Historical sketches of Dante, Dickenson County, and Cleveland

Even though the following story has no accompanying photos, its richness of detail is too good not to share.  Enjoy.

Transcribed from the September 13, 1931 edition of The Bristol Herald-Courier, 

THE GREAT SOUTHWEST

By Goodridge Wilson*

Dante, on the edge of Russell close to Dickenson and close to Wise, is a little three-hollow mountain coal town, but at that it is a town of no mean importance.  It is the headquarters of the Clinchfield Coal Corporation’s operations in Southwest Virginia, a distinction of more significance perhaps than many Southwest Virginians realize.

The Clinchfield Coal Corporation owns nearly half of the soil in Dickenson county, and fully three-fourths of that country’s mineral rights.  It formerly owned the greater part of the timer rights, too, but has disposed of these.  Hence the doings of Dante, that corporation’s capitol, may have much significance for the people in Dickenson, for the country government and tax collectors of Dickenson, for the state funds for roads, conservation, and such like that may be spent in Dickenson.  The headquarters of any corporation that controls more than half the property of any county is an important place.  Besides their holdings in Dickenson, this corporation with headquarters at Dante owns a good chunk of Russell, a sizeable acreage with one coal operation in Wise, a very large portion of Buchanan, and a considerable acreage over in Kentucky.

Dante is an important station on the Carolina Clinchfield & Ohio Railroad.  It was the northern terminus of that road for a number of years, while the section through Dickenson into Kentucky was being built, a section said to have cost more per mile to build than any other railroad in the East, and to have yielded at last one of the finest road beds in the world.  At Dante the road pierces the great Sandy Ridge through the longest tunnel in the Appalachian Mountains, and from there to Elkhorn City, a distance of about thirty miles, it passes through eighteen other tunnels.  This road through the mountains of North Carolina, across East Tennessee, up the Clinch Valley through the mountains of Southwest Virginia, down Russell Fork through the Breaks of Sandy into Kentucky, down the Big Sandy into Ohio, has strong claims for being the finest scenic rail route in the eastern United States.

The coal men, maybe following the lumbermen, don’t know, went up Lick Creek, tumbling stream of beauty between sheer mountainsides in a tumbled shumbled country, until they reached a wider place where there are three forks of the hollows on Sandy Ridge.  The town is built up the three hollows and converges in the narrow flats.  Mr. George L. Carter got his railroad that far.  It is a drab looking town of slate-colored coal houses, with a little brick bank building, a few other brick buildings, and some few good residences.  Just now the little slate-colored miner’s houses, or many of them, are all but hidden by growing corn which, with other vegetables and flowers, occupies most of the available space for yards or gardens.  The miners at Dante have been getting about three days a week with a reduced wage scale and these gardens are needed for family food.

Dante is now the terminus for hard surface highways.  A good hard-surfaced road comes up from Castlewood, and another, new and fine, comes from St. Paul.  Up one of the hollows the road, graded and smooth but not rocked, goes over Sandy Ridge into Dickenson, down the McClure River, and on to Clintwood and to Haysi.  Thence, it will eventually go down Russell Fork to the marvelous Breaks of the Cumberland and Elkhorn City to meet an improved Kentucky highway and to make one of the finest scenic routes in the East.  It looks now as though that Breaks territory is going to be a bi-state park and it certainly ought to be.

On McClure River the Ritter Lumber Co. has its mills.  The air is clean and cool and fresh around these milling operations and the scenery of river and mountain side is lovely to behold.  McClure derived its name from a pioneer who led an avenging hand of whites through the mountains in pursuit of marauding Indians and overtook them on this stream.  In the fight, McClure was killed, according to Roosevelt’s statement in his “Winning of the West,” and his followers routed the savages.  According to local tradition the whites were victorious.  Whatever the outcome of the fight, it took place near the hamlet of Nora on the lovely stream that memorializes this pioneer Indian fighter’s name.

On the banks of McClure Creek, the first court of Dickenson County was held, out in the open under the trees.  The lace was at the junction of another branch where the Ritter Lumber Company now has its band mill and yard, and the exact spot is probably covered by the mill pond where logs are floating awaiting the saw.  There are thousands of feet of lumber stacked in the yards there and father down the stream at Fremont.

The county courthouse site was originally fixed at Nora on McClure River, the place where the Indian battle was fought.  It remained there for a while, but much argument aroused about it and much play of county politics was exercised to have it changed.  The outcome was the moving of the courthouse to Holly Creek far across the county and the generating of hard feelings that have not entirely subsided.  The site on Holly Creek was called Clintwood.

Up and down McClure Creek, and all around over Dickenson, may be heard the sound of cow bells.  Nearly every cow has a bell, and the graze along the roads and up on the open hillsides.  There is a mellow music in the cow bells of McClure Creek, or a distracting noise, according to the mood one may be in.

The white flour sack is much in use in Dickenson.  Girls, or boys, or men, or women riding to or from the stores mule back or horse back will be sitting upon white flour sacks filled with groceries.  The white sacs carry corn or garden produce to be sold.  It is the most popular carrying receptacle in Dickenson.

There is a wild plant growing in Dickenson that is new to me.  It is along all the roads, in the creek bottoms, up on the mountainsides, along the railroad tracks through the Breaks of Cumberland.  It resembles a nettle in general shape and texture, but it has a tassel-like bloom and its leaves, in the early states green on top and brownish red underneath, change towards maturity into a rich bronze color.  I asked Mr. Sutherland of Clintwood what that plant might be.  He said that he does not know.  That it is a weed which made its first appearance about ten years ago and is taking the country; that the Republicans call it Democratic weed and the Democrats call it Republican weed because it is taking the country.

Among the old-time inhabitants of Dickenson, theft was almost unknown.  People never locked their houses, rarely even the smokehouses.  A man might leave his valuables along the road or bridle paths with the confidence of their being untouched until he should choose to touch them.  With the coming of industrialization and of new people from outside, conditions have changed for the worse in that respect, though one can scarcely pass through Dickenson and talk to the folks whose father and grandfather have lived here and not sense the innate honesty of the people.

Mr. Billy Sutherland was one of the first settlers on Frying Pan Creek.  Through his wife, he had valuable lands in Russell where the town of Cleveland now stands.  With the coming of the railroad, he sold this land.  Judge Burns conducted the transaction and went to his home on Frying Pan to deliver the money.  He handed it over to Mr. Sutherland.  The old gentleman reached up in the rafters of the lving room, took down an old satchel, put the money – several thousand dollars – in it and hung the satchel back up in the rafters.  Judge Burns said, “Uncle Billy, how much money have you got in that satchel.”

“I don’t know.  Between three and four thousand dollars before you gave me this.”

“Do you keep it hanging up there?”

“Yes.”

“Aren’t you afraid somebody will steal it?”

“No.  It has been hanging there for many a year and nobody has ever bothered it.

The judge finally induced him to bank his money because of the newcomers who would come into the county.


*Dr. Goodridge Alexander Wilson Jr. (1887-1976) was a Presbyterian minister and also a well-known Southwest Virginia historian.  For many years he wrote a column for the Roanoke Times entitled “The Southwest Corner.”  

One thought on “Historical sketches of Dante, Dickenson County, and Cleveland

  1. Dickenson County was formed in 1880, from Wise, Russell, and Buchanan counties.

    The county seat was moved to Holly Creek, a community in a mountain-top valley. A Chase gentleman, a confederate general, donated 2 acres for the courthouse. The name of th town was changed to Clintwood, after the Republican legislator from Scott County who sponsored the bill to move the county seat, Clinton Wood.

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