Kentucky Coal Heritage
Coal Camps & Communities

   
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HISTORIC CONTEXT

Natural Environment In The Eastern Kentucky Cultural Landscape
    Topography
    Soils
    Geology
Company Town History: Introduction
    Early Company Towns: Europe
    Early Company Towns: America
    Company Towns in America Between World Wars
    Company Towns Morphology
Development Of Coal Mining In Eastern Kentucky
    Early Coal Mining: 1790-1860
    Transition To Modern Coal Mining: 1865-1900
    Golden Age Of Coal Mining: 1900-1941
Characteristics Of Coal Company Towns In Eastern Kentucky


NATURAL ENVIRONMENT IN THE EASTERN KENTUCKY CULTURAL LANDSCAPE

    The natural environment influences any area's development, and this is especially true for eastern Kentucky. Since the mid-eighteenth century, when non-Indian explorers first encountered the region, natural conditions have supported a number of activities and discouraged others. Ubiquitous hills have limited transportation choices; astounding coal resources, part of the regional geology, promised to support an extraction industry. These natural conditions made company towns a logical response to resource extraction. In understanding coal towns, it is important to observe environmental factors such as geology, topography, climate, soils, and flora, and to analyze what impact these factors had in shaping cultural resources that define the Eastern Coal field.

Topography

     The rugged landscape of eastern Kentucky has restricted the range of historical activity patterns available to settlers. Travel routes, settlement patterns, and industrial production all defer to the contours of the landscape more so than in other portions of the state. Much of the essence of eastern Kentucky coal towns derives from the physical condition into which they are placed.

     The Eastern Kentucky Cultural Landscape roughly coincides with the Kentucky portion of the Cumberland Plateau, an area of about 11,180 square miles that has been dissected into networks of narrow winding valleys separated into steep watersheds. The region's numerous mountain streams drain into five major waterways, the Licking, Big and Little Sandy, the Cumberland and the Kentucky, all of which originate in the region. (Verhoeff: 5-9).

     Elevations within the study area conform to the general trend of the rest of the state, that is, higher elevations from west to east. Three general areas have been defined for Eastern Kentucky: the Pottsville escarpment on the west, which separates the region from the Pennyroyal and Bluegrass Cultural Landscapes; the west-central plateau east of the escarpment which supports some livestock farming; and the mountainous eastern area under which vast coal reserves rest (Karan and Mather, 110-114). The highest point is White Rock at 4451? feet. The majority of level land occurs in narrow river and creek valleys of widths varying from a few yards to rarely more than a mile. Middlesboro is an exceptional case, a city covering a broad basin that stretches four miles east-west and three miles north-south, surrounded by mountains rising more than 1000 feet above the town.

     The general settlement patterns and town types that arose in eastern Kentucky were responsive to this topographic condition. The placement of and distance between buildings did and does reflect social factors (Martin: ) but still must make sense according to physical and spatial pressures. The need of a company town, that is, the housing of many people in a restricted location, often conflicted with the possibilities of terrain. The results of the play between company town need and environmental reality gives definition to Kentucky's coal towns. Company town typology and the specifics of Kentucky company town configuration are discussed in respective sections, below.

back to the top


Soils

    The soils of eastern Kentucky have been characterized as thin and mineral-poor (citation ). Soil composition, the basis for successful farming, derives from its geological foundation. The sandstone underlying most of eastern Kentucky does not decay into beneficial minerals as do the limestone's in areas to the west. Due to this aspect of soil content, along with poorly developed transportation and market definition, crops from this part of the state were not grown to surpluses for marketing outside of the locality in which they were grown (Moore: 222-227, 233).

     Coal towns came to a region of Kentucky that was populated by family farms. Many eastern Kentuckians who left farms for work in coal towns brought a tradition of small-scale agriculture which could be practiced in some form in this new setting. Surveyors who study individual sites and towns should attempt to determine whether personal gardens existed on the study site and whether such gardens reflect traditional or imported attitudes toward farming and space utilization. Some attempt should be made to identify whether community garden plots ever were made available.

back to the top


Geology

     The layers of minerals underlying the surface have provided inhabitants of Eastern Kentucky with abundant building materials, the foundation for marginal agriculture, and rich mineable resources. Lower to Middle Pennsylvanian-age sandstones vastly predominate the underground rock strata, with occurrences of shale's and conglomerates much less often (see Map # , Generalized Geological Map, 1979). Pioneers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries found marketable products in the regions geology: salt, iron ore, oil, tar, and saltpeter from subsurface sources (Niquette and Henderson 74-78; Verhoef: 37; Scalf ; Jillson: 15-20; 1820 census). Coal production eclipsed these materials shortly before the Civil War.

