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In the early dawn of July 17, 1922, the small mining town of Cliftonville was thrust suddenly into the nation's attention.
The sun had just begun to break above the east hill when this quiet Brooke County (WV) village was caught in the crossfire of a blazing battle. For more than an hour a fight raged between striking coal miners and deputies defending the mine property, leaving in its wake bloody death and destruction.
The story of the Clifton mine war made national headlines within 24 hours, but today it is not widely known beyond the borders of Brooke County. But although it is not ranked among West Virginia's most notable labor troubles, the episode is filled with the dramas and devastation common to all of them. It is a profoundly tragic story that is worth the telling.
Retrieving this incident from the back pages of history was not easy. In an attempt to reconstruct the battle, my husband Dave and I hiked across a narrow trestle, through creek water and thick foliage to reach the backcountry site of what was once the town of Cliftonville. Our journey yielded little more than a few good photos and a coal loader's brass tag inscribed with the number "61".
The real treasures were found in the archives of local libraries. After many hours of sifting through microfilmed pages of old newspapers and other accounts of the battle, the story finally came together. As near as I could determine, this was the way it happened.
Cliftonville was a company-owned town built along the banks of CROSS CREEK. It was tucked among the hills more than halfway up the Northern Panhandle, seven miles east of Wellsburg and just short of the Pennsylvania state line. The main part of town - set snugly in a hollow- contained about ten houses, a post office and a company story. Trains traveling the WABASH RAILROAD stopped there on a regular schedule. Chiseled in the hillside to the south was the gaping mouth of the Clifton mine. The railroad tracks and creek ran to the north.
There was trouble at Cliftonville in the summer of 1922. Striking miners and their families, evicted from company houses, were camped in the tent dwellings which had sprung up along the creek. The mine, owned and operated by the RICHLAND COAL Company, now employed only non-union labor. It was this displacement of union workers which brought bloodshed to Cliftonville.
For several days that July a stifling heat wave had hovered over the Ohio Valley as temperatures soared into the 90's. It matched the many heated disputes between the coal operators and the union miners which persisted through that long, hot summer. The labor trouble was not restricted to the local area. Dissension in America's coalfields dominated the news. President Harding issued an appeal to the nation, urging striking miners to return to work.
The local episode began Sunday July 16, the night before the violent encounter. A crowd of striking miners gathered a the union hall in nearby Avella, Pennsylvania, to make plans to march on Cliftonville. Their goal was to shut down the Clifton mine by bringing out the nonunion miners, although it is unclear whether they intended at this stage to drive them out or coax them out. An eyewitness report in the Steubenville Herald Star, on July 18, described the meeting as having been "quiet and orderly. So far as outward appearance there was no thought of violence and it was generally accepted here that it was a march to bring out the miners at Cliftonville."
At 10:00 p.m. the men began their four-mile march to Cliftonville along the tracks of the railroad, down through the WABASH TUNNEL and into West Virginia. They added to their ranks every able-bodied man they could find along the way, forcing some into the march according to testimony at the alter trials. Before reaching the tunnel, they stopped to regroup at the PENOVA ball field. What began as a peaceful march now took on a more aggressive tone. One of the marchers assumed the role of leader and began giving orders. Following a session of rousing speeches at the ball field, the miners resumed their march toward Cliftonville.
They arrived shortly after midnight. As darkness hung over the sleepy hamlet, the marchers - estimated at about 300- crept up the slopes and positioned themselves in the hills surrounding the Clifton mine, having full view of the pit mouth, tipple and conveyor.
Meanwhile, as the march was getting underway in Avella, other plans were being made at the Brooke County Sheriff's office in Wellsburg. Around 8:00 p.m. SHERIFF HARDING H. DUVAL received a tip that trouble was likely at Cliftonville. He quickly formed a posse and rushed there with seven or eight armed deputies. Among those deputized were the sheriff's son, Tom, several mine guards, and GEORGE CALDWELL, a mining engineer in his early 20's.
Around midnight SHERIFF DUVALL returned to Wellsburg for more men and ammunition. As he began the long dusty ride back to town, he left the youthful engineer in charge at the mine site.
CALDWELL remembered his fear of that terrifying night in an interview with GARY CHERNENKO in 1974. "I was scared to death," he said, " I didn't think it was right of sheriff to leave and place all of the responsibility on someone as young as I was." Duvall soon returned with his chief deputy, IRVIN MOZINGO, and several others, bringing the total number of deputies to about 20. Ordering them not to fire unless fired upon, Sheriff Duval placed his troops around the mine property.
The first disturbance - believed to have been an abortive signal for attack - came at about 2:00 a.m. , when rocket flares and explosions of dynamite ripped through the quiet night. Tension mounted as the deputies braced themselves. But all remained still. The next few hours became a long and agonizing wait.
Suddenly, at daybreak, violence erupted. The shrill whistle of the 5:15 train echoed through the valley as if to herald the events to come. Nonunion workers began arriving for the morning shift. Unaware of the danger surrounding them in the wooded hills, they walked up the steep incline past the tipple and conveyor toward the mine opening. As they reached the pit mouth, a shot rang out from the hill above. Soon firing opened from all sides.
