BECKLEY, W.Va. — In almost every respect, the coal camp at Fireco was the end of the line. It was as far up the hollow as you were likely to get in a car in the 1930s when word of a prowling monster began to make the rounds.
Then, as now, the community was a pleasant place on a warm summer day. But at night, it dwindled into a tiny constellation of porch lights alone in mountainous darkness. Through that wooded dark, an unnamed threat wandered.
According to a series of articles in The Raleigh Register—the newspaper of record 15 miles north in Beckley—witnesses described a monstrous predator that was killing livestock.
A witness in the July 15, 1936, edition 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 tiny feet but powerful claws that "could rip up clumps of earth that weighed more than 50 pounds."
Though many residents were genuinely concerned, Harold Riffe, a columnist for the paper, 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 nearby community.
“Over in Odd, there was a fly that survived the winter and several attempts on its life," Riffe wrote. "According to Walter Steele from the Grant-Logan store, one citizen had planned to kill the fly with a glue trap, but the trap stuck to its 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 who collected more information on the lore than anyone else, reported a spate of dog killings and animal attacks in the region at the time, though 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 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, and 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 fantastic 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 near Great Flat Top Mountain, says he was frequently warned as a child to beware of 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."
His recollection supports the idea that at least the legend of the beast continued to live beyond the 1930s.
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Fireco is little more than a ghost town today. Once a model community for the Leckie-Smokeless Coal Co., with 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 become a collector of local legends in recent years, says the tale has manifested itself again at Fireco and is likely to do so ever so often.
"Recently, they opened a poolroom in the old company store at Fireco," Worley says. "Two people I've spoken with, and 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, they saw a creature cross the road and disappear into the woods. They described it as 'unlike any creature they knew,' standing about three feet tall with a large head and gnarled teeth. They eventually made their way to the pool hall but were afraid to tell their story."
Worley, who regularly leads paranormal tours of the area, says he'll be following up on the legend. Facebook users with 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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