The Unnatural History of Brown’s Island
In the early autumn of 1803, Meriwether Lewis set foot on the muddy shore of an island between the rocky banks of western Virginia and the newly created state of Ohio. As soon as his feet caked with dense riverbed sludge, he felt, prickling across his consciousness, the peculiar sensation of being watched. Charged by President Jefferson with recording the national landscape’s varied climate and extensive contours, Lewis felt he must now conform to the behavior of a scientist and employ more practical sensibilities. So he ignored his uncomfortable awareness and focused instead on setting up camp. He clipped botanical samples, pressing them between pages of his travelogue. And just before sunset, he caught a rabbit, built a fire, and set his damp boots to dry on the rocks around it.
The stars above the island’s thick forest were at their greatest intensity when Lewis’ fire finally lay in dying embers. He slept deeply for several hours and slowly woke to a sound he did not recognize. His logical mind, still submerged by exhaustion, thought that the men who were slated to join him on his trip south had unexpectedly arrived on the island. When his consciousness finally rose to the surface and his eyes opened, he thought: I must get the fire going again.
But what he saw as he still lay prone was neither William Clark nor any of the thirty enlisted men he would eventually meet in St. Louis. Around him on every side were Indians, but not in any conventional human form. They were like glass vessels filled with captive pipe smoke. Their substance circulated endlessly and looked a volatile blue gray. These figures stood gazing at him, without speaking. He could see their distinctive features: their cheekbones, their crooked noses, their stoic eyes. They did not seem to indict him, but appeared to search the content of his fluttering insides. Lewis sat this way for several moments, stunned by fear, his heart pumping blood that went straight to his temples. When none of the Indians moved or appeared to threaten him, he rekindled the fire, alternately looking over his shoulder and bending to coax the flame into greater brightness.
The visions, but not the feeling, dissolved in the light. And despite heavy fog that settled on the island and continued several meters down the river in both directions, Lewis fled shortly before dawn, paddling forcefully upriver. He neither wrote about nor spoke of his experience to anyone.
* * * *
It began to drizzle lightly as Ernest T. Weir, legs apart, umbrella poking the earth with grand decision, stood gazing over a precipice abutting the Ohio River. He was in a long woolen coat, fashionably cuffed trousers, and a smart-looking high-waist silk vest. What he’d set his gaze on was the densely forested island that lay within the original acreage purchased for the steel company he brought up from Clarksburg.
“I’ll tell you,” he said to his assistant, who also looked out over the river, “we’re going to start producing our own coke. If we want to compete with these giants, we’ve got to do it. Our cost overruns have just been too high.”
Weir pointed to the island with his long handled umbrella. “Now,” he said, “that’s the place right there. Let’s get it cleared.”
His assistant, an amateur historian, looked at Weir and said, “You know, that island has been marked by incidents of serious misadventure.”
“What misadventure?” asked Weir, turning suddenly.
“About thirty years ago, three barges crashed into each other and dumped thousands of bushels of coal into the river.”
“And what caused that?” asked Weir.
“They say it was the sandbar near the island, but I’ve read that the barge pilot only ran into the sandbar because he saw Indians standing along the island bank.”
“That’s what I read.”
“What other misadventures?” asked Weir, balancing his umbrella against his shoulder.
The man pursed his lips, thinking. “None other that I know of.”
“One incident! One!” said Weir striking his umbrella against the ground. “Superstition is all, John. Pure superstition.”
Nearly every tree on the island was felled within a week, and during that period, Weir had strange and unsettlingly palpable dreams, in which he was tied to trees by Indians wearing fringed leather breeches and deer skin mantles. Their faces bore fine red tattoos. Once the old man was firmly bound against the bark, the younger Indian males began swinging their axes at the tender, bloated abdomen beneath his nightshirt. Weir woke sweat-soaked and usually on the floor beside his bed, where he was often reaching out into the darkness and pleading loudly for mercy. Once, while bathing, he even found what he thought were reddish bruises left by the ropes he dreamed had bound him.
This continued as the company began excavating for the foundation of the coke plant. Besides the tree roots, flinty anthracite, and viscous bitumen that darkened the island’s soil, the workers began hitting pockets of bones. Femurs, splintered tibia, and a series of human skulls emerged from the soil. Five workers fled their posts as soon as word spread. One even dropped his shovel after it struck and broke a human mandible, scattering yellowish teeth over dirt crawling with earthworms.
“The men aren’t happy,” said Weir’s assistant. “Several of them have seen an Indian Chief just a few feet from where they’re digging. They’re threatening to leave.”
“Let them!” Weir replied, pounding his desk with a fist. “We’ll find other men who want to feed their families.” He was irritated by lack of sleep, which made him more impetuous than usual. Even his lip had taken to curling upward, to show the spaces between his ridged, ivory-colored incisors.
