essays and articles by david g allen

Asking Uncle Sam to Clean Up Our Trash


James J. "Spike" Haley, the long-time Business Manager of the WV Department of Highways, traveled to Mingo County in 1977 to survey flood damage. The county had been particularly hard hit by heavy rains that year. Spike took one look at the scene and exclaimed, "It’s true! Milk jugs do swim upstream to spawn!"

I always thought that Spike’s observation about milk jugs should go down as one of West Virginia’s greatest anecdotes. He was an eyewitness to Nature’s devastation but he was more taken aback by manmade trash dangling from the trees.

If Spike were with us today, I would ask him to survey Morgantown’s trash problem. I am certain he could amuse us with something just as clever.

It used to be that you descended into Morgantown on two-lane University Avenue with the hillside on your right and the riverfront industrial district on your left. It was this welcoming sight that gave Morgantown its nickname, "Morganhole."

In the last decade, however, University Avenue has been transformed into the Wharf District. Developers began remodeling old buildings and building new ones to create a majestic waterfront that is the envy of every mayor in America. In the same way that the Inner Harbor eliminated Baltimore’s "Block", the Wharf District has done just as well in removing "Morganhole" from our lexicon.

But there remains a problem lingering upstream in the Monongahela River basin. The milk jugs are still spawning!

The Morgantown Lock and Dam traps all kinds of debris. At times, an acre or more of flotsam and jetsam builds up behind the dam and the Corps of Engineers, the dam’s operator, opens a gate to flush it through. This freed school of trash, swimming vigorously to the sea we presume, can be an annoying sight if you’re booked into the 15-story Radisson Hotel or enjoying a concert at the McQuain Pavilion along the rail trail.

The trash problem has led to a letter writing campaign. West Virginians write to Congressman Mollohan. Congressman Mollohan writes to the Corps of Engineers. And the Corps replies to all that their agency is not funded to remove river trash. Their mission, they tell us, is to maintain navigation on the waterway. Rightly so, the Corps has pointed out that if people didn’t throw trash into the streams in the first place, then it wouldn’t collect behind the dam.

But what West Virginian wants to hear that? We already know we cause the problem; we just want the feds to pick up our trash for us! We have sunk so low that we write letters to Congress demanding that federal taxpayers in the other 49 states make amends for our sloth!

Morgantown (as do our rivers) deserves our respect. Morgantown is the one successful, growing city that we have in West Virginia. Business, government, and West Virginia University have joined together to make ‘Motown’ a showcase. Nowhere else in the state do we see this kind of progress.

Morgantown also has a growing international population. Representatives of foreign nations and businesses routinely visit to pursue research ventures. How can we expect Morgantown to be our beacon to the world when we use the Mon River as a sewer? Software Valley, the Mon’s catchy moniker, might soon be heralded as "Vallée de Tupperware" if a French reporter comes to visit.

During his two terms, Governor Gaston Caperton pushed the Adopt A Highway program in order to mitigate our trash problems. I also recall his "Make It Shine" ad campaign which kept this message in the forefront. It is sad and ironic that the rail trail passing by the Morgantown Lock (and the trash) is named in honor of former Governor Caperton.

Congress will likely cajole the Corps of Engineers into removing the Monongahela’s trash. The job will be expensive, perilous for the boathands, and absolutely impossible during the icing season. Were milk jugs more like cicadas, the plan might actually work. But milk jugs spawn 24/7/365.

In the final analysis, the attitudes of West Virginians will not have changed. Once again, we will prove to ourselves that if we whine and cry loud enough and long enough, then Uncle Sam will come hither to pamper us.


David G. Allen, Clarksburg, WV

"Asking Uncle Sam" appeared in the June 18, 2004 issue of the WV State Journal.  Originally sub-titled "Milk Jugs: A popular term meaning white trash."




Copyright 1990-2005  David G. Allen