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GOSSAN MINES: Miner's family laments their loss

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Going underground into the mines to work posed danger, and yet men of the Twin Counties still took it on themselves in order to provide for their families. Not all of those men made it through the workday. This is the story of Randall Zelmer Warf, who survived World War II only to die under "The Ridge."

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

Randall Zelmer Warf, a World War II veteran who had seen the world past “the Ridge,” had a dream of getting out of the Gossan mines for his family’s sake after returning to the Carroll County community.
Warf never got to fulfill that dream because he died at 27 in a mining accident in the early morning hours of May 1, 1947, according to family members.
Gossan mines apparently operated at full tilt while supplying an iron sulphide ore during the war, when Warf had been overseas with the Army’s 639th, Anti-Aircraft Artillery battalion, Battery D, manning the weapons at Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Europe.

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Sandra Warf Poole has no memory of her father, being only six months old when the accident happened in the mines, but she heard family stories, read scrapbooks and delved into newspaper archives to learn what she could.
“My Uncle Joe Warf (one of my father’s younger brothers) and my ‘Granny Warf’ (Annie Lou Sharp Warf) probably provided me with the most information,” Poole said in a message to The Gazette. “It always seemed to be just too painful for my mother to speak much about that night.”
Her uncle shared the memory of her “Papa Warf,” who also worked in the mines, getting word of the accident in the middle of the night and going there himself.
“Joe has a vivid memory of his father screaming that ‘Randall is dead’ as he ran back to their house,” Poole recalls.  
A rock fell and hit Warf in the head, killing him instantly, both Poole and Joe Warf recalled. Only one other miner was injured.
“I had a brother killed in Gossan mines — a rock hit him in the back of the head and just took the whole top of his head off,” Joe Warf told The Gazette.
The accident happened in a tunnel underneath where Iron Ridge Road is today.
The Warf family found it ironic that Randall survived the battlefields of Europe only to be killed at his peacetime employment.
“He survived some horrible battles in the Rhineland, was discharged from the army Nov 2, 1945, and came home to work in the mines,” Poole recalled.
Warf had higher ambitions than remaining at that job.
“The one thing my mother did always talk about was how my father vowed he would get his two daughters and wife out of that mining community for a better life elsewhere,” Poole remembered.
Her family did eventually leave the Iron Ridge community after Warf’s death.
After six years, her mother remarried a former Galax man, who had moved to Hampton Roads to work in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. Poole described him as a “kind and gracious” person.
“My step-father and my mother always made sure that my sister and I remained close with our Warf branch of the family,” Poole said. “I have the most wonderful memories of being with my Granny and Papa Warf, uncles, aunts, cousins on our frequent trips back to Galax.”
Joe Warf knew full well what dangerous places that mines could be, but that didn’t keep him from going into that as an occupation.
His father worked at Gossan mines, who’s job it was to install the timbers in the mine shaft, so Joe Warf had been around the work all his life.
For three months, Joe served as a night watchman for the mines while they were still in operation. He remembered as being a lonely time, but he could take his dogs with him to keep him company.
He didn’t stay long before going off to Austinville to drive tunnels himself for 16 years, and after that he worked in a copper mine in North Carolina.
The drilling and the blasting hurt his hearing, but Joe Warf said he loved the work.
“It paid pretty good money and we were crazy enough to do it,” he said.
He can recall when the train cars ran through the middle of the Gossan mines property, hauling rock, but there isn’t much left of what once was a thriving company community after the mines closed in 1962. General Chemical declared the high grade ore depleted.
While there used to be a school, a company store and many homes owned by the mines all around the area, some houses were sold and moved and the other facilities have crumbled.
The former mines have been declared off-limits, because pits as deep as a football field is long remain in what otherwise may appear to be a peaceful forest, making it dangerous for anyone to venture into the area.
Only one person now has permission to be on the grounds - the caretaker who monitors the water pollution situation.
Poole got the idea to research the newspaper archives for mention of her father’s accident on trips back to Galax.
The only thing she came up with was a short death notice from the May 5, 1947, edition of The Gazette. Looking back as an adult made other things clear to her.
“I remember how frugal my mother had to be before she remarried,” Poole said.
“Our means of support was social security and some VA benefits because of my father’s military service.  It made me realize that there was really no support from Gossan mines for my mother after the accident.”
That also made her wonder if the mine owners had been able to keep the news of the accident that killed her father from spreading.
At best, the obituary made an oblique reference to the accident that killed Warf.
“His untimely death was a great shock, not only to his family and loved ones, but also to his fellow workers, friends and neighbors,” the death notice said. “A loyal and industrious worker, a sober and honest man, a good neighbor, a kind and affectionate son, and a tender and loving husband and father — these are only a few of the tributes that have been heard since his passing.”
Randall Warf was laid to rest in the Oakland United Methodist Church Cemetery, where other members of his family, including father Zelmer, joined him later.