Something You Don’t See Everyday: Russia vs the US… Guess Who Blinked?
“Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union.”
………….– Joseph Stalin
“America is a large, friendly dog in a small room. Every time it wags its tail it knocks over a chair.”
– Arnold Toynbee
Having long been fascinated with Russian culture (read Dr. Zhivago Anyone), and having lived about 20% of my life in the former Soviet Union ( does that sound strange to put it that way?), I am always on the look out for interesting US/Russia facts and stories.
Anyone familiar with the storylines of US-Russia relations knows that anytime one can publicly shame or embarrass the other, no questions asked, it will happen. Hence the popularity of all the Sochi toilet posts (in fact, for some reason, this one is still one of the top reads for fans here Countdown to Sochi: The Good, The Bad, and The Downright Weird).
Here though, in this story we have a chance for the Russians to turn the tables on the USA, and I believe they probably took great delight in this one…
As powerful states in the US go, West Virginia is not so well-known. Mention New York and everyone says, “The Big Apple” (New York City)- great marketing! Mention Texas, and people immediately recall “Dallas” as in JR and the Ewing clan, or perhaps, Cowboys football of the championship days, or just cowboys in general, hats and boots- our western legends. But ask about West Virginia, and you get blank looks. Not that “Wild, and Wonderful- West Virginia” isn’t a great slogan. It just doesn’t exactly evoke international power the way Wall Street or Hollywood, California can.
Which is why this story is all the more interesting. It’s a classic case of the little guy getting the win, the under-dog who becomes the champion. It warms our hearts to know that Americans are still creative and can get things done…
Even if this was a bit creative… and embarrassing for Washington DC.
The tiny community of Vulcan, West Virginia, once served as a thriving mining town in a remote corner of the coalfield county of Mingo.
Unfortunately, by the early 1960s the mines (the town’s lifeblood) had ceased operation.
Soon, what was once a flourishing hamlet had been reduced to little more than twenty families.
Hmmm… very curious. This didn’t sound like a setting for political intrigue, much less one capable of bringing a super-power to its knees.
But never “misunderestimate” the power of a determined West Virginian!
Describing the community in his 1972 book, They’ll Cut Off Your Project, Huey Perry wrote, “Their biggest problem was that the state had forgotten to build a road into the community. Although state maps showed a road into Vulcan, it was nowhere to be found.
The only way people could get in and out was to drive up the Kentucky side and walk across a swinging bridge, which was too narrow for a vehicle.
The bridge had been built by the coal company years before and was on the verge of collapse; although there were boards missing, the children had to walk across it to catch the school bus on the Kentucky side…”
The grievance held by local residents was not limited to state and county officials. According to Perry, the children of Vulcan, at times, were forced to crawl under railroad coal cars parked on the track on their way to school.
I have to say, as an American, I find this appalling.
I am embarrassed that conditions like this exist here at home when we are sending billions of dollars in aid across the globe, and organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are sending millions of dollars to eradicate disease and suffering abroad. I don’t begrudge the aid; in fact, I believe we should do more. But for heaven’s sake, let’s get our own house in order! This is just not right!
And that’s exactly what the residents of Vulcan, WV thought too. And that frustration is what prompted then-acting mayor of Vulcan, John Robinette, to ask for help. The town had previously asked the county of Mingo officials, who said it was the state of West Virginia who had to authorize and pay for such projects.
“Further angering the townspeople was an N & W Railroad side road that ran adjacent to the main line of the tracks, which passed through Vulcan. The road ran to the nearby community of Delmore, approximately five miles to the north of Vulcan; however, the company locked the entrances to the road on both sides and hung a “No Trespassing” sign. Those caught trespassing by using the road were prosecuted and fined.”
John Robinette says the railroad also banned commercial vehicles on the road to the food store, effectively shutting it down too.
The town worked to get help for over a decade, during which time the rickety old bridge collapsed, leaving school children no other way out.
Tired of refusals to help by officials in West Virginia, Kentucky and the US federal government, Mr. Robinette tried another tactic. He wrote to both the Soviet Embassy in Washington DC and to communist officials in East Germany.
When life gives you lemons, ask for Vodka, as they say!
Sensing an opportunity to shame the American government, the Kremlin immediately dispatched journalists to the United States.
Interviewing the residents of Vulcan and broadcasting their troubles to the rest of the world, the government in Moscow did what the residents of Vulcan had been attempting to do for years, bring attention to their transportation problems.
From New York (apparently where the real power in America comes from) Russian journalist Iona Andronova was dispatched to Vulcan, WV to report on this curious story.
The Spokane Daily Chronicle wrote, “Soviet officials were amused today by reports that the small town of Vulcan, W.Va. has appealed to the Kremlin for foreign aid… The town, with a population of 200, asked the Soviet government for financial help to build a bridge after the town was turned down by the U.S. and West Virginia governments.”
Within an hour of Andronova’s visit, news that State officials had finally funded the project was reported.
Embarrassed by the attention their lack of assistance was receiving, state officials committed $1.3 million and built a bridge for the tiny community.
John Robinette later said he felt our government was “afraid the Russians would build the bridge. They were embarrassed into it, and nothing will convince me otherwise.”
At last check, residents of the former mining town now enjoy a one-lane graffiti covered bridge connecting them to the outside world!
Click the link above to hear Andrew Pace singing, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”