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20.

 

    Several enormous tents had been erected across the summit. The smallest of these was occupied by Quo Chung and his kitchen staff who were busily preparing food for the mine employees and their guests. For lunch, the crowd dispersed into compact groups, acquaintances tending to band together, miners seeking out friends, and company officials joining with dignitaries from Morgantown and other Monongalia communities.

    Much of the conversation between Frank and the others at his table centered about the coming presidential election. The Republican Party convention would convene in Chicago in two months time, and Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was given good odds of winning the nomination. The real concern of those seated beneath Chung's colorful tent was less about Lincoln's ability to lead the nation than about the divisions his election might bring. Men from southern states, particularly Cameron and the Cheeks, were more passionate about the salient issues: states rights and the expansion of slavery into new states entering the Union.

    Frank and Bevens, northerners to the core, felt less involved. Frank was preoccupied with his growing family and his mining properties. He was a dedicated abolitionist, to be sure, but he was a practical man first and preferred to leave political action to others. Henry Bevens, for his part, loved politics but on a local scale. He was more interested in county and municipal matters than those on a national level, which to Bevens seemed far removed from his everyday life. No one within Frank's business or social environment owned slaves; indeed, there were comparatively few black people living in northwestern Virginia. He employed black servants in his household-Hopkins, Berry, Martha the cook, and a few others of more recent hire-but all of them had gained their freedom long before Frank arrived in Virginia. They lived within his walls and ate the food he provided, but they worked for wages just as the men in his mines did.

    There were threats of succession in the air, Cameron explained. If Lincoln were elected, his home state of South Carolina might leave the Union. Other southern states were certain to follow their example.

    "But the real question, my dear friend," Bevens interrupted, "is what will Virginia do."

    "If the other states leave, you can be sure that Virginia will follow them out. I have no doubts whatsoever about that," Cameron replied.

    Frank listened carefully to their exchange. It was less certain to him than it was to Cameron what path their state would choose. Eastern Virginia shared many characteristics with the other southern states: they grew tobacco and cotton and used black slaves to harvest their crops and staff their homes. It shared its northeastern boundaries with Delaware and Maryland, Yankee states, but ones with strong southern sympathies. On the other hand, Virginia also bordered on Pennsylvania, an industrial state with long held anti-slavery sentiments. To the extent that Frank could see,  Virginia might hold the balance in any showdown between those seeking to preserve the union and those seeking to render it asunder, but it was undetermined in which direction the scale would tip.

    Now, the northwestern corner of the state was a different matter entirely. It was a mountainous region, completely contained within the Appalachian range, and largely isolated by its geography and terrain from the culture and traditions of the surrounding areas. Men kept no slaves here; every man was as free as the next. Men built no plantations; they burrowed into the earth for coal and cut trees for lumber. The rocky soil was inhospitable for agriculture; and unlike much of the eastern coast, poverty and illiteracy were wide spread ills that needed urgent attention. Why, Charleston had as much in common with Richmond as Miami did with Portland, Maine.

    Frank turned to Isador Cheek, "Tell me, Isador, why do you feel so vehemently about the southern cause. Charleston is further south than Monongalia County, but you don't grow much cotton thereabouts, and I'd be surprised if your family owned any slaves."

    "Well, Mr. Montague, that's true. Most people from my home town are miners or lumberjacks. I hardly ever saw a black face until I worked in Kentucky, and I didn't see many there, at least not in Harlan County. I don't hold with owning slaves, either. I wasn't born better or worse than any man, whatever color he might be. If I feel better than someone else now, it's because of what I've done as a man, what I've earned by sweat and muscle.

    "But all that is besides the point, in my opinion. Folks down here should have the right to make up their own minds about how they should live, not have it done for them by outsiders. We're country boys and mountain men down here, born that way, and I'm sure we'll die that way, too. But this is our land, and if the Yankees come down here, then they're not going to be peacefully tolerated. Speaking just for myself of course. But I know most of my neighbors along the Kanawha and Elk Rivers feel much the same."

    Quiet had fallen around the adjacent tables while Isador was speaking, and Frank could see more than a few heads bobbing in agreement. Cameron was sure that Virginia would joint with the other southern states and leave the Union if Lincoln was elected. Bevens had failed to render judgment one way or another; and Frank thought that Cameron's opinion and its opposite were equally plausible, equally probable. The fate of Virginia was in the wind; the future was cloudy.

