When it rains here now, when the skies turn black as the coal in the mountains beneath them, those in the town and the hollows around it stand sentry in the night, waiting for the creeks to rise.
The creeks have risen and spilled their banks four times now in the last six months, coursing through Main Street, pouring into storefronts and living rooms. Behind them, the waters leave a heaby brown mud piled high to the windows. With them, the waters take just about everything.
"You live in a horror and a dread," said Shirley Newman, a miner's daughter and a miner's wife.
"They holler that we're a depressed area nad our land ain't worth nothing, but it's all we got."
The floods came first in April, and twice in October on two successive Saturday nights. A month later, they came again, a few days before some families planned to move back into their houses and a few days after others already had.
The October floods were the worst, they say.The waters carried trees and fefrigerators through the narrow main street of town, through which the big coal trucks rumble, piled high as they come down from the mountains with loads so heavy that their vibrations set off the burglar alarm in Mayor Dorothy Laningham's dry-goods store.
In the stockroom of Lot Laningham's store, the Christmas toys bought on lay-away swam in crazy circles and out on the street, so did Laninghams's 13-year-old daughter until strong hands pulled her to safety. One young man was scooped up in the nick of time by a bulldozer, they say, and just about everybody raced the rains to the higher land and parked their cars uphill behind the Beacon Light Missionary Baptist Church.
It was a hard rain, and when it stopped, the water and sewer pipes were out, and the lights in some of the hollows were dark. Several bridges were gone and the school was flooded and many of the railroad ties along Straight Creek had been washed away from the tracks that bear the coal trains out of St. Charles.
It's a month later now, and still the water from the broken sewer pipes glistens on Main Street in front of the boarded up stores, mostly hardware and dry goods, that reek of the flood. A month later, and drinking water, when it runs in Lelia Britt's Cafe, "tastes like Clorox" more often than not because of the chlorine needed to kill the danger in it.
And one old woman, they say, just walks up and down the street all day, "kinda like she was in a daze." No one blames her, it's been four times now and like Shirley Newman says, "after awhile, it kinda mixes up your brain a little bit."
The railroad ties, they say, were repaired the day after the rain stopped.
But that's about all that's been repaired and the people of St. Charles have a variety of targets for that particular state of affairs. Some blame Lee County, which, they say, isn't spending the nearly $40.000 given to them by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to dredge the creeks. Some blame the TVA for telling them it can't help much to prevent the floods because St. Charles has - refer to doc. - St. Charles is about as inevitable as mountains and coal mining. "Most of us accept the fact that nobody's going to help us." Laningham says as she shakes her head at a sheaf of federal forms. "It used to make us angry but not anymore. It's just the way it's always been here."
There are about 350 persons within the corporate limits of St. Charles and about 1,500 persons within the surrounding community. The town, it turned out, was not big enough to qualify for federal disaster aid after the October floods, when about $1.4 million in damage was done.
"Luckily," said one retired miner sarcastically, "we got hit again," for when the rains came at the beginning of November, they came not only to St. Charles but to a total of six counties as well, and the town officially became what many felt it had been for some time - a disaster area.
And so, in the last few weeds a torrent of a different kind has descended on St. Charles. Shortly after the November floods, the gymnasiums of several local high schools filled up with what one official called a sort of "supermarket of help for the flood victims, Actually," he said, "change that to circus."
In the gyms were tables full of representatives from federal, state and local agencies, ranging from state and local agencies, ranging from state and local welfare departments, the Small Business Administration, the Farm Loan Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the county health department, at least one senior citizens group and the Internal Revenue Service.
Each potential applicant for some form of aid was given a check list of what he or she might be eligible for and then sent round to the representatives of each of the various agencies, according to Del Willink, who works for a coalition of interdenominational church groups that raised about $60,000 across the country after the flood.
"There was a lot of confusion," Willink recalled. "Some people heard rumors that they got nothing at all."
Others got lost among the serpentine turns that the road to relief can take. According to Willink, those famillies applying for an "Individual and Family Grant" under Section 408 of the Federal Disaster Act, had to first apply for and be turned down for an SBA loan. To apply for an SBA loan, Willink said, the family had to first get two estimates of how much it would cost to repair their flood damaged homes.
So many families in Lee County, where St. Charles is located, were applying for loans, however, that contractors were beginning to charge $20 just for an estimate. Thus in some cases, Willink said, it would cost a homeless family $40 just to get turned down for one form of relief so that they could qualify for another.
