FAIRMONT, W.Va. – In an instance, disaster can strike. But at the same time, people can forget about that disaster just as quickly as it happened.

Take, for example, the 1886 Newburg Coal Mine Disaster in which 39 people died. It’s been largely forgotten, but the board of Woodlawn Cemetery is actively preserving its memory through a new memorial in the cemetery. It’s dedicated to one family that lost six people in the disaster 135 years ago.

The memorial

“These gentlemen were in the mine explosion in 1886, and the coal company paid for the funeral, the lot and everything, but nobody ever did a monument for them,” Woodlawn Board President Nancy Bickerstaff said. “And it’s very important, we have a rule and a policy at Woodlawn that everybody has to have a monument because we can’t find people. And so, we asked people for donations and they readily wrote checks and we received the money to do it.”

She continued.

“And there were six people. This was a whole family, wiped out all the males and one young man was 14-years-old. That’s really sad.”

Bickerstaff standing in front of the memorial

The whole family immigrated from England in 1881 to find a better life in Fairmont. But instead, they got caught up in West Virginia’s first mine disaster.

Bickerstaff said that was the beginning of mine explosions. After Newburg, there were Monongah and Farmington mine disasters. Both of these, she said, are more recent, had more deaths and therefore, are remembered.

But, the Newburg Mine Disaster victims “were forgotten”, Bickerstaff said.

However, with the help of “a lot of people”, she said, their memories are more intact and can live on as long as the cemetery stands.

“I’m very grateful because without all the people donating and giving back to this cemetery –it was in shambles when we took over in 2015,” Bickerstaff said. Total shambles grass, two feet high and all the people that are on our board are passionate about it. They care and they jump in and work. We are not here because of our resume or our obituary. We’re here to not just be a board member. We’re here to make things happen.”

Bickerstaff and others gathered to dedicate the memorial

Things are happening and have changed significantly and the Newburg Mine Disaster Memorial is proof of that.

List of the six people commemorated in the memorial and their ages:

  • Richard Birtley – 55
  • His son, Nicholas – 14/15
  • His step-son-in-law -, John Byer Jr. – 24
  • His stepson, Harry Guy – 28
  • His stepson, Joseph Guy – 25
  • His stepson, Thomas Guy – 18