    But one thing was sparkling clear, no matter which way Virginia tilted; his own community, the northwestern part of the state, would be divided, probably right down the middle, between unionists and country boys, Yankees and secessionists. Moreover, the question of slavery aside, he was unsure in which camp his own allegiance belonged.

 

    After lunch, Chung and his helpers struck the kitchen tent and began loading the leftover food and cooking utensils onto wagons for the trip back to the mine. Most of the guests had already departed. The real purpose of the event was yet to begin, but

the visitors were there for the ceremony and the feast, not to witness a demonstration of back-breaking labor.

    Two tents, much larger than the one used for dinning, remained standing as Chung and his wagons began winding down the hillside. These were pitched, not to shelter guests, but for storage, to protect expensive mechanisms and handcrafted parts from the unpredictable weather.

    On the side of the first tent, a row of brand new skips, the smaller version of the mine ore cars, were lined up as if they were about to receive fresh loads of coal. Inside, a tarp had been spread across the trampled grass floor. it was covered with pulleys and wheels, cables and bars, heavy steel hooks and parts for a crane. These were the components of the enormous cable drum that would raise and lower the hoist elevator within the central shaft. All of this equipment had been delivered by rail two weeks before. None of it was light; every piece required several strong men to unload it from a wagon and place it under the tent; but in comparison to the next few deliveries to be brought up the mountain, their weight was insubstantial. Most of these components had been manufactured in St. Louis by the Royal Excavation Company, a firm specializing in the production of skip hoists and heavy duty industrial elevators.

    The second tent, approximately the same size as the first, and erected over an identical ground tarp, was used for storing the elevator parts themselves. They were laid out in a congested and bewildering display. About half of the items, the brakes, locking mechanisms, operating levers, sliding iron gate door, and many other devices too specialized to identify easily-in short, everything that was common to most elevator installments no matter their purpose- Bevens had obtained these from the Otis Company in New York City. They were a young company but had grown rapidly; at present, they dominated the elevator business everywhere in the country. The other pieces were custom built according to Bevens's specifications. The circular metal cage had been fabricated in Pittsburgh by the Republic Steel Company; the movable, circular skip platform, the passenger platform, and the oval coal bins were assembled from heavy oak and iron by metal workers and mine carpenters.

 

    Everyone connected with the mine had been waiting patiently for this day. It might have occurred sooner, but Frank had requested that it be delayed until after Rebecca had delivered their child; he would miss neither event.

    He left the others and climbed the short distance to the true summit, the top of his very own mountain. The assembled workers down slope around the tents grew still and waited. Frank raised his carbine and fired two shots, then paused and repeated the pattern. It was a signal to the men stationed below at the freight platform to begin the delivery.

    With a mighty roar of steam, Hershel Wade opened the throttle of the industrial switcher and began pushing a heavily laden flatcar up the hill toward the rail siding under the processing plant. A huge, black turbine steam engine stood astride the flatcar, supported by thick steel cables fastened to its undercarriage. As Wade's switcher chugged its way slowly up the hill, the men at the top began assembling the heavy crane that would lift the turbine off the flatcar. Further to the side, twenty large draft horses were harnessed and arranged in five teams of four to help steady the load.

     Wade stopped several yards before the plant to avoid colliding with the downspout,  the apparatus that would be used for filling the hopper cars; then a team of workers swarmed about the flatcar and began unfastening the cables from the load. With the crane in position, the arm was swung over the turbine and the huge metal hook lowered and locked onto a metal ring on its upper surface. At a predetermined signal from Frank, a vigorous upward arm motion, the workmen on the crane began to turn the heavy wheel that would wind up the cable and raise the turbine. Up, up it came, the men straining from the exertion, their bodies awash with perspiration, the cable whining, stretched to its limits.

    Then everyone paused on a signal from Frank, as if frozen in mid-stride, while the turbine, hanging in mid-air from the cable, continued swinging precariously from side to side. The next few movements required special care and precision, and Frank was determined that the maneuver be completely safely. Three horse teams were brought forward, and thick reins from their bridles were threaded through maintenance rungs on the side of the turbine; then the teams were backed away to produce tension in the lines.

