Connecting Rural Ohio
Connecting Rural Ohio: New Straitsville
New Straitsville is a village of 774 (U.S. 2000 census data) in Coal Township in southern Perry County, about 50 miles east-southeast of Columbus. It is situated at the intersection of Ohio State Routes 93, 216 and 595.
Prehistoric mound builders inhabited Perry County centuries before the Delaware tribe lived in the area. The ancient peoples created over 100 burial mounds and other earthworks in Perry County.
In 1751 Perry County's first white visitor, surveyor Christopher Gist, camped near Buckeye Lake. Other visitors followed, but no settlers established residence until the next century. In addition to being fertile farmland, the area contained substantial deposits of clay, iron and coal.
People descended from British Isles immigrants founded new Straitsville in 1870. The town celebrated that heritage often. Turn of the century newspapers show events celebrating Robbie Burns’ birthday for the Scots, St. Patrick’s Day, for the Irish, St. David’s Day for the Welsh. A group named the Sons of St. George gathered and shared stories from old England. The programs for these groups show members giving recitations and songs in the old languages. No one speaks Gaelic or Welsh in New Straitsville anymore but they still demonstrate their pride in their heritage.
The New Straitsville Mining Company established the village as a coal-mining town to provide housing for the company's workers. The village grew quickly and by 1880 claimed more than 4000 residents. The “animated” village on a branch of the Hocking Valley Railroad became known as one of the origins of a national coal miners union.
Coal-works, stores, shops, dwellings, and churches grew up as if by magic. Miners, mechanics, general laborers and businessmen gathered from nearly all quarters of the globe. The population of the place increased wonderfully, and in a short time it appeared to be almost a city. It contained a bank post office, railroad station, telegraph offices, furnace, and stores, shops, etc., corresponding with the population and business of the place. It also claimed a large union schoolhouse of eight rooms, four churches and a number of costly private residences.
Coal Township abounded in iron ore as well as coal. There was a good market for the ore at Bessie Furnace, situated in the suburbs of New Straitsville.
Opportunity and prosperity were short lived, however. The coal mining activity stopped in 1884. A labor dispute at the mine ended with a group of miners at the Middle Kittanning Coal Seam sent a burning coal car into the mine, igniting the coal. Reportedly, the coal seam was fourteen feet across and extended an undetermined distance into the Earth, and it took several days for the fire to be discovered. The New Straitsville mine closed, and the fire burns to this day.
A massive effort by the Federal government to extinguish the fire in the 1930s proved futile. An estimated 200 square miles of underground mineral deposits have been destroyed. In 2003, 119 years after the fire began, smoke began to emerge from the soil of the Wayne National Forest. The mine, known as “Devil’s Oven,” has been described as a “long simmering legacy of the state’s industrial past, an environmental nightmare that won’t go away.”
In addition, abandoned coalmines in the area have created sinkholes. Feeder streams to both the Sunday and the Monday Creek often change course and run into these holes where they pick up minerals from the abandoned mine shafts and carry them to larger streams, which run into the Hocking River. The Ohio State EPA estimates about 1,200 miles of streams are now contaminated by mine runoff.
New Straitsville also is known historically for its moonshine, being considered the Moonshine Capital of the World during Prohibition. Its population of enterprising ex-coalminers concealed dozens of illegal moonshine stills in the area's hollows and abandoned mineshafts, selling it to a nation desperate for a stiff drink. Today, New Straitsville's bootlegging tradition is honored with an annual Memorial Day weekend Moonshine Festival.
Economic decline, community decay, environmental degradation and population loss during the decades since 1920 has resulted in the region becoming one of the most economic and educationally disadvantaged regions of the state.
In 2002, OSCnet and The Ohio State University began looking for ways to provide non-traditional educational services and workforce development training such as Internet-based distance learning programs and adult education classes, as well as new small business and entrepreneurial opportunities, to these underserved populations of Ohio.
With major funding from the American Distance Education Consortium, grants from The Voinovich Foundation and the Ohio Community Computing Network, and community support from several local non-profit agencies, the Connecting Rural Ohio partnership was formed to address the educational and economic needs of the communities in this distressed region of the state.
The OSCnet/OSU technology team, along with the Southern Perry Incubation Center for Entrepreneurs and the Sunday Creek Associates, developed a pilot program in the town of New Straitsville in southern Perry county that brought innovative educational services and workforce development training to the region. By offering new opportunities through distance education and career development, local area residents earned course credits and certificates, learning new trades in education and technology skills.
Some of the information on this page is based on information from The Book of Perry County: An Historic Industrial Portfolio, published by the New Lexington Herald in1909 and transcribed by Timothy E. Fisher. Additional information came from History of Perry and Fairfield Counties, Ohio, compiled by A.A. Graham, especially the section on Perry County, authored by E.H. Colburn. The online version of the books can be found at: http://homepages.rootsweb.com/~tfisher/tefishermain.htm
Historic photos courtesy of Little Cities of Black Diamonds web site (http://www.littlecitiesofblackdiamonds.org/index.html).
On top of the roof of the old Masonic Lodge in downtown New Straitsville a satellite dish pointed toward the stars. High above is an 8,600 pound satellite that beamed a signal of new life to a small town in Southeast Ohio 23,000 miles below.
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