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The series, West Virginia Water Trails, explores waterways in southern West Virginia. Listen to hear stories from communities coming together, to create new economies - with waterways. It’s made possible in part by the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.

W.Va. Water Trails: Rebuilding Buffalo Creek’s Identity

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Tanner & Hunter Montgomery grew up along Buffalo Creek in Logan County.

It’s been 50 years since one of the worst mining catastrophes in West Virginia history wiped out 16 towns in Logan County. One hundred twenty-five people died in the Buffalo Creek Disaster after a coal waste dam broke. Many residents moved away and never came back. For those who stayed, it's been a long road to restore their community and find a new identity.

This story is the first of a series called West Virginia Water Trails. Hear stories from towns coming together across southern West Virginia, to create new economies and communities - with waterways. It’s made possible in part by the National Coal Heritage Area Authority. 

February 26, 1972 - Logan County, W.Va. - Working to Survive

It was a cold and rainy Saturday morning February 26, 1972. Barbara Brunty went into the kitchen to make pancakes for her 4 year-old daughter Donna.

“I was picking things up off the floor, sitting [them] up on the counter just in case,” Brunty said. “And I looked out the window and I thought ‘I can see the creek.’ I couldn't see the creek before when I first got it up. But I could see that it was coming up.”

Brunty remembers going to the bedroom where her husband Arthur was sleeping.

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Randy Yohe
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WVPB
Barbara Brunty still has the boots she had on when she fled her house during the Buffalo Creek Disaster.

“I told Arthur, ‘You need to get up, something has happened,’” Brunty explained. “So I walked back to the kitchen, and I looked out again. This is the strange part — unless you see it you can't imagine it — but the water was above the creek bank. But it didn't fall over. It was standing high.”

It wasn’t just water. It was 132 million gallons of coal slurry that rushed through Logan County that day.

“My house picked up, it didn't break up, it picked up and it started floating,” Brunty said. “We lost the house, lost everything.” 
Brunty recalls rushing to higher ground with her husband Arthur and daughter Donna, watching her neighbors’ houses wash up on a street curb.

“After Arthur got there, there was a house that came floating down where the railroad track had been,” Brunty said. “And our neighbors was on the back porch.

“They was screaming ‘somebody helped us somebody was help us.’. Arthur handed Donna back to me and helped them get out so they were alright and they were safe.”

The Buffalo Creek Disaster is considered one of the worst disasters in American history. One hundred twenty five people lost their lives, 1,100 were injured and 4,000 people were left homeless.

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James Hagood Collection
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West Virginia State Archives
Aerial view of the Buffalo Creek region after dam broke.

“There was nothing in our little community, everything was gone,” Brunty said. “No houses, no nothing. There was just mud. I don't know how to really explain it — there was just nothing there.”

Work Along Buffalo Creek 

In the early 1900s, coal companies built sixteen communities along Buffalo Creek. By 1972, more than 5,000 people lived in these communities. Neighbors knew each other and made it a point to take care of each other.

One of the mines in the region was operated by the Buffalo Mining Company, a division of the Pittston Company.

As early as the 1940’s the company began dumping unwanted materials like clay and low-quality coal close to the tiny town of Saunders along Buffalo Creek.

Eventually, during the 1960s, the company and the workers built three makeshift dams without an engineering plan or strong materials, according to a case study by Association of Dam Safety Officials. Then in 1966, a mine disaster in another part of the world got the attention of regulators in the U.S.

In the country of Wales, in the United Kingdom, a mine dam broke and killed 147 people including 116 children.

The following year, in 1967, the U.S. Department of the Interior told West Virginia officials that the Pittston dams were unstable and dangerous. The third dam actually failed in February 1971 but dam No. 2 did its job and kept the water from the communities.

The company was cited in 1971 for 5,000 safety violations but fought each one and ended up paying $275 dollars of the $1.3 million levied in fines.

Federal inspectors visited dam No. 3 on Tuesday, February 22, 1972 - just days before it failed. They found the dam was, “satisfactory.”

After days of rain - typical for a late West Virginia winter - the dams broke.

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Department of Natural Resources Collection
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West Virginia State Archive
Breached dam areas at the beginning of the Buffalo Creek devastation, 1972.

It had rained like this before. One of the communities even flooded before. People had evacuated due to false alarms.

In a 1992 interview, Logan County Sheriff's Deputy Max Doty recalled the reactions he heard from people in 1972 when he told them to head to higher ground.

The disaster damaged all sixteen communities. Man Junior High School was turned into a morgue.

When the flood waters receded on that same day, Barbara Brunty recalls several families finding refuge in a home on a hill in Lundale.

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James Hagood Collection
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West Virginia State Archives
Clothing distribution center for those effected by the Buffalo Creek Disaster, February 1972.

“We walked up the track and one of the neighbors there, Colleen and Grant Gamble. They lived up on the hill and that was the gathering place,” Brunty said. “They just opened up the doors.”

