SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The South Charleston Interpretive Center has recently opened its new permanent exhibit showcasing the history and impact of Union Carbide on the Kanawha Valley.
The “Chemical Valley: Union Carbide and the Shaping of the Kanawha” exhibit features sections on the Union Carbide summer camps, the corporation’s manifold contributions to World War II production, and more 20th-century memorabilia.
Gloria Shirkey and Lili Mayes are the directors of the South Charleston Interpretive Center on D Street.
Shirkey said the center was established by the state and federal transportation departments and has been open since 2009 in downtown South Charleston.
“The center’s purpose is to inform about the Adena Indians and the Midland Trail, which was established by George Washington and the Virginia Assembly,” Shirkey said last week from the center. “Because Union Carbide is on the Midland Trail, we’ve done an extensive study. We’ve received a great deal of material from retirees. A lot of the employees have died, and their families are giving us the things they have collected.”
Shirkey said the exhibit extends to the origins of Union Carbide in the Kanawha Valley in Clendenin.
The exhibit’s information pertaining to the Carbide Camps “was almost a fluke,” Shirkey said. “People would talk to us and remember their days at the Carbide Camps and how much it meant to them. That’s from across the United States; we had phone interviews with people who went to them. We got a lot of input from that.”
Two dozen former Carbide Campers shared their memories and keepsakes for the collection.
The “Chemical Valley: Union Carbide and the Shaping of the Kanawha” exhibit was made possible through funding from the West Virginia Humanities Council. Kyle Warmack of the WVHC wrote and facilitated the grant for the exhibit funding.
“All three of us have really working on it for a long time,” Shirkey said.
She added that she, Mayes, and Hammack are preparing a program about Union Carbide’s construction of the ill-fated Hawks Nest Tunnel and Dam. The project was designed to power UC’s Alloy plant, but shortly after construction began in 1930, it was discovered the rock workers were cutting contained a high silica content. Workers, mostly African-Americans, were not provided proper safety equipment, were exposed to silica dust, and developed a lung disease called silicosis. According to the West Virginia Bridge Day website, 109 deaths were admitted by the construction company, but a congressional hearing determined the project was responsible for 476 deaths. Other sources state the number could be as high as 1,000 deaths.
“We have tried two or three times to schedule a program at the LaBelle Theater on the Hawks Nest hydroelectric plant,” Shirkey said. “Some really bad things came out that. We have speakers lined up if we ever get the go-ahead to have a program at the LaBelle.”
The center also features exhibits on the Adena Indian mounds, Belgian glassmakers, and the Naval Ordnance Plant, among other historical attractions.
“We have an extensive Indian exhibit, lots of different Indian artifacts,” Shirkey said. “We have information on where the Mound where it came from. The Belgian exhibit is on Belgian glass making, which was one of the first industries in South Charleston. We have an exhibit from Blenko Glass. We also have an extensive exhibit of the Naval Ordnance Plant and some on the coal industry. We have sort of rotating exhibits we change around periodically.”
Shirkey said the center also provides written histories of the area that are available for public perusal and use. “We have put books together on the six counties across the Midland Trail.”
Other books address topics such as the history of religion, education, and the salt industry in the region.
“Teachers may sign the books out,” Shirkey said, “and students may come in and get information and work on them here. We’re open for schools. With this pandemic as it is, it’s great for parents to bring their children in, which will add to their education.”
Shirkey said she has been with the center since its outset. “I’m astounded how much we have in this little building. We keep adding and adding to it. We’re always looking for new exhibits to do.
“I don’t think a lot of people have any idea how much history there is here and the contributions South Charleston has made to the war effort, education, and so on. As a retired schoolteacher, I’m amazed at how much has happened here.”
Admission to the Union Carbide and other center exhibits is free. Visitors are required to wear masks inside the facility.
The South Charleston Interpretive Center is located at 313 D St., next to the LaBelle Theater, in South Charleston. Hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. Saturdays.
For more information or to make inquiries regarding donating items to the center, phone 304-720-9847.