     The abundant stone near the surface provided a potential building material for eastern Kentucky company town structures. This potential, though, seems to have been little realized. Neither developers of company towns, nor their public/private counterparts, chose to construct many eastern Kentucky buildings in stone. This is something of a surprise given the number of stone quarries operating during the 1920s, a period of rapid coal town development. Stone served the needs of many builders for foundations, chimneys, and for landscaping even though it saw limited use in wall construction. Because of its many potential uses both inside and outside of dwelling construction, stone production is discussed at length here.

     A survey of the state's quarries in the 1920s revealed that eastern Kentucky possessed 30% of the state's counties and 20.9% of the state's quarries (Richardson: 107). This compares with the Bluegrass area which consisted of a comparable portion of counties but held 56.8% of the state's quarries (Richardson: 201). Central Kentucky's more numerous quarries fed an appetite for construction of stone residences, commercial and public buildings, a legacy which remains in evidence today. The products of Eastern Kentucky quarries, however, went into less prominent destinations: curbing, roadwork, culverts, retaining walls, chimneys, and water related structures such as bridges and locks and dams (Richardson: 61-107).

     The taste for native stone buildings presented itself in eastern Kentucky's county seat towns. The need for stone to construct monumental building types led to the opening of many quarries within the city limits. Richardson mentions numerous churches, county jails, coal corporation offices, and banks erected with local masonry materials (61, 72, 75-80, 82, 89, 94, 100). A more subtle but essential use in areas with hilly terrain is in the many retaining walls. These are mentioned generally by Richardson, although he notes several in Somerset which were recycled from dwellings constructed 1835-1850 (94).

     Stone, it appears, did not achieve prominence as either an exported product drawn from commercial quarries or in local dwelling wall construction. Richardson mentions only a few buildings resulting from Sparks Quarry, a mammoth Rockcastle County operation, from which four acres of stone had been removed, exposing as much as 150' of the quarry's rock face. Quarries in Rowan County stood as the survey area's only significant effort to market building stone outside of the county where the quarry was located. From this northern sector of the study area came stone with trade names such as Kentucky bluestone, Rowan County freestone, and Buena Vista sandstone (Richardson: 100-104; McGrain: 7-9).

     The difficulty of moving quarried stone limited the distance of such quarries to about two miles from the construction site. Consequently, many quarries in the coal field were within or just outside the corporate limits of county seat towns. One exception to this trend were quarries operated by railroads, often opened during construction of the railroad cuts. These quarries were not near the scene of construction, but their proximity to a means of transportation and their serendipitous discovery made their operation feasible. With so many company towns being established as quickly as railroads could punch their lines into the mountains, it is reasonable to suspect that the stone byproduct of that construction would have been a cheap and plentiful material obtained by coal town builders. Once the fieldwork phase of this project is underway, surveyors should be sensitive to the presence of such quarried stone in company town structures and land development.

     Current information in the Heritage Council Historic Resources Data File, that is the computerized information on recorded sites, shows relatively little evidence of buildings with rock walls in the survey area. Field survey in the 35-county study area has recorded 128 structures with stone exteriors. This is 6.04% of the total number of 2118 sites. Building types most commonly found in stone in Eastern Kentucky are commercial (22), schools/education related (20), residences (16), churches (16), jail/city/county buildings (15). Other less numerous types which have been recorded include furnaces, post offices, libraries, banks, hospitals, and stone monuments.

     Survey in one large coal town, Lynch, found probably the region's most concentrated occurrence of stone construction. Sites recorded include stone grade and high schools, United Methodist Church and Education center, Hospital, Catholic Church, Company Store, Bank and Post Office, Bathhouse, and Fire Station. These sites, among HL-L-3 through HL-L-17, appear to contain the type of sandstone quarried in the region. Even with a high number of stone public buildings, Lynch houses were dominated by wood frame and clapboard construction, typical of most towns encountered. The Survey information for other coal towns did not reveal comparable collections of stone buildings. For instance, stone does appear as trim in a number of brick public buildings in Benham, but this is the type of dressed limestone which is surely imported from outside the region.

