The Industrialist and the Mountaineer: The Eastham-Thompson Feud and the Struggle for West Virginia’s Timber Frontier, by Ronald L. Lewis (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2017, paperback, 301 pages).
Reviewed by Paul Salstrom
Not all feuds are cut from the same board. But this Tucker County feud, like the Hatfield-McCoy feud around the same time on the other side of West Virginia, was about timber—control over timber and over ways in which to move it. Both feuds ignited because railroad tracks arrived that could haul lumber to distant markets. (Or, actually, in the Hatfield-McCoy case, that feud re-ignited and expanded when a railroad arrived and timber could suddenly make you rich.)
Most West Virginia feuds seem to have started with a fight or a shooting, but Tucker County’s Eastham-Thompson feud ended with its one and only shooting, a two-man gunfight. This book’s author Ronald L. Lewis explains why the shoot-out ended the feud—because, he says, both the shooters were ‘outsiders,’ neither one of them was born and bred in Tucker County.
Bob Eastham was a full-fledged southerner from Rappahannock County, Virginia and Frank Thompson was a northerner from Maine via Philadelphia. So there were no feud-minded kin to keep things going. Author Lewis recounts the feud’s details but his overarching theme is that Bob Eastham personified traditional southern backcountry customs like sharing access to resources among all local residents, whereas Frank Thompson and his family’s far-flung timber empire personified privatization and competition aimed at monopolizing control over all an area’s timber, and control over all the ways it could reach the outside world.
First, of course, timber was transported by floating it down streams and rivers, which often had to be dammed up for the winter (–with a ‘splash dam’) to insure enough springtime water-release to float the size of the logs ‘just waiting to be cut’ in West Virginia’s virgin forests. Ex-U.S. Senator Henry Gassaway Davis built a railway system to haul lumber and coal out of northeastern West Virginia. To get lumber, that railroad first went simply to or through downriver towns like Davis, a railroad boom town on the Blackwater River that Bob Eastham helped to lay out in 1884 on behalf of Mr. Davis, whose railroad arrived later that same year. Some small lumber mills soon started, and then in 1887 Albert Thompson, Frank’s father, arrived from Philadelphia with large amounts of capital to invest. He bought tens of thousands of acres and built a huge lumber mill at Davis.
Some of Tucker County’s choicest timber was a short ways south up the Blackwater River in Canaan Valley, where Bob Eastham and his wife Mary had moved in 1876 when that large valley was still a wilderness. There Bob Eastham farmed, guided hunters, surveyed some, bought and sold land, and tried to float out a few logs every year. Floating out logs proved harder and harder by the mid-1890s due to the Thompsons’ extra-legal control over the Blackwater River, which they justified by its efficiency, not just in providing a profit to their investors but providing the livelihoods of all their employees. For Bob Eastham it was not about efficiency but about everyone’s equal right to float logs down the river, as spelled out in the 1872 West Virginia Constitution.
Admittedly Eastham’s youthful Civil War career with Mosby’s Rangers, the legendary Confederate irregulars, had left him a bit belligerent. Lewis’s book delves back into that, including some of Eastham’s personal exploits, but the Civil War had nothing to do with Eastham’s grievance against the efficiency-minded Thompsons—who had contracted to mill logs for him and then kept Blackwater River so choked up with their own logs all spring and summer that Eastham couldn’t get his logs to the Thompson sawmill, costing him a tidy penalty when he couldn’t fulfill his contract to supply lumber to a third party by a specified date. Eastham and a lot of other Tucker Countians thought the Thompsons were trying to force all the small-scale operators out of business.
When Eastham and the Thompsons then lined up on opposite sides of an unrelated legal issue in which Eastham was found guilty of contempt of court and fined five dollars for signing a petition and arguing in court that the U.S. Constitution protected the right of petition, that became the last straw for Eastham. Boarding the train that evening after all day in court at the county seat of Parsons, he noticed Frank Thompson sitting next to the aisle and called him an s.o.b. and slapped him for good measure. Eastham perhaps had an old-fashioned southern duel in mind as he continued down the aisle, but Thompson pulled out a pistol and headed for him. As Eastham turned around he received three shots pointblank, two glancing off his forehead and the other grazing his lower ribs. But Thompson’s gun was so weak that Eastham merely bled a lot. (Local lore in Tucker County is that Thompson carried an ‘owl-head’ pistol with low compression and a short, un-rifled barrel.)
Meanwhile Eastham’s own pistol got snagged on the lining of his left coat pocket so he fired from inside his pocket and hit Thompson in the arm, leg, and abdomen. The third shot proved fatal despite two doctors taking Thompson on the next train to the closest hospital with an operating room—about a hundred miles away in Cumberland, Maryland. By then Frank Thompson’s internal bleeding couldn’t be fully stopped and he died early the second morning at 35 years of age.
Author Lewis next starkly shows us West Virginia’s politicized legal system on display. Bob Eastham was soon arrested for murder and the presiding judge, a supporter of the business elite, tossed out the ‘involuntary manslaughter’ preference of two grand juries–-and then illegally appointed his own grand jury–-in order to get Eastham charged with murder. A top-notch array of eight pro-business lawyers joined the prosecution team against Eastham, while an equally prestigious array of eleven tradition-minded lawyers handled Eastham’s defense. Colonel John Singleton Mosby (CSA) sent Eastham a warm letter of support from a reunion of Mosby’s Rangers that Eastham couldn’t attend being in jail.
The pro-business judge hammered home to the trial jury that their only choice was a murder conviction or total innocence. But what basically then went to trial was how Tucker County’s citizens felt about the Thompson lumber empire’s engrossment of local resources, and almost no one in the county’s entire jury pool of over a hundred adult males seemed to like that engrossment, or like the Thompsons’ influence in local politics and legal matters.
Within about a dozen years of the 1897 gunfight, career evolutions took all but one member of the Thompson family away from Tucker County—although some kept summer homes in Canaan Valley. The exception to this family departure was George B. Thompson, one of Frank Thompson’s cousins. George was in his mid-20’s when Frank died by gunshot. Since he alone of his Thompson generation stayed in Tucker County, he became head of the family lumber business there and incidentally a prominent resident of Canaan Valley. Another of the Thompsons, Benjamin, acquired Bob Eastham’s old Canaan farm and made it part of his estate “The Willows.” Even more ironically, Frank Thompson’s sister, Sarah Maude Thompson Kaemmerling, donated several thousand acres to create a state park on condition that the state donate several thousand more acres. That’s how Canaan Valley Resort State Park finally came to be in 1971. Thanks to its great popularity and economic success, Canaan Valley can no longer afford to allow much timber cutting.
Oh yes, how did the murder trial turn out? The trial jury ignored the judge’s insistence that they choose between murder and innocence. They returned a verdict of involuntary manslaughter—the dominant local opinion all along. The judge took a little revenge by sentencing Bob Eastham to two years in jail even though West Virginia law contained no penalty at all for involuntary manslaughter. Eastham then escaped from jail and returned to his family farm in Rappahannock County, Virginia, where no one ever went to bring him back. He died in 1924 at age 82 after a stroke knocked him off his horse into an icy stream.