From there, Brunty and her daughter Donna went back to her hometown in nearby Lincoln County to stay with her mom while Arthur stayed to work and look for a new place to live. Brunty says the timeline is a little fuzzy but she remembers eventually moving into a HUD trailer in Green Valley on Huff Creek, just outside of Man.

But afterwards, it's still our community. It's where we live, we have a responsibility to help keep it clean.
Barbara Brunty

Pittston Coal Company denied responsibility for the devastation that happened on that rainy day. It called the dam failure an “act of God.”

“It wasn't an act of God, that was negligence,” Brunty paused, “more than likely negligence.”

Three investigations concluded that Pittston was to blame for the disaster.

The Clean Up Work

The disaster prompted Congress to pass new laws regulating dam construction, maintenance, and to form the National Dam Inspection Program.

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James Hagood Collection
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West Virginia State Archives
Trailer park for victims of the Buffalo Creek Disaster, February 1972.

There were years of legal battles and a major disaster to clean up. At first, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helped. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development set up some trailers for people to live in but it was a fraction of what was promised and needed. After the initial federal response, the job of rebuilding ultimately fell to the people who decided to come back and live near Buffalo Creek. People like Barbara Brunty and her family.

“It's been a lot of work, a lot of work,” Brunty said. “It was just flatland when we moved back.”

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James Hagood Collection
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West Virginia State Archives
HUD mobile home park Latrobe II after the Buffalo Creek Disaster, 1972.

Politicians promised 750 new public housing units but the towns saw 17 mobile homes and about 90 apartments. But starting over wasn’t just about building new housing. Brunty says the disaster changed the community in other ways too.

“You don't know your neighbors anymore,” Brunty said. “Before it was more of a close knit, you knew everybody in the community. And now people are kind of in and out so many people left. It affected people in different ways. Most definitely affected people in different ways. Some people couldn’t go back. But afterwards, it's still our community. It's where we live, we have a responsibility to help keep it clean.”

WV Water Trails: Rebuilding Buffalo Creek’s Identity
A story about West Virginians coming together to reclaim their community. <br/><b>You can also find a portion of this story and more about the Buffalo Creek Disaster in a special edition of Goldenseal Magazine thanks to editor Stan Bumgardner.</b>
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Early on, residents of the Buffalo Creek communities started picking up litter. And the work became a hobby.

“Instead of us picking up our spot, and them cleaning up their spot, it became communities,” Brunty said. “They organized that very well. We did it ourselves for the longest time, we picked up garbage.”

Of course, litter wasn’t the only environmental problem. There was also the problem of black water, the wastewater from coal mines. Today, residents say the water is much cleaner than it was even before the disaster.

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Jessica Lilly
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WVPB
Perry Harvey worked with the Buffalo Creek Watershed Association to get Buffalo Creek on the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources trout stocking list.

“Years ago the coal companies would dump black water in the creek anyway and then as laws changed and stuff they can’t do it no more,” lifetime resident Perry Harvey said.
Standing beside the creek, just across from the Buffalo Creek Disaster Memorial for the people who died, Harvey remembers the state of the creek during the initial cleanup efforts.

“At that time, [50 years ago] when the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers came in here, they basically just dredged the creek and changed the route or the road, the main highway,” Harvey said. “After the flood, there wasn’t no habitat for the fish.”

In 2005, Harvey and some of his neighbors formed the Buffalo Creek Watershed Association. The watershed group covers about 20 miles of stream from the tiny unincorporated towns from Curtis to Man, West Virginia. Their goal was to get Buffalo Creek on the state’s DNR trout stocking schedule. But to do it, it would take even more work from the community, and regulators and a lot would have to change.

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Work to create fish habitats in Buffalo Creek in 2015.

“We started cleaning the highways and the creek and getting all of the stuff out of it,” Brunty said. “Then there was a biologist that just came down and ran a test of the pH level. How cold the water was and stuff.”
The creek needed to be cool and clean, and it also needed to be reshaped like a natural river. Standing beside Buffalo Creek Memorial Highway on a ledge above the river, Harvey points to some stacked rocks while water gently rolls over it.

“By the flow of the water coming over the rocks, it will form a pool, and the oxygen comes off of the rocks,” Harvey explains, “And it puts more oxygen in and keeps the water cool.”

The association worked with Appalachian Stream Restoration to install 192 of these rock structures in a 16 mile stretch over almost 2 years. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection funded most of the project with about $750,000 worth of grants while a coal company donated the rock.
“The hardest part was getting the litter cleaned up to show the DEP and the DNR that we were, we're going to stick with this thing,” Harvey said.

Work to Reclaim the Buffalo Creek Communities 

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The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources stocked the creek on February 25, 2020.

The work of the Buffalo Creek Watershed Association paid off. Today, the creek supports habitat for trout.