Confusion was only one of the problems to reckon with. "You got to understand us here," said one woman standing in Dot Laningham's store. "A lot of the people in the hollers up yonder, they can't neither read nor write. Some man comes shuffling a lot of papers at 'em, they're just gonna take off in the other direction."
There was as well the fierce independence of the mountain people that held in contempt the idea of aid from anyone who was neither kith nor kin. "They would say to us, 'life is very hard in the mountains.'" Willink said."'Why should I get help this time when I never did before?' And if they did get anything, it would be a loan at their neighborhood bank at 16 per cent interest but where they knew the people, instead of from the SBA, where the interest is 1 per cent."
"St. Charles," said Annie Sutherland, a regional planner with the Lenowisco Planning District Commission, "is one of the last strongholds of mountain independence. I know they say no one will help them, but then these are people who think hooking up to the county sewer system is going to compromise their freedom."
But then there are those who say that freedom of at least their concept of it, is one of the few things left for the mountain people to hold on to Maxie Edgar, 72, who came down from the mountain three times now, and each times she comes back.
Now she waits for the results of an application to HUD, which has promised, among other things to repair the lonoleum floor that buckles in waves in her living room. She had at first been able to fix up the house, she said, with the back payments form her dead husband's black lung benefits.
The slightest rain now "just scares me to death," but she will not move. "I guess I just got used to being on my own," she said, "I got to be in my own home.I don't know any other way."
She is certain of the reasons for all the recent flooding. "If the Lord wants to put this rain on you he will. That's my belief. You might as well luagh as cry."
There are others in St. Charles who are equally certain of the cause of the flooding and it is not God but the strip nines that sit high above them. According to members of a young and angry coalition called the Virginia Citizens for Better Reclamation, "spoilage" from the strip mines is dumped over the side of the mountain, only to settle in the creek beds. The now shallow beds cannot carry off the rainfall and overflow into the street and homes of St. Charles.
Not true, according to B. V. Cooper, nexecutive director of the Virginia Surface Mining and Reclamation Association. Instead Cooper said, strip mined land that has been properly reclaimed would actually "moderate the water flow rather than accelerate it."
According to John King, a civil engineer with TVA, "St, Charles would suffer flooding if there had never been a strip mine. They're sitting at the bottom of a funnel." The steep slopes and merging creeks, King said, make flood prevention unrealistic in St. Charles, but, he said, "the endless supply fo material falling from the strip mines" only makes the situation worse.
"When things go wrong in St. Charles," King said, "they go very, very wrong." St. Charles, said a member of a local coalition of county churches formed to help the town, "is the wild, wild West. It's the wrong side of the tracks in this county."
It was not always this way, say those who live in town, in the nearby hollows and in the houses still left standing in the once great mining camps - Bonny Blue, Benedict, Monarch, Dominion.
Nearly 40 years ago, the camps were filled with thousands of miners and their families and St. Charles carried the economy of the county. "Back when things were booming," said Shirley Newman, "we had a theater, and two drugstores and stores up and down both sides of the streets."
Back then, she said, "everybody got paid on Friday and the bootleggers wore badges so's they wouldn't sell to each other. We had six beer joints and a calaboose and the sheriff would get those boys by the back of the neck and haul 'em in."
But most of the big mines closed after World War II when the country turned away from coal to other forms of energy. The town shrank as the money moved away and the steets grew as quiet as the mining camps.
The rapid increase of strip mining in the area has brought a whisper of changing fortune to St. Charles. There are coal trucks to bbe driven and tipples, which load the coal on to the railroad cars, to be operated and a few jobs in the strip mines to be had. But strip mines employ about a third of the men that deep mines do and the jobs don't last as long. In St. Charles Young men sit on Main Street, idle in the nooday sun and the average per cipita income is $1,889. (In Fairfax, the comparable figures is $7,004.)
And so here, in Lelia Britt's Cafe, when they talk of mining they talk, for the most part, of deep mining, and it is a measure of its meaning in their lives that the coal seams, the narrow ribbons that run for miles under the earth, have names.
The old men talk about the Jawbone, the Raven, the Pocahontas and the Darby seams as if they were beautiful women, but they look quizzical when asked the names of the mountains that surround them. They talk about the mountain as they talk about the air and the individual parts are not recognized. "The way we figure, the mountain isn't going anywhere,"said George Gibson, who began in the mines as a boy of 11, in 1918.