     A true curiosity among buildings constructed from indigenous geological materials is the Coal House in Middlesboro (BL-M-116). This structure, erected with walls of coal, is a unique promotional tool that signals the mineral's economic importance to the area more so than it suggests the suitability of coal for construction purposes.

     From this selective documentary and survey information, geology has had a more indirect than direct influence on landscape change in eastern Kentucky. The subsurface materials drew capital to the Eastern Coal field, which opened mines and led to the construction of buildings to house mine workers. Concurrent activity revolving around industry and commerce led to the construction of appropriate buildings, as well. But the abundant sandstone resources were not extracted and tooled into a significant number of structures. Sawn lumber houses and, after about 1915, brick buildings for commercial/public/industrial uses, seem to be the common landscape features associated with company towns.

back to the top


COMPANY TOWN HISTORY: INTRODUCTION

    Eastern Kentucky coal company towns existed before the Civil War (Scalf: 200-205; McBride and McBride: 24; McClure: 148), but their history prior to 1880 is poorly documented. Even after the turn of the century, when permanent record keeping became vital to logistical control of mining operations, studies of company towns have included only a fraction of the entire population.

    This dearth of documentary information increases the historical value of material resources, because they can provide data about Kentucky's coal town history that primary and secondary documentary information cannot. But only a fraction of the total of historic material resources are intact. Consequently, our understanding of company-owned towns depends upon a successful dialogue between documentary data and facts from the built environment.

    The field survey phase of this project will concentrate on defining company town forms in Kentucky. Those forms can be compared with each other to better know company town characteristics which are typical of the Eastern Kentucky landscape region. The research will also consider relevant local factors such as topography, cultural patterns, and the early development of coal mining in Appalachian Kentucky as a means to interpret field findings.

    But before attempting to recognize what is distinct about eastern Kentucky coal towns, the characteristics which relate to company town building generally must be examined. That is, by analyzing the range of company town expressions, what was adapted to the particular Kentucky situation can be explored.


Early Company Towns: Europe

    The British practice of the company-owned town predates American examples, the former having evolved from medieval origins (Holdsworth, 1989). Centuries ago, owners of manorial estates assembled a resident workforce to meet the numerous responsibilities of the property, those tasks being primarily agricultural. In the late 17th century coal became a marketable commodity, exported to cities from the hinterlands, and owners of large estates with coal deposits organized their laborers and housing to take advantage of this resource. The dwellings erected for coal gatherers resembled that for the manor's agricultural workers. This housing drew upon folk forms and possessed an architectural simplicity, perhaps being constructed by the prospective tenant himself. Some early examples exhibited a repetition of form as row housing or cottages with small lots--characteristics which would become the norm for company housing.

    With technology and transportation as limiting factors, coal mining developed at a modest and accretionary pace. Eighteenth century England witnessed a tremendous variability in the organization of this industry and its attendant housing situation. A company town might have begun as a farm that spilled over into a larger settlement, or as a small isolated mining concern that grew incrementally, or as a large settlement from the start.

    The terms of habitation for the miner varied as well. Housing may have been provided by the company--for rent or, depending upon the demand for miners, rent free. In other instances, speculators bought land and erected rental housing for miners. A few miners even purchased their homes. Given the nature of the industry's development, two or three of these ownership scenarios may have coexisted at a single mine. As would be the case for the next two centuries, the particular expression of company housing at a given site was influenced by access to capital, property, and technology (Holdsworth, 1989).

    Europe contains company housing which is striking in its architectural appearance and social benefits. Qualities which distinguish it from housing for American miners include more permanent construction, i.e., use of brick and stucco as exterior materials; more ornate architectural detailing; more employment of row housing. Surviving communities also may have had more recreational and social facilities than their American counterparts. Relatively early, British government addressed the issue of miner housing by passing Working Class Acts of 1890, 1900, and 1903. These encouraged establishment of industrial villages through a system of low-cost loans (Meakin, 1905: 416, 447). With lower financing costs, owners could provide a beneficial environment more inexpensively.

back to the top


Early Company Towns: America

    Magnusson, writing for the U.S. Department of Labor, found evidence of company housing in America as early as industrial processes themselves: New England textile mill towns dating to 1791. Other such towns were found in Delaware by 1831 and in southern states about the same time. Brady's Bend, Pennsylvania, grew into an iron-worker's town from land purchased in 1839 by Brady's Bend Iron Company. By the 1850s steel towns appeared in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Company-owned towns in Pennsylvania's anthracite coal region were established by 1840, thirty years before the earliest company-owned towns in the bituminous coal fields of Pennsylvania and West Virginia (Magnusson, 1920: 7-8).