“When the watershed association here decided to try to do it, they started testing the water,” former West Virginia DNR Commissioner Keith Wilson said. “Then the DNR sent their trout biologist up and looked at it, tested the water and it was acceptable to trout so we went from there and stocked.”

Buffalo Creek was added to the monthly stocking schedule in 2006 after improvements in water quality and fish habitat. The work even caught the attention of the state in 2013 when the Buffalo Creek Watershed Association won the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Cabinet Secretary Award.

New Work for a New Generation

The communities affected by the disaster have been cleaning up and rebuilding for 50 years. Now there's a new generation that's continuing that work in their own way.

Man High School students complete hours of community service before they graduate. Many of those hours are completed by youth cleaning litter and debris along Buffalo Creek.

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Hunter Montgomery

Some kids put in the work at an even younger age. When Barbara Brunty’s two grandsons were little, she would often take them to help.

“You have to start with the kids,” Brunty said. “That was us. We took them. They helped us pick up garbage.”

Brunty’s grandson Hunter Montgomery grew up along Buffalo Creek with a passion for hunting and fishing.

“Once we started throwing lines out in the water that was as far as it went,” Montgomery said. “We were hooked. Fish got hooked. We got hooked. It just took off from there.”

Montgomery is in college now, but he remembers those clean up days with his family.

“We would go out and pick up trash,” Montgomery said. “I would go out with my grandfather [and] pick up trash because it was an initiative to get me to work. It was also an initiative to encourage people let's come together as a community. We can start putting these fish in here but hey they're not just going to magically appear, you have to put in an effort.”

Montgomery remembers being about 8 years old when Buffalo Creek was added to the state’s trout stocking schedule.

“Being told there's trout in the creek that are a pound, pound and a half, and they're bigger than what you are normally catching,” Montgomery said, “You're tickled to death.”

Now, Montgomery is working on a degree in civil engineering technology at Fairmont State University.

“I like environmental work. I like what it's about,” Montgomery said. “Something like growing up on the creek and meeting these types of people and seeing what they do, really puts it in a frame of mind that that’s something that I want to do as well. That's something that does drive me to be a better civil engineer and to come back and do environmental work. If not here, other places to just improve what world I have around me.”

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Fish Day in Logan County, 2016

The Buffalo Creek Watershed Association also created an annual event called “Fish Day” in 2004. At the beginning of Logan County schools’ spring break, the group passes out food, fishing lessons and supplies.

“We had pizza. We had free rods and reels. All of the kids who were there got one. We got to see the stock truck coming down the creek,” Brunty said. “I know what a stock truck looks like now. I’m following it anywhere in the state of West Virginia due to the fact that I watched that stock truck so much as a kid.”

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Fishing poles given out during Fish Day 2019 in Logan County, WV.

The fishing poles and food come from local businesses. The Association usually gives away about 125 fishing rods, reels and tackle.
“It makes you feel good to have the kids be able to get out and enjoy fishing and catching fish,” Montgomery said.

These days, Perry Harvey is still involved with the Buffalo Creek Watershed Association as a board member. He says he envisioned Fish Day as the beginning of a brighter future for the region. Along with the environmental challenges, the region has struggled with an opioid addiction epidemic.

“That it may turn some of them around, maybe growing up in Man and maybe enjoy fishing instead of the drugs,” Harvey said.

Fish Day might offer free rods and reels to kids but it holds a special meaning for some of the adults in the region.

“It's not just Fish Day, it's community day,” Brunty said with a smile. “Everybody goes, if you don't have kids, you still come. You get to talk to your neighbors that you may not even see any other time.”

Brunty says Fish Day was an important part for the community to fight its way back from the coal waste flood and find a new identity.

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Arthur and Barbara Brunty at Fish Day in Logan County, 2021.

The region in Logan County was lined with small close knit coal mining towns before the disaster. While there’s still some mining around, Brunty says the community has had to come together with a focus on a cleaner environment.
“That's who we are, you clean up. Do we like picking up garbage? No, it's somebody else's garbage,” Brunty said. “We don't throw it out but we pick it up.”

Fifty years ago, Barbara Brunty lost the community she knew. But over time, and through the work for her neighbors coming out of that tragedy, she's part of a community that has a new meaning and purpose.

“That’s something my family could do,” Brunty said. “We don't have a lot on Buffalo Creek but we got our fish. You can go out and there'll be somebody out there. The creek is clean.”

“We just have to take care of what we got,” Montgomery said. “Enjoy, don't destroy what I left you with.”

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Tanner & Hunter Montgomery grew up along Buffalo Creek in Logan County.

You can find a portion of this story and more about the Buffalo Creek Disaster in the latest edition of Goldenseal Magazine thanks to editor Stan Bumgardner. 

Thanks to Pennsylvania musician Tom Breiding for sharing “Buffalo Creek” and to Billy Goat Gruff for sharing the song, Buffalo Creek Disaster

West Virginia State Archives shared the WSAZ Collection, Charleston Bureau sound from 1972. 

Kelley Libby edited this segment.


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