Matewan church between a rock and a hard place

Lawrence Pierce
Cracks forming around a section of cliff behind Matewan United Methodist Church have prompted church officials stop using one section of the church due to safety concerns over a possible rock fall.
A section of cliff towering over the fellowship wing of the church is already beginning to shed rocks.
The Rev. Ron Acord points to the section of cliff this boulder separated from immediately before tumbling onto the handicapped ramp leading to the church's fellowship wing.
Acord worries that this section of cliff, with large cracks growing along two sides, could topple into his church.
The recently remodeled sanctuary section of the church remains open for services, though attendance has dropped due to safety concerns.
The cut stone church's completion date is set in stone above a doorway.
Small slabs of boulder have flaked away from the slipping cliff section and tumbled to a church parking area.
MATEWAN, W.Va. -- The Bible says that if you speak to your mountain, the mountain will move.These days, the Rev. Ron Acord doesn't need a whole mountain to be moved -- but there's this huge boulder teetering over his church that he wouldn't mind being levitated elsewhere."I'd like God to move it from where it is now to the space between the church and the [currently unoccupied] Head Start building," Acord said.That space, now occupied by a roped-off parking lot, would be the ideal landing zone for the huge sandstone boulder that is slowly separating from the steep hillside behind Matewan United Methodist Church.
"It's the height of the church and about 20 feet wide," Acord said of the boulder.Last November, the boulder shed off a 3-feet-by-3-feet slab of rock, which bounced down the near-vertical slope and smashed into the handicapped ramp leading to the fellowship wing of the historic church, shearing off several railing posts. Luckily, no one was present at the time of that incident.At the time, Acord wrote off the rock fall as a rare, once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. But later in the year, while putting up Christmas lights outside the church, a Matewan city police officer stopped by."He said a big rock was splitting away from the mountain and I needed to do something about it," Acord recalled. The minister and another church member climbed up the hillside to examine and photograph the section of cliff in question and the sizeable gaps that were forming behind two sides of the huge rock chunk."The cracks have gotten bigger over the summer," said the pastor. "You can tell that it's slowly moving. After freezing and thawing this winter, it may end up coming down. It's big enough it could do some serious damage."Acord and church trustees decided to close off the church's fellowship hall, with its kitchen and Sunday school rooms, while the recently remodeled main sanctuary -- the part of the church farthest away from the rock -- remains open. The fellowship wing parking lot, in which the rock that fell in November bounced a couple of times before hitting the handicapped ramp, was roped off and remains closed.A few church members are avoiding services until the rock is no longer a threat."It kind of hurts to know that it's happening, but I don't blame people if they don't feel safe," Acord said. "No one knows for sure when the rock will come down or where it will hit."
Acord has some first-hand knowledge about the dangers of falling rock. The Wyoming County native's 18-year career as a coal miner came to an end when he was injured in a rock fall.He said church members have spoken with contractors, heavy equipment operators and state and county officials about possible solutions for removing the hazardous rock.
"There's been talk about putting steel rails and concrete barriers up," the pastor said, "and a church member has looked into bringing a crane to the site, but found out it would cost $60,000 just to get it here, which we don't have the finances for. All the plans seem to have fizzled out for one reason or another."Building a road to access the rock in question could be dicey, since using heavy equipment to construct it could jar the boulder free of the hillside, he added.Acord said he has looked into buying a few surplus school buses and using them to form a barricade between the church and the hillside behind it, but that idea also turned out to be prohibitively expensive and not a sure-fire solution.He said the church's insurance carrier has informed him that damage from a rock fall wouldn't be covered, since it falls, ironically, under an "act of God" exclusion."They said we could sue the owner of the property it's on after the rock falls," Acord said, "but that's not the way we want to go."As of now, no solution to the teetering boulder problem is on the horizon.
The church was founded in 1896, the year after Matewan incorporated. In 1933, the sanctuary section of the church, built of cut stone, was completed."I've heard that Italian stonemasons used rock quarried from Warm Hollow," a short distance from the church, Acord said. The church owns an adjacent building formerly used for a Head Start program, and now used as storage space, and the former city hall-town jail building located just down the street. The name of J.B. Maynard, the man who preceded Matewan Massacre figure Sid Hatfield as the town's chief of police, is carved over the door to the building, along with the words "Lock-Up," "City Hall" and the building's construction year, 1908."This church has been through a lot," Acord said. "It's been through a fire, and it's had seven feet of water flowing through it in the '77 flood. Now, we've got a rock hanging over us, but I still feel we're blessed."We've got good people. We're doing the best we can, and we're making some progress. I just hope someone can come up with an idea that will help us get past this situation."Reach Rick Steelhammer at or 304-348-5169.
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