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Unearthing Durbin’s past, one page at a time

Historian Jason Bauserman peruses one of the many record books at the Durbin town office. Bauserman turned to the books to find information on the town jail and wound up finding several intriguing stories. S. Stewart photo
Historian Jason Bauserman peruses one of the many record books at the Durbin town office. Bauserman turned to the books to find information on the town jail and wound up finding several intriguing stories. S. Stewart photo

When Jason Bauserman got Durbin Town Council’s permission to collect information from the town’s historic records, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

The research began with an inquiry by Pocahontas County Landmarks Commission President Wayne Gillispie.

“We were coming back up from a landmarks commission meeting and Wayne looks over at me and says, ‘Jason, I’ve been on this commission for four or five years and haven’t spent a penny up in the northern end. Is there anything that you can think of that we need to be preserving?’” Bauserman recalled. “Within a second or two, the Durbin jail popped in my mind.”

Bauserman knew the landmarks commission would want information on the jail before committing to the project, so he began his search.

Every day, Bauserman goes to the Durbin town office and leafs through the countless dusty and fragile record books, marveling over the delicate handwriting.

“It started out just looking for the jail and here I’ve ended up finding a whole slew of great information,” he said. “I really look forward to it every day.”

One book in particular, one of the first he opened, had Bauserman and Durbin mayor Donald Peck perplexed.

“The amazing thing here, when I pulled this out and turned to the first page, it was 1893,” Bauserman said. “There was a court case and Donald was here and I said, ‘Donald this book is starting in 1893. What’s with this?’ The town was incorporated June 20, 1906. The more I looked at this book, I saw court cases from Cass and Green Bank and Stony Bottom and Slatyfork. I thought, this book doesn’t belong here. Then I realized this must be cases for the northern end because when I thought about it, 1893 – no railroads, no motor vehicles – it was just horse and buggy. This was quite a ways away from Marlinton. So it made sense for them to meet up here and have civil court up here.”

At the time of the court cases – 1893 – more than 1,500 people called Durbin and the West Fork home.

“That’s six times what we have now,” Bauserman said. “There were a pile of people here getting ready for the trains to come but not only that, getting ready for the tannery to come.”

With that many people, conflicts arose and court cases abounded. Whether it was land disputes or drunk and disorderlies, the upper end court was busy.

One of the earliest cases involved a land dispute between a J.W. Kelly and John Burner. According to the record, Kelly owned 11,800 acres on the headwaters of the West Branch of the Greenbrier River and the headwaters of Cheat River. Kelly came upon Burner cutting trees on the land and took him to court. The case was later dismissed.

Another case that stood out to Bauserman involved an explosion at a work camp owned by Walton, Purcell, Moorman and Co.

Bauserman explained that, according to the record, six Austrians, referred to by number, not name, were killed by an explosion after they placed two frozen sticks of dynamite in a fire to thaw it out.

“It was up here in this West Fork area where they probably had 1,500 people,” Bauserman said. “It was a mile and a half out of Durbin. It took so much longer to put the West Fork in than coming up the Greenbrier. There was a lot they had to explode to take a lot of solid shale out of these mountains.”

According to the record, a hearing was held on December 29, 1900, and several people were called to testify concerning the explosion.

Edgar Harrington was a supposed foreman for Walton, Purcell, Mooreman and Co. railroad contractors. He testified:

“About 12:15 P.M., I heard an explosion. At the time I paid no attention to it. As soon as I heard what was the matter, I went to the place where the explosion took place. I then saw some men (Austrians) wounded, some dead.

“At 11 o’clock A.M., I told one of them to get some dynamite. He got it and brought it to me. He then got some wood brought it to me. I built a fire. I placed the dynamite around the fire to thaw, before I started to dinner I moved the dynamite back from the fire 3 1/2 feet or 4 feet. I think there is no danger from an explosion by having dynamite that distance from the fire.”

Harrington further testified that when he returned from dinner around 3 p.m., all but three of the fuses and caps were in the same place he put them.

Dr. J.L. Lambert was summoned to the site of the explosion to attend to the injured men. He testified:

“I left at once for the scene and made the trip in about 20 minutes, after reaching the cut I found 2 men killed out right and 4 in a dying condition and also 8 at 2 of the buildings in the camp.”

Dr. Hunter Moomaw, of Green Bank, was summoned to assist. By the next morning, six men were dead.

Also taking the stand was Milan Ceh, known as 188, an Austrian worker who survived the explosion. He testified:

“… while we were eating our dinner of meat and bread, I was standing about 15 feet from the fire because there was no room for me at the fire. The men were crowding around the fire. I had just opened my dinner bucket. About 8 or so sticks of dynamite were about the fire. I saw no one move the dynamite, but the other men had been around the fire about 5 minutes before I came up.”

Ceh left the camp to feed the horses and get them water. He testified what he saw when he returned:

“I saw one man, number 127 reach upon the bank and get one stick of dynamite and push it into the fire saying ‘the fire was no good.’ Another man, number 182, took a stick and pushed the dynamite clear over into the fire, then there was an explosion blowing men all up into the air and knocking me down.

“In a short time I got up and came to the camp for assistance. It was about 300 steps from the camp to where the accident occurred.”

The jurors: R.B. Kerr, J.D. Wilmoth, S.M. Burner, J.F. Kincaid, John H. Beverage and J.H. Gum, came to the conclusion that the explosion was caused by “inexcusable carelessness and reckless handling of dynamite by the men themselves who were blown up.”

The six men who died were only identified as numbers 189, 179, 190, 185, 182 and 181. The record did not say where they were buried.

With just this little bit of information, Bauserman has whetted his appetite for more and continues to search through the books in great anticipation of what he might find next.

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at

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