unfortunately, on April 27, 1978, the concrete was too green and hadn't hardened enough to hold the scaffolding properly. Contractors were trying to speed up the construction, and in hindsight, it appears safety wasn't given the priority it should have had.  Key bolts meant to attach the scaffolding to the tower were missing, and other problems were found during investigations after the accident.

Bottom line, the scaffolding ripped out, leaving a scar on the tower about halfway up where a dark line marks the level the concrete failed. There's another scar on the community as 51 men died that day, tumbling about 166 feet to their death.

Pleasants County became the unwanted focus of media attention.  Many were not kind, and portrayed the people as ignorant hillbillies, yet they were the ones hiding in bushes to film funerals.  They were relentless in their push to get a story and had no respect for the grieving family and friends of those 51 men.  This cruel treatment and skewing of facts left yet another scar on the community.

In the following years, the construction was eventually completed and the towers put into operation.  People living nearby then had a new problem - pollution.  Fine ash settled over houses and cars.  The power plant solved the problem by buying up the houses closest to the power station.

When Dad bought the house we'd built, he sold the old home place to the power company.  As they did with all the other houses they bought, they destroyed it.  In this case, the house was used as a training exercise for local firefighters and burnt down.  I saw a picture of the house burning when we visited Dad last week.  It had a powerful impact to see the house where I grew up in flames.  I'm glad I wasn't there to see it actually happen.

The story twists yet again, however.  Where the house I was raised in once stood, there is now a memorial to those 51 men who died during the construction of the cooling tower the looms tall in the background.

Anthony Lauer, the grandson of one of the victims, Larry Gale Steele, raised $70,000 as a sixth-grade social studies project to build the memorial.  The names of each of those 51 men who died is written on a bronze plaque attached to the memorial.

This tribute is a constant reminder of those men.  It's also a reminder of some of the many changes in my hometown. 

You see, while it's true no one can go "home" again, some people's hometowns have changed more than others.   And just maybe Pleasants county has seen more changes than most.

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Comments

  1. Wow! What an enormous tragedy for the whole area. I can’t imagine how painful it was for everyone.

  2. Rural Writer says:

    Yeah, and I just gave the bare facts. There were some families that 2 to 4 or more of their men up there – brothers for instance. And of course, in a smaller community, you about had to know at least one of the people there.

  3. Very interesting story. I live less than 2 miles from Davis Besse Nuclear power plant which was the focus of a near-meltdown scandal two years ago. You may have heard about it on the news. Anyway, if the inspectors hadn’t caught the huge hole in the lid of the reactor I would be dust right now. SCARY. How sad for you that the house you grew up in was deliberately burned down. Now that I own the house I grew up in, I can’t imagine such a thing! The memorial in place there now is very nice though. What a nice tribute to those who died in the accident. Thanks for sharing this, I really enjoy learning about others thru their blogs!

  4. Rural Writer says:

    Wow, that would be scary! The stuff of nightmares or horror movies.

    It’s neat you own the house you grew up in. That makes a nice continuity from generation to generation. We don’t see so much of that these days.

  5. Gosh. How terribly tragic…. :(

    ~Lisa

  6. My granddad had a 90 acre place in east Texas which was mostly wooded. It has a nice creek with fish and fed by 2 year-around springs.

    The folks that bought the place cleared the timber, and destroyed the springs.

    It is now mostly a deserted wasteland.

    It’s sad

    I thought I had you on my blogroll, but no.

    I’ll fix that now. I am adding you to my “Nature Blogs” blogroll.

    Troy and Martha

  7. What a terrible blight to the community this tragedy was and still is.
    I am too moved to say more.

  8. On my many drives in the rural countrysides nearby I’ve been by here often in the past year. I know exactly where this memorial is. I should do a post someday for the My World meme.

  9. Rural Writer says:

    That’s neat! As “they” say… “Small World!”

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