Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Abandoned Coke Ovens, 1918; watercolor, gouache, graphite, on pieced ivory wove paper, 18 x 26 ½ inches; Wichita Art Museum Roland P. Murdock Collection
Charles Burchfield, Journals, July 20, 1940
Monday, July 20, 2015
Drive to Byrnedale (which I would prefer to call Burntdale, as it is literally and figuratively a burnt out town).
Start by 10:00 – a glaringly hot hazy day, with a few phantom-like clouds in the pale opaque blue sky.
Reach Byrnedale by 2:00, and eat by the roadside just beyond it. After lunch, I came back, parked by the road and set out to explore the town and hills a bit – To cross a little sulphur stream I had to take off my shoes and stockings – on the other side, I passed then a small dense grove of young pines, whose fallen needles covered the ground with a thick spongey carpet, a hot brown in color – Beyond was a great barren hill, extending north & South the entire length of the Valley, at the base of which were long rows of abandoned coke ovens, sometimes in tiers of three or possibly more. Luxuriant ferns growing around the arched openings in the rounded ovens, were thrown into sharp relief by the brilliant sunshine. Inside the ovens all was dark, except for the irregularly circular shot of light that came from the opening in the top – It had a pale wan look – unreal. Between the ovens rich red earth, washed down by the rains, spread fan-wise.
The whole barren hillside had a hot bright pink character jutting upward against the heavy opaque sky with its pale white clouds.
To one side, and beyond the ovens, a great pile of slate or unfirm coal and slag, was burning, probably had been burning for months or even years and would go on burning in-definitely-Above the ovens, was a single track railroad. Which I cross, and scrambled up the winding hill to a sort of terrace like strip that extended along the hillside. To the south now an approaching train, just coming around a bend attracted me – it proved it proved to be a number of freight-cars filled with coal, with a locomotive at each end. The puffing smoke now hot grayish blue with a vague violet cast, and then suddenly thick and heavily dark olive when fresh coal was thrown over gave a dramatic accent to the monotonous green expanse of valley and hills.
Nothing has changed here I thought – it is as it was forty or fifty years ago – the same type of locomotive – though there were along about a dozen cars, the grade was so steep that it seemed to require a great effort for the two engines to push them along. It seemed an unmeasurably long time afterward when I saw the train laboriously puffing up the side of a hill to the north.
The heat was terrific here, so I gave no more than a passing glance to the scene below – the groups of dark wine-colored houses sprawling miserably here & there, some on the slope to the west, others in the floor of the Valley ,which has given over otherwise to piles of slag and other refuse, remnants (apparently) of coal mining operations. Descending the hillside, I walked thru a double row of the houses towards the main road – woodbine growing on some of the houses, only seemed to accent their miserable character rather than soften it. Having reached the road, I decided to walk thru a settlement of houses extending along the western slope – there were these double rows of houses, parallel to each other, and at right angles to the main road. It was difficult to conceive of a more dreadful manner in which to house human beings. What took the place of streets running down the center of the rows were strips of bare clay so badly eroded that even walking was precarious. In front of each house was a squat mean-looking shed which contained coal; at the back of each short lot were even meaner looking privies. Bald – I think describes the manner of life here. The houses, once painted red, had weathered do that the effect was of a dark wine-color. Some of the window frames were painted white – a startling contrast –
It would be difficult to decide which would be worst – this village in the heyday of its economic activity, or as it is now a ghost town.
As I was driving thru the village on my return north, I stopped for a young boy, who, I could see had some packages or something – They proved to be two buckets of huckleberries, which he said he had picked on the neighboring hillsides – he was taking them to St. Mary’s to peddle, as that town was the “only place around here you could sell anything” – they boy seemed unusually taciturn for his age, and responded to my questions with short, and almost surly replies – It seemed almost as if for some reason he resented – not my questions, but myself. Perhaps it was only the result of being born into and growing up in such a hideous ghost town. The struggle for existence must be terrific. My first impulse was to buy all his berries outright; but one never knows how such an obviously charity-like move will be received. Then I thought too that perhaps the trip to St. Mary’s, eight miles away, and the peddling from door to door, constituted an adventure which would give color to his monotonous life. Eventually I bought just two quarts, when I deposited him at the edge of the town.
His grim uncommunicativeness made me uncomfortable.
At St. Mary’s, I turn east, to go through Emporium and on up to Smithport. Outside of Emporium, I recalled Tom Gibbs, the boy I picked up last year, and oddly enough, he was waiting by the roadside in a lift. He had been to town to get bread and butter, and the latter was melting all over the bread. He told me his family had moved, and now lived out a dirt road in the hills. Bothered by his melting butter, I took him into his home. I bought sandwiches at Little Valley, which I ate south of Springville with a wide view over overlapping swells of earth extending west. The declining sun had gone behind a flat bank of dappled clouds, but it was apparent that it would soon reappear in a hole in the cloud mass – the gradually spreading of golden hazy light from one ground swell to another was beautiful.
At Orchard Park I was interminably held up in a traffic jam caused by a fireman’s convention – humanity in one of its less pleasant aspects.
Charles E. Burchfield, July 20, 1940 – (Saturday)