APPALACHIA - Dig just a little into local lore and you'll find that Southwest Virginia - particularly the coal camps north of Appalachia - has quite a coal mining and railroading heritage.
Consider the tale of the Derby No. 3 mine explosion of Aug. 6, 1934, for example. The heroic feat performed by the late Brownie Polly Sr. is given special honor at the memorial wall with a slab rather than a brick.
Retired Big Stone Gap dentist Dr. Brownie Polly Jr. was only 3 years old when his father saved 77 coal miners following an explosion in Stonega Coke & Coal Co.'s Derby No. 3 mine, a site just a few miles up the hollow from where the memorial wall now languishes from lack of interest. The Big Stone Gap dentist also serves on the Memorial Wall Committee.
Ralph Burchill, a mine foreman, led 94 men into the mine for the morning shift. Of those, Burchill were dropped off at the "Little West" section.
Burchill sent the others deeper into the mine. The explosion occurred around 7:30 a.m., about a half-hour after the men entered the mine, in the "Little West" shaft.
Burchill and 16 other miners were killed. The 77 others were trapped.
Brownie Polly Jr. was too young to remember anything about it. But he's learned from personal accounts told him by many people who were there, and by reading old news articles, of what transpired. That's because his father wasn't a font of information.
"No. He never talked about it to anyone. He never told me anything about what had happened, and I never heard him tell anybody about it," said Brownie Polly Jr., whose younger brother George Polly serves as Big Stone Gap's town manager. "In fact, if anybody tried to bring it up, he would change the subject."
What his father did, however, is the stuff of local legend.
After last year's mine explosion in Sago, W.Va., killed 12 coal miners, improving communications in underground mines has been the rage. Oddly enough, in 1934 Brownie Polly Sr., the mine superintendent of Derby No. 3, didn't have a communications problem with the 77 miners who had survived the blast. After witnessing the smoke and fire belch from the mouth the mine, he simply called the surviving miners up on a telephone and ordered them to stay put because attempting to walk their way out past the affected area was a likely walk toward death, either by smoke inhalation or another explosion.
"He knew about this so-called â€˜dog hole' about a half a mile from the mine, a kind of low passage that drained water out of the mine," Brownie Polly Jr. said. "It was just coincidence that day that he had two men there cleaning it out. He told the general mine foreman, L.C. "Big" Fraley, â€˜I know where they are.'"
Brownie Polly Jr. said Fraley tried to talk his father out of venturing into the mine via the low drainage passage, which was nearly filled to the top with water. Fraley was much too big of a man - as his nickname suggests - to attempt getting through the narrow passage, Brownie Polly Jr. said, and Fraley tried to talk his father out of trying it.
"So he went in there by himself," Brownie Polly Jr. said of his father's response to Fraley's warnings, "and he was gone about three hours. And when he finally came out, (all 77 miners) were with him."
One of the miners was injured and on a stretcher and had to be carried out without drowning him in the process.
"If his dad hadn't done that and those men would have tried to come out of there (through the affected area), a lot more men would have died from bad air," said Butch Fritz, who worked 10 years in the mines. "That was natural instinct for his daddy to do something like that. You don't think about it, you just do it."
Killed along with Burchill in the 1934 explosion were Luster Day, Alex Payne, Fayette Blondell, Kyle Fields, Clyde Ward, Clarence Reed, Charles Milam, Jessie Doyle, William Smith, William Burns, Walter Moore, Roscoe Smart, Ted Johnson, Ransom Slemp, Charles Reece and Dan Jenkins.
Mark Munsey, a member of the Appalachia Miners Memorial Wall Committee, said the special marker commemorating Brownie Polly Sr.'s heroic feat "is an interesting and historical addition" to the park.