    Magnusson and others generally have maintained this chronology, which implies that settlers during America's colonial period obtained manufactured goods without company towns. While it seems safe to assume that the majority of manufactured goods either were imported from abroad or produced in home or in small factories, the possibility of very early company towns in America should be considered. Studies of early company towns rarely point to the several company towns in Kentucky existing well in advance of the Civil War (eg., Maysville, 18 in Pusey: 123-135). Such omissions call into question the comprehensiveness of these studies. If pre-Revolutionary War company towns can be found and their current physical and archeological presence investigated, the genesis and character of early American company towns will be more complete. Without that background, current studies discuss the nature of early company towns in America as having sprung into existence a few decades prior to the Civil War.

    Entrepreneurs of America's formative industries established their operations in similar fashion. The need for a source of power stood as a primary factor in choosing a location. Many early factories were stationed at an existing power source, usually water, even though steam power afforded owners more site opportunities by the early nineteenth century. Obviously, the location of mineral deposits had a greater bearing upon the location of mining operations. Regardless of the location, these incipient factories changed American society by moving production away from the home site. However, when industries were sufficiently remote from urban areas, plant owners needed to move homes to the workplace. Hence, the early company towns.

    Industrialists in the first half of the nineteenth century did not opt immediately for isolated work communities. Many opened factories in or near existing cities to take advantage of the nearby workforce and existing infrastructure. But the marriage between community and factory was a rocky one judging from the number of remedial experiments in model factory districts within cities, and flights to rural utopian communities.

    Francis Cabot Lowell founded in 1820 a town bearing his name with a solution based upon housing organization. He placed the many women workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, into boarding houses and tenements. Lowell reasoned that the unity of many workers in multi-unit housing, along with the many houses in a single city, produced a heightened sense of solidarity of purpose, and an identification between worker and work. The town's configuration became a model for hundreds of New England textile towns (Roth: 318; Sande:).

    Other dwelling arrangements and community isolation were attempted. In 1841, Christian Scientists sought a utopian community in Hopedale, Massachusetts. Textile operations in the town housed workers in duplexes, fourplexes, and eight-family apartments, with some dwellings of 1600 square feet (Meakin, 1905: 382-416).

    Throughout the nineteenth century company town owners experimented with a variety of town arrangements. Perhaps the key aspect of these places relative to eastern Kentucky coal towns is that their owners established them as a means of managing their workforce. Owners recognized early that employee control was affected not only by tangibles, such as management practices, as well as by the manipulation of tangible public and private spaces. Their effort to influence worker behavior by environmental control expressed itself in many ways, according to the interests of the employer. Paternalistic company owners provided housing intended to develop loyalty and to maintain a healthy workforce. Less paternalistic owners made low housing costs the priority, and offered sub-standard accommodations with little concern for the impact on the inhabitant. Within Kentucky, examples of both approaches were employed.

    Given the limitless potential for owners to exercise their power over the environment of company towns, it is no surprise that abuses became commonplace. Workers in nineteenth century company towns were much the victims of personal whims of the owner. Even after civil planning emerged as a science in the early twentieth century, many owners resisted influences which appeared to reduce their control of the community. In assessing the situation, one observed, "Most mine owners decide for themselves...and you have a mining town" (Miller, 1918: 130). Miller appealed to the owner's self interest to accept the benevolence imbedded in planning theory. He suggested that when civil engineers took the raw material of a site and turned it into a humane working town, the owner realized sufficient profits to offset the start-up costs.

     Many owners rejected that logic. They focused on quick return and reduced costs by constructing cheaper housing. Many workers shared a sense of having lost control over their destiny, whether they lived in an isolated town or a factory district within a city. In the latter part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, social critics, reformers, journalists and fiction writers focused national attention upon problems associated with the industrial workforce. These voices, joined by ongoing worker strikes and unionization efforts, demonstrated that company housing contributed to the ills of the workplace.

    Still there were those who clung to the belief that the spatial plan of the company townscape provided the framework for workplace improvement. As early as 1898, William Howe Tolman and Josiah Strong formed the League for Social Service and the New York Social Museum to promote "industrial betterment," especially in planned industrial towns. Many within the early twentieth century academic community believed "the industrial town...provided a laboratory for the emerging profession of urban planning" (Wright: 177-180).