A front-page story in the NEW YORK TIMES, July 18 described the action "The attackers were heard to shout, 'Come on, boys; let's kill these scabs'. With that the entire body of men proceeded toward the tipple and the first shorts were fired."
Three times the union men charged the tipple and twice they were beaten back by the deputies' gunfire. On the third try they took possession.
"Two guards stationed in the tipple house kept up a terrific fire and the miners tore off the roof of the enclosed incline in an effort to get at them, " the New York paper continued. "Deputies say that all the while they were under fire at the top of the tipple, constant shooting came from the union miners' camp across Cross Creek." At this point, the attackers main objective was the destruction of the tipple. Union miners doused the structure with oil and set it ablaze. The tipple and conveyor were the only link to the mine pit. Having disabled the operation, the attackers retreated back into the woods, being fired upon as they went, stopping only long enough to pick up those who were wounded.
MRS LOUIS BENNETT, who ran the boardinghouse in Cliftonville watched from her porch as the battle scene shattered the gray dawn of that muggy Monday morning. She gave a graphic account to the WHEELING INTELLIGENCER. "Suddenly there was a shot. Then another. Than all hell broke loose. About 500 men or so it seemed to me, were marching along the ridge," she told the newspaper.
"At the head of the column was a man dressed in what looked like an army uniform. He was carrying a banner. They disappeared into the woods for a short time. Then come out shouting and shooting their guns. One column of what I guess was a couple hundred men swept down on the tipple. As I could see, that brute carrying the American Flag was waving like fury and shouting. He was one of the first into the tipple, and then stuck his head our of one of the windows still waving flag. The next think I knew the tipple was on fire." Mrs. Bennett soon found herself in the line of fire as several shots narrowly missed her.
While the fighting continued, a tremendous explosion brought down the burning tipple, which added to the chaos. Not until after the battle was it learned that company guards had dynamited the tipple to keep the fire from spreading to the mine opening.
Villagers, terrified by the whizzing bullets, barricaded themselves in their homes, using mattresses to cover the windows and doors. Then sometime during the morning BROOKE COUNTY LOST ITS ONLY SHERIFF EVER TO FALL IN THE LINE OF DUTY.
The STEUBENVILLE HERALD STAR reported that Sheriff Duvall and a small band of deputies had climbed the hill above the mine in an attempt to outflank the invaders. The sheriff and his son, Tom took the east slope. The east hill was the most difficult and dangerous route since it was from this direction that the attack had been launched.
Facing tremendous odds, the little band of defenders fought relentlessly uphill. During the course of the fighting, Sheriff Duvall became separated from the other officers. Young Deputy Duvall said he last saw his father "hurrying after a small party of the mob." The sheriff's body, riddled with bullet boles, was found about an hour later by his son, near the top of the incline. He had been stripped of his pistols and marks on his head and face indicated that he had been clubbed.
The only other serious injury suffered by the defending forces was DEPUTY IRVIN MOZINGO, who was wounded in a fight below the tipple. The WHEELING REGISTER, July 18 told of the duel-to-the-death encounter. The rioters "charged into the generating plant to kill the deputies", the paper reported. "Standing behind a barrier in the generating plant, a man said to be FRANK MALICH shot (Mozingo) in the mouth. Mozingo said he held in his hand a .44 U.S. automatic revolver which spoke and the man who shot him went down." Mozingo later recovered from his wounds. His assailant did not.
Finally at 7:00 a.m. the fighting subsided and the attackers slipped back through the woods into Pennsylvania. By now, the sun had moved well above the horizon. Its warm rays flooded the valley below, revealing the terrible aftermath.
At least eight marchers lay dead and an undetermined number were injured. The weeds were stained with blood where the bodies of the wounded had been dragged through the hills and carried off by their companions. Three marchers perished in the tipple fire. One man was seen lying in the smoldering ruins; still grasped in his hand was the torch with which he had fired the tipple. The bodies of four marchers lay strewn about on the wooded hillside.
GARY CHERNENKO, a Brooke Countian who researched Cliftonville for his 1974 BETHANY COLLEGE senior paper, believes the carnage was even greater. Further research has discovered that for days following the gunfight secret funerals were held in the woods of Pennsylvania under the cover of darkness, " Chernenko wrote, . Also it has been discovered that men were buried in Ohio and West Virginia in unmarked graves or under assumed names so as not to implicate their family and friends."
The official investigation concentrated on rounding up live miners, rather than accounting for dead ones. Shortly before noon, THOMAS DUVALL, son of the slain sheriff, was appointed to succeed his father as sheriff of Brooke County. Young Duvall, who had fought in the early morning skirmish, now had the grim task of bringing to justice those responsible for his father's death. His first act as sheriff was to call for a grand jury investigation of the Cliftonville uprising.
State Police were called to the scene and guards posted throughout the mine property. Acting on order to disperse the colony of striking Cliftonville miners and their families camped near the creek, deputies tore down their tents, forcing them to flee the area. Smoke continued to billow from the smoldering tipple into the night of July 17.