    Frank inspected the configuration, then gave the signal for the crane to swing the turbine slowly to a waiting wagon, the strongest one they could find. They swung the arm as steadily and gradually as possible, its motion describing a smooth arc, the sway of the turbine held in check by the weight of the horses pulling in the opposite direction. Once the movement had been completed and the turbine positioned over the wagon, the cable was slowly lowered, the wagon frame groaning from the weight.

    More horses were added to the wagon team; then the procession climbed the final hundred feet to the open headframe. Here, a similar procedure was performed: the crane was moved by horse team up the slope, and the turbine was lifted off the wagon and deposited upon a prepared concrete pillar within the building.

 

    Frank looked at his pocket watch. It was late afternoon. They had two more hours of light remaining. He made a quick decision. They would try to bring up the heaviest load of all, the steel cable drum, before quitting for the day.

    First, he inspected the preparation within the headframe building. Two thick metal uprights had been anchored in six foot deep concrete footings. They would support the turbine driven shaft turning the cable drum. Everything was in place for the maneuver. But there was one outstanding question, one that could be answered only by experiment. Unlike those in school, this experiment could probably be conducted only once.

    Did Wade's switcher have enough power to push that much weight up the grade? If it stalled on the slope and could not complete the climb, he would be stranded, unable to move in either direction. He would lack the power to move forward; but moving backward down the hill was not a safe or reasonable alternative either. The combination of weight and gravity could easily topple the switcher and its load. The driver might be seriously injured, and the devastation inflicted by a giant steel drum rolling unrestrained downhill was frightening to contemplate.

    At this point, they had worked themselves into a corner. For all practical purposes the future success of the mine would depend on an outcome over which they had little control. But, really, what choice did they have? all the alternatives had been exhausted.

    In the end, Frank left the decision to Hershel Wade. He would have to drive the switcher and take the greatest risks. Even Isador seemed skeptical, but Wade was the very embodiment of confidence and never hesitated, not for a moment, as he climbed into the cab of his switcher and started downhill for the drum.

    An hour later, his struggling switcher came into view, the engine losing speed and upward momentum every few feet. Everyone at the plant siding stood silently, hoping for the best, praying against the worst. A giant steel drum fastened to a flatcar, in the  same manner as the turbine before it, led the slow and painful procession uphill, tilting from side to side, threatening to break free of its bonds of cable and topple man and machine down the mountain slope. Everyone held his breath; everyone, that is, except Hershel Wade, who leaned out the cab window, smiling and waving to the apprehensive spectators, as if he were a celebrity acknowledging his admirers.  A minute later, another familiar figure became visible riding shovel on the small coal tender behind the switcher. It was Steven Reynolds, his cousin, who had somehow managed to climb aboard the switcher unnoticed on its downhill trip. When Cameron pointed him out to Frank, Reynolds leaned out, much as Wade had before him, and waved enthusiastically at the crowd of incredulous miners.

    "What is Steve Reynolds doing on that train" Frank asked, really to no one in particular.

    Isador, at his side, said nothing, only permitting himself a tight grin while shaking his head in disbelief.

    "Ha! He wasn't going to let Hershel steal all the glory," Bevens remarked, his voice a mixture of disapproval and admiration.

    Then abruptly, the switcher stalled, its momentum spent; apparently no glory would be garnered this day. The crowd, as in unison, gasped, but the failure to move forward fazed Wade not a bit; he merely gestured for Reynolds to shovel faster. Once, twice, his mournful whistle resounded while his tender mate began furiously shoveling coal at an even more frenetic pace. Then, slowly, agonizingly, the drive wheels began turning again, grinding against the rails, screeching and emitting sparks, but the suspense had ended. The switcher was finally moving uphill once more. Ten long minutes later, he brought the switcher and its load to a halt near the processing plant, in the same position as before.

    With the light rapidly fading, they began moving the cable drum to the headframe and finished the procedure by torchlight. They would have to complete the transfer in the morning, Frank decided, when the huge rolls of steel cable could be brought up the mountain.

    "Not with my switcher, you won't," Wade remarked. "She's blown a piston. We'll have to order spare parts from the railroad."

    So Hershel Wade was the hero of the day, the man who saved the mine. Of course, Steve Reynolds helped a little; it was he who shoveled coal fast enough to overcome the lost of momentum. But Wade deserved the laurels he received, and, as Frank ironically remembered later, he had almost fired him for fighting and drinking a few years before.

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January 2012

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