    While at the same time social engineers (eg. Knowles, 1920: 6-7) blamed improper paternalistic attitude and lack of benevolent social structures for the failure of even well-planned communities such as Pullman, Illinois (1880-85) and Gary, Indiana (1906)--most maintained a faith in the virtues of proper design.

    During the first third of the twentieth century, those outside or on the fringes of academic circles also held an interest in industrial communities. For instance, the federal government fostered tremendous growth in the number of factory cities to supply the war effort, many of which converted to peacetime production after the First World War. One estimate suggested that the government established 500 such towns between 1914-17 (Huebner: 720). The Camp Planning Section of the War Department brought together architects, landscape professionals, and civil engineers to arrange factory towns. The U.S. Housing Corporation, through its Town Planning Division, established 128 industrial communities with a total of 19,100 dwellings at munitions production sites. The Emergency Fleet Corporation, under the control of the U.S. Shipping Board, helped accommodate tremendous growth in the ship-building efforts by planning 27 towns with a total of 8841 houses (Newton: 479-480; Knowles: 7).

    These installations symbolized a new industrial-urban age to post-war optimists (eg., Knowles, 1920: 6). Industry journals and popular magazines either testified to successful incarnations of the company town, or promoted visions of ideal industrial communities which balanced the owner's need for control with worker's need for comfort, health, and a sense of well-being (eg., Huebner: 717-720; Miller: 130-132).

    Others, however, could not deny that the perils of nineteenth century company towns simply became more entrenched. Government agencies also sought ways to improve obviously poor conditions at these places, and so, ordered studies of them. Magnusson and others who completed those studies offer an in-depth glimpse of company towns at the time when eastern Kentucky's coal towns were at their peak.

back to the top


Company Towns in America Between World Wars

    Magnusson published in 1920 results of a survey of 213 American industries which provided housing for employees. The groups studied included mining of copper, bituminous and anthracite coal, and manufacture of iron, steel, textiles, and explosives. He found enough shared characteristics to suggest typical features of all company towns.

    The company townscape exhibited a uniform appearance. The absence of visual interest was the rule, a result from repeated building designs. The lack of trees and other landscaping did not mitigate that sterile appearance of rows of identical houses. Much of the infrastructure available in contemporary urban settings was missing: paved roads, water mains, sewer systems, and lights were generally non-existent. Only in the model towns were these amenities provided (1920: pp. 11-13).

    The house of choice was a four-room (two bedrooms) detached frame structure without plumbing or electricity. Magnusson also noted regional variations of house types: Box bungalows in the south, southwest, and west; northern cities had more gabled frame residences; eastern mining towns held two-family structures. These houses generally were valued at $600-1000, varying by region. Magnusson reported the cost of ready-cut houses purchased from companies such as Alladin, Radford, Montgomery Ward, and Sears as being somewhat higher, $1200-1500 (1920: pp. 13-14). This contrasts with the recommended costs of minimal housing for workers in a 22' x 26' structure to be $3500 (Knowles, 1920: 17). Obviously, the reality Magnusson found fell far short of the ideal.

    These characteristics of company towns and their housing should become a basis for comparison when surveying eastern Kentucky coal towns. Researchers should attempt to collect data for the same categories used by Magnusson as a means by which to compare field examples with similar others. These comparisons, with proper analysis, can form the basis for evaluations of historical significance.

back to the top


Company Town Morphology

    While Magnusson focused on housing and the public services of company towns, other early twentieth century social engineers viewed company towns as a whole, an organic unit. Their work has much to offer in defining categories of company towns into which to define Kentucky's coal towns. Recent historical examinations have frequently used some such categorization scheme to understand company towns. Most latter-day studies of company town forms have been restricted to a single state or small region and have attempted to define the patterning of dwellings relative to each other and to town areas with commercial-public-service buildings.

    Leland H. Roth offers four townscape plans which dominated company towns by the last decade of the nineteenth century. Roth's categories can be reduced to two, the grid vs. curvilinear town plan. Within each type is a subtype: architect designed vs. non-architect designed houses.