Most of the men engaged to work did stay, while others were brought in after fresh concrete covered whatever bones remained buried. The human remains initially uncovered during excavation were piled near a seam of cloudy quartz, which had ruptured the ground’s surface about 300 meters west of the building site. The appearance of the quartz fascinated one or two of the workers, who reverently carried the bones to lay beside it. Eventually, however, the bones disappeared, and no one seemed to notice. Some were glad for their disappearance and asked no questions, assuming they had been cleared away by other workers or were carried away by animals. Others barely registered their existence in the first place and ignored the respect that some men—mostly immigrants—had paid them. They were soon forgotten. The coke plant began cooking coal, and the bald, treeless island was alternately orange with oven fire or pallid grey from fly ash.
Weir again stood on the rocky precipice near the country club he’d begun constructing and looked at the pale red flame that shot eight feet into the overcast sky. Even at this distance, the acrid stench of burning coal was strong enough to choke a man.
“Smell that,” he inhaled, smiling, stifling a cough. “That’s progress! Progress without your misadventures, John. Eh?” Again he smiled at the man standing next to him, and in an uncharacteristic gesture of familiarity, nudged his assistant in the ribs.
Weir was no longer troubled by dreams of Indian braves. He slept soundly every night and made trips to Detroit and Washington and fought shop unionization for years. But the island remained a source of speculation. Indians were seen to walk across the wide, silo-shaped gas holders. Others lingered on the slick tin-roofs of the coal storage buildings. When workers saw them, the Indians threw what appeared to be spears, yet no spears were ever found on the ground.
Word spread about the island, and the more superstitious workers requested transfer back to the tin mill. Truckers refused to deliver loads there, having seen tanned men in fringed deerskin pants, feathered braids, and tattooed faces at the end of the service bridge connecting the island to the mill. Eventually, the plant and the surrounding area were overrun by rats, which crawled along duct work and pipes, cornered secretaries in the few plant offices, and got into workmen’s lunch pails. They were bold and unafraid of the searing oven heat. They were alleged to have issued directly from the moccasined feet of Indians sighted near the plant’s permanent scaffoldings. Workers began laying jars of cornmeal mixed with plaster of Paris around each building’s steel walls and the rat problem abated. But the Indians continued to appear at regular intervals for decades, particularly at night and in spite of the obliterating pink of the sodium vapor lights.
* * * *
Two decades after Weir’s death, the coke plant still plumed a foul-smelling odor that invaded buildings and reached even the metal desks of journalists at The Weirton Daily Times. But the odor was less pungent now, as a series of the coke ovens stood temporarily dormant.
The week before Christmas 1972, a feathery snow lay on Brown’s Island. Cold froze the mud along the river bank and ice clotted its shallows. Five men from Koppers Construction stood in the plant’s battery basement, inspecting the coke ovens for problems, in anticipation of a January re-start.
A worker in dark canvas overalls and foam-lined rubber boots got on his knees to examine the flues that traveled across the oven floor. He smelled gas, but it was not stifling. More important to him was the conversation in the next chamber, where his co-workers were talking about going upstairs for coffee. He was about to declare his approval when he looked up and saw, gazing down at him, a dark-skinned male with braided hair, hollow cheeks and a hawkish nose. He was stripped to the waist, and around his neck was a pouch made of squirrel hide, the head and clawed feet still attached. It bounced gently against the arch of the man’s rib cage.
The workman cried out and stumbled backward, trying to stand upright so he could run. But he fell against the bricks. The Shawnee Chief stepped closer. The men from the next oven came to the chamber doorway to see what Bowers was yelling about and also saw the chief, whose face carried red marks that looked like tattoos. The chief lifted his double-pronged eel spear, pointed accusingly at the men, and with a downward swing, scraped the flinty prongs against the oven bricks. Sparks flew.
At 9:44 a.m., the first explosion erupted from the battery basement, flinging bricks, steel girders, and slag fragments upward to levels above. Through the break room floor came charred fragments of five Koppers Construction oven inspectors, as the attendant heat caused thin steel walls to begin folding. Men went back in with gas masks to rescue survivors, but found them charred and missing limbs or under debris so heavy no human could move it alone.
While men searched for co-workers, two more explosions followed, killing everyone who went back to help. Fire raced through the debris, using every last bit of oxygen left and asphyxiating everyone still conscious. When a gas line broke, the island was sealed off, and rescue squads sat on the service bridge with their lights flashing.
In the decade that followed, fewer men would agree to work at the plant. It grew to have an ever more menacing aura. From 590 workers, only 275 returned after clean-up. The stories of Indians persisted and developed, with people claiming to see, at the end of the mill’s long service bridge, a tanned figure bearing what looked like Poseidon’s trident.
By 1982, the corporation closed the coke plant entirely, shutting down the 87 ovens and reassigning the remaining employees to mill jobs. The land was offered for sale, despite its heavily contaminated soil, but there were no takers. It now stands in the middle of the Ohio River emptied of trees, grey with pollution, marred by a rusting industrial fortress. Abandoned forklifts, mounds of coke, and oxidized outbuildings still litter the landscape. It is now a monument to the industrial pride that ignored human ritual and natural order. And as for the native spirits, no one disturbs them, so they do not appear.
Savannah Schroll Guz is author of the short story collections, American Soma (2009) and The Famous & The Anonymous (2004). Her work has appeared in a variety of online and print publications, including Naropa University’s Bombay Gin.
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