Five years later, when the Red Ash Mine was connected underground with the adjacent Rush Run Mine, tragedy struck again.
On March 18, 1905, shortly after 9 p.m., a coal dust explosion -- apparently sparked by a mine car running over loose explosives on a section of track, according to a state mine inspector's report -- swept through both mines, killing five miners in each.
An auditor for the New River Smokeless Coal Co., which owned both mines, was taking a smoke break outside a company building at the time of the incident, and witnessed the blast.
"I hope never to see such a thing again," he wrote. "When I saw that awful sheet of flame belch forth from the mountain, I thought the world was coming to an end. The fire shot from the opening nearly across the river to the cliffs on the other side of the valley. It seemed like a volcano had opened up and was about to envelope us with flame."
About six hours after the 1905 explosion, a 14-man rescue team entered the mine complex, which had been accumulating gas because of the destruction of ventilation fans. The open-flame carbide lamps and lanterns used by the rescue squad set off a second blast, killing all of the would-be rescuers, and bringing the death toll for the day to 24.
Several victims from the two explosions are believed to account for some of the unmarked graves on Red Ash Island.
The Red Ash Mine, which opened in 1891, was the site of one of the region's first unionization drives. The Knights of Labor organized the site in 1893, in an attempt to improve wages and working conditions.
"The mines continued to operate into the 1930s," Flinn said. The most recent burials on the island date to the early 1940s, about the time one portion of the island was cleared to create a baseball diamond. By the 1950s, the town of Red Ash was abandoned.
"Thousands of rafters float past here every year, and no one knows this place is here," Flinn said.
The Brooklyn-Southside Trail, located on the former rail bed of the C&O Railroad's Southside Line, passes near the island and the town site of Red Ash, but there is no side trail leading to Red Ash Island.
Despite the island burial ground's remote locale, its presence is not completely unknown or forgotten.
Flinn and his wife, Megan, hiked to the island on one occasion and found someone had placed tea candles near some of the graves.
More than 900 people took part in this year's Hidden History Weekend hikes in the New River Gorge National River and Babcock, Pipestem, Hawks Nest and Little Beaver state parks.
"At one time, there were 50 towns in the New River Gorge," Flinn said. Because memories have faded since the towns were abandoned and reclaimed by second-growth forest, "the Hidden History program helps people find traces of the people who lived here and the places where they lived."
New River Gorge National River, along will all other units of the National Park Service, is closed because of the partial federal government shutdown.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.