One of Washington County’s tragedies and one of its greatest athletes are due to be permanently commemorated thanks to two new state historical markers that have been approved by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.
Roadside signs recognizing the 1908 Marianna Mine explosion that killed 154 miners, and Charles Freemont West, an African-American football star who played on Washington & Jefferson College’s team and was the first African-American quarterback in the Rose Bowl, were among 18 new markers announced Thursday by the PHMC. The 18 new markers will join close to 2,300 other markers across the commonwealth, which are familiar to drivers and history buffs for their blue-with-gold lettering.
The new markers were chosen last week at a meeting of the PHMC, according to Howard Pollman, a spokesman for the commission. A person or event is usually marker-worthy if it is “connected to a statewide or national theme.”
The marker honoring West will be on the corner of Beau and College streets, on the W&J campus, and the Marianna mine disaster marker will be at Beeson Street and Mine Access Road. Dates have yet to be set for the unveiling of either marker.
“The local folks drive that process,” Pollman said.
Washington County already has more than 50 state historical markers memorializing everything from the Whiskey Rebellion to the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, songwriter Jay Livingston and 19th-century Republican presidential candidate James Blaine. Greene County has 11, with the sites including Ryerson’s Blockhouse and the old glassworks in Greensboro.
The Marianna mine disaster, on Nov. 29, 1908, still stands as one of the most horrific mine accidents in the country’s history. The extent of the tragedy – there was only one survivor – highlighted the dangers of mining and helped lead to the establishment of the United States Bureau of Mines.
West, who had the nickname “Pruner,” was the quarterback for W&J’s Presidents football squad during its only Rose Bowl appearance, in 1922. A standout in track and field, he was named to the 1924 Olympic team, but did not end up competing due to an injury. He went on to become a physician in Alexandria, Va., and died in 1979.
The new markers were selected from 55 applications. Some of the other new markers announced Thursday include one honoring author John Updike in Berks County, one tipping the hat to singer-songwriter Jim Croce in Chester County, and one noting a 1971 burglary in Delaware County that exposed COINTELPRO, the FBI’s civilian surveillance program.