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History in the Hills: Sugar Camp Hollow

One of my favorite books growing up was a children’s book by West Virginia resident and Weirton native Anna Egan Smucker. Her book “No Star Night” was enchanting, and one I personally resonated with since it takes place in town. The book is still in print, and I encourage anyone who grew up in our area in the 1950s to get a copy and share it with their loved ones. Without spoiling it, the climax of the story takes place in what we call the slag dump.

This area is located just off Pennsylvania Avenue on the right as one drives up Weirton Heights Hill from downtown Weirton.

As a child I remember seeing what looked like smoke coming off the hills, and I learned recently that is the result of water reacting with the acid in the slag — a byproduct of the steelmaking and pickling process. What was interesting to me, and as Smucker references in her story, is that the great big mountain of slag was not always a great big mountain, but a deep valley called Sugar Camp Hollow.

Sugar Camp Hollow is referenced in a few local history books, most notably “The History of Holliday’s Cove” by Mary Shakley Ferguson. She writes, “Beautiful Sugar Camp Hollow, where service-berry, dogwood and judas trees came out to say spring is here is silent. The mouth of this hollow was once a picnic ground where children played in the stream that tumbled down from the hollow, men played softball on the lower level and women dipped water from the spring that bubbled from the hillside to make coffee.”

I am not sure if it was a park or perhaps just a nice shady area where folks would gather and enjoy the out of doors. The name “Sugar Camp” alludes to the fact that perhaps there was a maple syrup operation or a sugar camp on the property as well, but I can’t find a historical reference to corroborate that assumption. I appreciate that the hollow must have had a fair amount of sugar maple trees in the area.

As an aside, this year my family and I tried our hand at producing maple syrup from a few of our sugar maple trees on our woodlot with a fair amount of success.

From our four trees we were able to produce about a quart of finished syrup. With a ratio of 40 gallons of sap to create 1 gallon of syrup, we were pretty busy collecting and boiling. It can be assumed that perhaps in Sugar Camp Hollow there was a boiling house or a sugar shack, as it is known colloquially, to boil the liquid sap directly from the tree to make maple syrup.

I am not sure when the first load of slag was dumped in Sugar Camp Hollow, but Ferguson recalls that when it happened, the residents of Holliday’s Cove and the new community of Weirton were not pleased.

She writes, “When the first load of slag was dumped into this hollow, the people screamed their resentment … But they were promised the hollow was only being leveled for home sites and it would be even more beautiful.”

As we know, the piles of slag just grew, and the little valley became a towering hill.

Eventually in the 19-teens, Weirton Heights was being developed, and a new road was needed to connect the community of Weirton and the mills, to the new housing developments on the hill tops. Before 1914 the only way to access Weirton Heights was to use Cove Road or South 11th Street, or what we call Powerhouse Road. Louis Truax, in his manuscript about growing up in Weirton at the turn of the 20th century, recalls fondly when in 1913 Weirton Heights Hill was surveyed and finished in 1914 with one lane brick and one slag.

Pennsylvania Avenue would continue up the hill through Sugar Camp Hollow through a path which, according to Ferguson, was previously only suitable for horse-drawn vehicles.

The new road joined with what was known then as Cemetery Road through Weirton Heights to connect to Cove Road, near the present fire station, and off to the state line.

The road was eventually widened and improved during the course of many years and the slag dump grew higher still. It was on this road at the tight bend near the bottom of the hill and the P&W bus garage that one of worst tragedies occurred in the city.

Seventy years ago this month, on April 29, 1951, a packed P&W bus heading downtown carrying mostly church-goers crashed into the concrete wall at the curve. The bus lost its breaks on the descent down the hill and despite the courageous effort of the bus driver, Joe Kraina, to stop the bus by turning up Angela Street, a road to the left of the bus garage, the vehicle collided with the concrete wall. The bus was carrying 59 passengers. Of those on board, 14 lost their lives, including the driver and my great aunt, Elizabeth Kaminski, who was 20 years old.

Mary Zwierzchowski completed a concise account of the accident for the spring 2004 volume of Goldenseal Magazine called “An Easter Tragedy.” Zwierzchowski wrote poignantly of this event that was such a defining moment in our community.

Although the park-like setting is gone from Sugar Camp Hollow, the great trucks from the mill are no longer dumping slag on the hillside, either. The great mountain of slag is now being quarried out for use elsewhere, which I think that would make the early residents of our area happy.

It will take some time for the area to resemble a park again, but perhaps in some distant time in the future, a story could be written of the great slag hill that was once where a lush valley is today.

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