In almost every respect, the coal camp at Fireco was, as they say, the end of the line. Only one small coal camp, Willibet, had been opened in the coalfield beyond, but Fireco was as far as you were likely to get in a car anyway in the 1930s when word of a prowling monster began to make the rounds.
Then as now, Fireco is a pleasant place on a warm summer day—but by night, it's a small constellation of porch lights amid a mountainous dark, and it was through that wooded dark that an unnamed threat wandered.
According to a series of articles that then appeared in The Raleigh Register—the newspaper of record 15 miles north in Beckley, West Virginia, an hour's drive at the time—witnesses described a predator that was killing livestock.
One witness in the July 15, 1936, edition of the paper described it as "10 feet long" and powerful enough to "snatch the heads off of fully grown hogs.”
According to Dr. W.G. Moran, whatever it might have been had small feet but with powerful claws that "could rip up clumps of earth that weighed more than 50 pounds."
Though many residents were truly concerned, Harold Riffe, a columnist for the paper, made light of the issue and poked gentle fun at locals, proposing that what he called the Fireco Monster should be pitted against a magical fly said to have troubled another community nearby.
“Over in Odd," he wrote, "there was a fly that survived the winter and several attempts on its life. One citizen, according to Walter Steele from the Grant Logan store, had planned to kill the fly with a glue trap, but the trap stuck to the fly’s head, giving it a fancy parasol.
“Plans are being made by the Odd Civic Betterment Club to have the fly attack the Fireco Monster. The hope is that the two will kill each other and get rid of the two beasts."
Pauline Haga, a historian and newspaper columnist who collected more information on the phenomena than anyone else, reported that a spate of dog killings and animal attacks had been reported throughout the region at the time, but that stories of encounters had not died down in the intervening decades.
In 1992 in her column "Yesterday and Today," Haga wrote: "Here it is 58 years later and everyone had forgotten the event, but Claude Davis, who presently lives at Fireco, said there is still something strange going on up Willibet Hollow and has been for years."
Could it be reasonably assumed that whatever had been stalking the town and surrounding mountains was a bear or mountain lion?
Most bears had been killed off in the region for food during the Great Depression; very few sources of wild meat survived that time of need.
Mountain lions, too, had been extinguished in West Virginia by the 1880s, though the rumor of the great cats persists. State wildlife officials generally propose that if mountain lions are present, they are lone specimens and non-native and that no reproducing pairs are to be found in the state.
Joe Green, a historian who's grown up in the hills to the southwest along the spine of Great Flat Top Mountain, says he was frequently warned as a child to beware a chance meeting with whatever the notorious foe might be.
"My grandfather would tell us to stay away from there," Green said. "He told us that all through the '80s." Green's recollection supports the idea that at least the legend of the beast continued to live beyond the 1930s.
Fireco is little more than a ghost town today. Though once a model community for the Leckie-Smokeless Coal Co. of more than 100 homes, coal played out by the '70s, and the community has dwindled to little more than a score of residences.
Scott Worley, a historian who has in recent years become a collector of local legends, says the tale has manifested itself again at Fireco.
"Recently they opened a poolroom in the old company store at Fireco," Worley says. "Two people who do not wish to be identified were traveling from Beckley to play in a pool tournament. Never having been to Fireco, they became lost.
"While driving the backroads, trying to get their bearings, the duo saw a creature cross the road and disappear into a wooded area. They described it as, 'unlike any creature they knew,' standing about three feet tall with a large head and gleaming, gnarled teeth. The pair eventually made their way to the pool hall, but were afraid to tell their story that night."
Worley, who regularly leads tours of the area for paranormal, says he'll be following up on the legend. Facebook users who have more information relevant to the beast or other paranormal phenomena in the area are encouraged to reach him on his Facebook page.
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Native Americans knew of it, and it played a role in the Civil War locally, but few people now remember the lost Mercer Saltworks, located in one of the most isolated areas in southern West Virginia, cut off from much of the rest of the world. Read the full story.