Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial
The Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial is not the kind of public space that we usually discuss here. We tend to focus on public spaces that are intended to be more social or recreational. But the UBB Memorial illustrates the fact that not all public spaces are created for the same purpose or have the same goals.
Following the UBB explosion on April 5, 2009 that claimed the life of 29 miners, the community began to talk about how to honor the memories of those who died that day. What began as a memorial grew into much more than that. The UBB Miners Memorial became a place to remember, honor, and learn.
In writing Spaces for People, I’ve avoided projects with which my company is involved. But because the UBB Memorial is such an important project, I’m going to break my own rule. Rob Dinsmore, landscape architect (to be) at Chapman Technical Group, designed the memorial. When Rob designed the project, he was not even two years removed from classes at West Virginia University.
In his initial sketch, he envisioned the miners’ silhouettes on a granite background, cut to resemble the mountains of West Virginia. When the UBB Memorial Committee saw the sketch, they knew they had found the design they were looking for. Rob was then tasked with developing the site in a way that appropriately presented the granite monument and would accommodate friends, family and others who would visit to remember the lives of the lost miners.
If the granite monument came about through a moment of inspiration, the site design was the result of meticulous space planning, an understanding of how people would move through the site, and detailed engineering to overcome challenges inherent with the site. To begin with, the site is a narrow sliver of land between the Coal River and a busy two-lane highway. Poor soils needed to be stabilized, utilities relocated, and objectionable views had to be screened.
The final plan included a planter parallel to the road to act as a buffer, both physically, to keep road dust and salt in the winter away from the monument, and psychologically, to create a space within the space where people could view the monument up close without feeling like they were standing out on the sidewalk.
On the back side of the monument are the names of those who died, as well as other tributes. Other panels tell the history of mining in West Virginia. This back side of the memorial is a more contemplative space, a little more private. A steel fence screens the objectionable view across the river while openings in the lower portion of the fence allow views of the flowing river. The fence itself has an industrial feel, reminiscent of the hard-edged life of the coal miner.
While the final memorial changed very little from that first sketch, the memorial site grew as tributes to first responders were incorporated, as well as informational monuments detailing the sequence of events of April 5, 2009.
At the memorial dedication on July 27, there were tears and somber faces. But there were also gentle smiles and quiet laughter as friends greeted one another and stories were shared. That will be the future of the Upper Big Branch Memorial. It is a very special public space serving a very special purpose.
The back of the granite monument includes the miners’ names, tributes, and a brief history of mining in West Virginia. To the left, the steel fence blocks objectionable views, while still allowing the flowing river to be seen.
The UBB Memorial takes on a more somber tone at dawn and dusk.