    The most basic, and perhaps most common, type consisted of housing arranged along a grid of streets, all designed by the company engineer and built by company labor. In some instances local contractors were employed to construct houses in this frugal town form. The second type began with the same grid, but incorporated a few houses designed by professional architects. These ostentatious homes customarily were reserved for the skilled laborers and managers. By reserving larger, more desirable homes for those higher on the corporate ladder, the hierarchy of labor pushed its way into the miners' personal lives. Mulrooney also analyzed this relationship between hierarchy and housing in Pennsylvania coal towns (pp. 115-121).

    The third type of company town is distinguished by an overall design of curvilinear streets, the marks of professional planners or landscape architects, but with prosaic housing throughout. The addition of architect-designed dwellings to curvilinear streets defines the fourth type. Roth's classification system views town forms on an aesthetic-economic spectrum, starting with the dullest and least expensive and progressing to forms exhibiting the most influence of several design specialists (Roth: 320-321).

     Richard M. Candee also classifies company towns within a four-type system which can be reduced to two types: the "Rhode Island" and "Waltham" systems. Contrasted with Roth, the diagnostic feature is the scale of capital activities: the presence-absence of landscape planning, the types and functions of structures utilized, and methods of wage distribution and product purchasing.

     The Rhode Island system refers to small time operations with few features beyond those providing minimal needs: a factory, family housing, company store, and outlying agricultural fields. These towns tended to be owner-operated, or joint ventures between an investor and machinist. The placement of buildings in these towns appears unrelated to the dictates of either grid or gothic curves; rather, they meander or cluster according to the advantage of terrain or to personal preference of the owner. Wages tended to be credit toward purchases in the company store and for room and board. A subtype of the Rhode Island system found clusters of two or more such villages lining a river and sharing the common power source. These towns depended upon independent speculators to develop the non-company owned land surrounding the village(s) for civic, commercial, and other non-industrial uses. The Rhode Island towns may serve as a model to describe the earliest Kentucky company towns, especially those whose identity is currently not known.

     Towns grouped within the Waltham system, named for the Massachusetts town associated with Francis Cabot Lowell's operation, evidenced more entrepreneurial development. A corporation established these as large operations with site plans guiding construction, with growth anticipated, and with an array of amenities found in traditional cities. These were self-contained entities, with skilled machinists who repaired equipment or installed new weaving machines as they were developed. Investors paid workers on a cash basis and sought their business in a diverse commercial district. Some clusters of Waltham system towns existed, having been created by large holding corporations who united several manufacturing corporations. Land between and around the cluster towns appreciated tremendously due to the influx of capital, and so was sold to investors who developed the property for mercantile, civic, and residential purposes.

     Candee's two town types explain the ways in which the three important factors Holdsworth named (capital, technology, property) all play a special role in defining land use in company towns. Caudill, Eller, and others have observed that the largest eastern Kentucky coal towns, as with the Waltham System towns, were giant undertakings whose presence in an area had ripple effects on fringe developments. Enterprising private merchants located on company town outskirts to sell goods, and perhaps to rent houses built on speculation. Candee's models should help surveyors to be sensitive to the identity and historic use of land areas between company towns and nearby incorporated towns, such as Harlan, or between two large company towns, such as Benham and Lynch.

    Mack Gillenwater classified West Virginia coal towns according to their relation to transportation corridors. With similar terrain and transportation barriers in West Virginia and Kentucky, his categories hold promise for describing the situation of coal towns in Kentucky.

     Gillenwater found linear towns, those settlements along a road, trail, or valley stream, in 24% of the communities surveyed. Settlements in a cruciform configuration grew from linear towns that crossed. These were most numerous, found in 43% of the study area. The block form is Gillenwater's designation for the grid form. Its suitability to level terrain, confronted with the mountainous topography, caused this form to appear only 12% of the time. A fourth type, fragmented settlements, resulted from a lack of planning or combinations of the other three types. This type also was a response to steep elevations, occurring in 20% of the communities (pp. 57-64). The image of linear towns is strongly associated with Kentucky coal towns, but may be no more representative there than Gillenwater found them in West Virginia. Comprehensive survey will help reveal actual percentages of town forms in Kentucky. Once survey defines the proportion of each town form in the Eastern Coal Field, those ratios can be compared with similar data from West Virginia for the purpose of comparison. Analyses that determine the frequency of particular coal town forms and attempt to explain the factors in their selection help support the assertion of significance.

     Gillenwater also found an overwhelming preference for locating the town on a valley floor as opposed to hillside terraces. Most of the hillside towns were born of necessity, in valleys so narrow that only work buildings fit inside (pp. 51-56). Some larger Kentucky coal towns, eg., Garrett (Floyd County) an Jenkins (Letcher County) survive with this arrangement and call for further investigation of the reasons for and against hillside usage.

