Attack of the Giant Sawdust Pile

Chatham called for National Guard, children cheered

Rob Ullman

It was the worst problem facing Chatham that summer and fall, the one that Mayor Haile Fitzgerald had been hearing more complaints about than any other town issue. Residents complained of asthma and headaches, of dangerous driving hazards and of ruined house paint and laundry hung outside to dry. In November, 1956, a special grand jury finally convened to address the problem. They decided to send to Richmond for the National Guard to attack the smoldering mountain of sawdust that threatened to overwhelm Chatham.

About 75 feet high and spread over an acre of land, the sawdust pile was the byproduct of several nearby lumber companies near the Chatham train depot. When they went out of business, the sawdust remained and, as giant garbage or mulch piles will often do, generated enough heat deep within itself to combust. As it slowly burned, it spread clouds of dense smoke throughout Pittsylvania and the neighboring counties. Experts estimated that it would take 10 years for it to burn itself out.

After the usual buck-passing between politicos and businessmen, the grand jury ruled that the current property owner, Lawson Hedrick, had no legal responsibility for the inherited sawdust. It fell to Chatham Town Council to find a way to either stop or speed up the burning process, and the National Guard agreed to intervene.

The thrilling plan sounded as if fireworks-mad children had thought it up. It was to “toss sealed cans of gasoline-kerosene mixture” into the pile and then shoot tracer bullets at the cans to ignite them. The resulting “rapid burning” would surely have provided ample entertainment for Virginia residents for miles away, and would have remained a hot local legend for generations. But it wasn’t to be. The National Guard failed to secure the necessary munitions.

Next up was Chatham’s hardworking volunteer fire department, with another dramatic solution. A crew spent an entire Sunday pumping 75,000 gallons of water onto the smoldering mountain. As the smoke cleared, children cheered, and the mayor pronounced the dousing successful. But by Monday afternoon, puffs of smoke could be seen emerging once again from the towering pile.

At his wits’ end, Mayor Fitzgerald finally opted for a very dull Plan C. A local contractor agreed to bulldoze the pile, spreading it out on nearby land owned by the Continental Can Company. W.C. Barley had done this job before, with a sawdust pile in Stuart. He plugged away, slowly leveling the smoldering mountain and stopping the burning. No children were entertained during the weeklong process, but the sawdust pile that nearly ate Chatham was finally defeated.

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