An all-out effort to apprehend the Cliftonville marcher got underway, resulting in more than 200 arrests. Seventy-eight miners were indicted on charges of first degree murder, while 138 were charged with conspiracy to burn destroy, or injure. Most of the charges came to nothing, but 30 men were sentenced to at least three years in prison. Miners from the local union of AVELLA, DONAHUE, CEDAR GROVE, PENOBSCOT and STUDA soon were represented at Moundsville, Chernenko notes. No one was ever convicted in the death of the sheriff. His murder remains an unsolved mystery.
On July 20, funeral services were held for Sheriff Duvall. Hundreds of mourners lined the streets of Wellsburg to pay tribute to the fallen leader. The funeral procession, which included dignitaries from throughout the state, made its way slowly up PLEASANT AVENUE toward BROOKE CEMETERY where Duvall was laid to rest in the family plot.
Seventy-two years after the battle, memories of the tragic event still linger. One old-timer, who declined to be named, lived near the mine. He remembers being caught in the round-up of fugitives. He recently told me of his brush with the law. "I was only 17" he recalled, "My older brother and I, along with a lot of others, were arrested. We spent the night in jail." When I asked who shot the sheriff, the old gentleman's eyes, misted over, and he turned away in silence.
The town itself has yielded to time if not to its infamous past. Today the site of Cliftonville is a lush, green valley given completely back to nature. Thick with underbrush, the place bears little evidence of its early history. The pit mouth was covered over by strip-mining operations in the mid 1960. The tipple is gone. All that remains are a few concrete foundations at the train station.
In a clearing about a quarter of a mile east of the old mine, nestled between the creek and the hillside, lies a sprawling meadow. One small house dominated the landscape where over 30 new coal company houses once stood, giving it the name NEW CAMP. The house is now owned and occupied by MR AND MRS JAMES MACK. When asked what she knew of the mine incident, Mrs. Mack replied, "Not much. I just know that there was a terrible fight and the sheriff was killed. But I do know this house had a number. It was Camp House No. 36.
The Mack's well-maintained home is about the last physical vestige of the battle of Cliftonville. It stands as a lone reminder of that warm July morning in 1922, when hundreds of miners marched on Cliftonville and the green grass of Brooke County (WV) turned red. An Eyewitness Recalls Cliftonville "GUARDS with GUNS"
ERNEST 'NESTO'ZAMBARDA was an eyewitness to the Cliftonville shoot-out.
Zambarda is a retired coal miner who now lives on Fowler Hill Road near Wellsburg. His home is located not far from the ridge where the marchers massed on July 17, 1922, in preparation for their assault on Cliftonville.
Nesto was just eight years old at the time of the shooting, but said he remembers it "like it was yesterday". He lived with his mother, stepfather ANDY BUSATTI, and several brothers and sisters at Virginia Station. Their house was about a half-mile from the mine site.
"We were already up and about that morning when the shooting started" Nesto recalls. "I ran to the window to see what was going on But my stepfather pushed me back and shouted ' Get down' you might get hit by a bullet!"
"From the kitchen window we could see across the railroad tracks and creek over too NEW CAMP where the company houses were, about 30 or 40 of them. I could hear the shooting. They were firing from up there on the hillside and I could see some of them running up the hill. There was a big barn over at the camp. A bunch of women were standing around it. They were yelling and screaming and throwing up their hands. They were trying to tell them to stop shooting."
Apparently the women had been caught in the crossfire, a reminder of the peril the situation posed even to non-combatants. When the shooting finally died down, Nesto could bot venture outside for several days. "It was too dangerous,” he said. "We couldn't have gone down there to Cliftonville even if we had wanted to. I could see guards with guns walking back and forth patrolling the tracks."
Nesto digressed to more lighthearted times when he would roam the hillside at Cliftonville. "I remember this open field with a merry-go-round and swings and big three-story houses. I used to buy candy at the company store. Mostly on Saturdays and Sundays we would go down there and play.
Over the years, Nesto has collected stories from the Cliftonville miners. He gave me this version of Sheriff HARDING DUVAL's death: "The sheriff was shot from MILLER'S CUT. Someone with a rifle stood high up on the cliff and fired across the hollow into the hillside. The bullet hit the sheriff and he went down.
"I was told that if you walk to the top of that hill above the mine, you'll find a big white rock - a limestone rock. That marks the spot where the sheriff died."
Nesto says that a few years ago he and a friend walked down the hill from the top of the ridge in search of the legendary stone. They hoped that it had survived the onslaught of strip mining operations which moved through that area during the mid 1960's.
The limestone rock appears to have been as durable as the mystery still surrounding the battle of Cliftonville. The huge earth-moving project had left the marker virtually untouched, according to Nesto Zambarda.
"I found it," the rugged mine veteran beamed. "Its still there."
Although I don't have any stories in regards to the Cliftonville Mine incident,I do have ties to it. My grandfather ,Alex Vargo,worked at the mine. My dad,who is 87 years old,vaguely remembers living there at that time. Not very many people in this area are even aware of the existence of that area. I learned more about it from your article than I ever knew before. Thanks for the history lesson,& the increased knowledge of my family background.
William B. Vargo,Jr.