Tragic Death At Quicksand

By Stephen D. Bowling

Working at a sawmill can be dangerous. Over the years, hundreds and maybe thousands of men have been injured and killed while turning timber into lumber in Breathitt County. The stories of their struggles and an occasional death are largely forgotten.

Historians often focus on the big corporations and the men who led the businesses. We research and analyze the success or failure of companies and their impact on our history. Much too often, we forget to write about the individual who cut the trees, who floated them to the mills, who pulled them from the river, who actually sawed them, and the men who stacked and restacked them before the train hauled the processed wood to market.

A rare view of a small sawmill operation on the banks of Quicksand creek hint at the hard work and dangers that a mill posed for workers. The massive mills at Quicksand had even more dangers.

The work was dangerous, with moving machinery and unpredictable logs shifting and rolling around. The exact number of men who were injured and killed is unknown. One tragic experience of one man who worked for the Mowbray & Robinson Lumber Company at Quicksand was detailed in The Jackson Times, June 2, 1911, page 6

Met An Awful Death

Having just entered the employ of Mowbray & Robinson at Quicksand the day previous, George W. Phurrough, whose home was in Arkansas, was killed on the instant while repairing a belt in the mill, of which he was foreman, May 25.  He became entangled in the belt and was whirled to his death.  Phurrough leaves a family.  His body was returned to his Arkansas home for interment. 

George Washington Phurrough was the son of Daniel M. and Lucy (Eads) Phurrough. He was born in July 1867 in the town of Claiborne, the county seat of Ouachita Parrish, Louisiana. On January 18, 1893, Phurrough married Cernia Lee (1872-1933) in a ceremony in Lincoln County, Louisiana.

He moved his bride to Grant County, Louisiana, where he was employed as a millhand. By 1910, his family had grown with the addition of five children living in Bradley County, Arkansas. How he got to Breathitt County is unknown, but somehow he found employment at Quicksand.

A view of the Mowbray & Robinson company housing on the hill above the sawmills at Quicksand. The cemetery is located on the hill to the right in this picture from long ago.

When the Mowbray & Robinson Lumber mills opened, the call went out for workers, and thousands came seeking a better life. The draw of good pay and virgin timberland brought many workers from across the country and many immigrants to the banks of the North Fork and its tributaries. A very diverse community developed at Quicksand that included numerous minorities and followers of various religious beliefs.

His body was taken back to Arkansas and buried with his family. His wife remarried a man maned William T. Wilson (1870-1938). Cerina Lee Phurrough is buried in the McGehee Cemetery in the town of McGhee in Desha County, Arkansas. George’s grave is most likely not marked.

George Phurrough was not the only worker to die in an accident at Quicksand. Stories of severed fingers, shattered ribs, and mangled bodies appeared in the local papers. Many are buried in the small cemetery behind the Dunn Cemetery and the Miles Back Cemetery, high on the hill overlooking the village of Quicksand. Most are unmarked and are known but to God.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
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