     In Company Towns in the American West, James B. Allen concentrated more on the temporal sequence of town establishment than on its spatial dimensions. Because these towns were isolated in a region of the country that was sparsely populated to begin with, the transformation from a camp populated by bachelor miners to more conventional town of families was a slow process (Allen: 77). Allen found owners courting workers by operating the company store at a loss--a reverse of the situation for company stores in the Appalachian coal field. Also, many owners offered land to those who wished to build and own their houses (Allen: 92-93).

     Literature concerning the Appalachian coal field after 1880 points to only one instance of miner-owned-and-built housing, Himlerville, in Martin County, Kentucky (Perry, 1991). Literature notes some occasions in which mine town owners and operators offered workers more decision-making opportunities and the power to make decisions that affected their environment. Surveyors who investigate entire towns should attempt to define areas which show how workers could personalize their individual or common space.

     The earliest phase of the Eastern Coal Field's development may follow Allen's model. Some attempts to lure workers to the state's earliest coal operations seem akin to Allen's "camp" phase. If these locations are found and investigated archeologically, researchers should allow for the possibility of miner-owned-and-built structures and the impact of that arrangement on the town's spatial organization.

     Arnold Alanen offers other classifications for mining towns, dividing Lake Superior mining sites into two groups, town site or locations. The latter include those places where the company has full control of affairs. In town sites, on the other hand, company and municipal governmental share control. He, like Allen, also classifies settlements according to the rate of development. His continuum includes the temporary camp locations, the company location, and model town locations (1979: 50-51).

     His model is useful to remind researchers in Kentucky coal fields to look for settlements which combined company housing and city administration. Independently established towns, such as county seats in the heart of the coal field, would have been ideal places for companies to erect many houses. Harlan and Hazard would be two likely candidates, but such portions of these towns are not known to the author to have been owned by coal companies for workers' housing.

back to the top


DEVELOPMENT OF COAL MINING IN EASTERN KENTUCKY

    The presence of coal in eastern Kentucky has long been recognized. Journals of the earliest non-Indian explorers of Kentucky noted the abundance of coal in the eastern hill country. By the late eighteenth century, bold entrepreneurs attempted to exploit the region's wealth through some kind of mining activity. As a result, Kentucky's Eastern Coal Field out-produced the Western Field yearly until the Civil War when railroads began a steady advance into the western part of the state.

     Kentucky, as many states in the Appalachian region, experienced phenomenal development of its coal reserves after the turn of the twentieth century. The state ranked ninth in the country in 1889, with 2,400,000 tons mined, and even after the annual rate of production increased fivefold from the levels 20 years before, Kentucky only rose a notch to number eight nationally. Railroads opened up the richest sections of the Eastern Coal Field in the 'teens, allowing the state nearly to triple annual production rates from 1909-1919, for a ranking of fifth nationally. Kentucky jumped to third in 1929, after another doubling of annual production rates within ten years. By the close of the 1920s only perennial leader in coal production, Pennsylvania, along with West Virginia and Illinois, rivaled or surpassed Kentucky's totals (See table 1; Sources: 1910 Census, Vol. XI: p. 187; 1930 Census, Mines and Quarries: p. 255). These increases in coal production depended upon a labor force far beyond eastern Kentucky's native population. Coal towns were essential to support this explosive industrial growth.

Table 1: Coal Production Among Leading Bituminous Coal Mining States

 

1889

1909

1919

1929

Pennsylvania

81,719

255,481

325,089

144,111

West Virginia

6,232

137,305

150,030

139,031
Kentucky

2,400

10,561

29,42660,894
Illinois

12,404

50,896

60,33160,705
Ohio

9,977

27,863

24,09135,141

Early Coal Mining in Eastern Kentucky: 1790-1860

    Thomas Walker in 1750 and Christopher Gist the following year, observed abundant coal in the area which would become eastern Kentucky. Two years before Kentucky broke from Virginia to become a state, the first coal production was reported in the area around Beattyville, the present day seat of Lee County. Lee County yields rose steadily from 20 tons in 1790 until 1819 when production rose to 1600 tons. Also before 1800, iron furnaces near Owingsville in present-day Bath County employed the plentiful fuel in the production of implements, utensils, and, a little later, in making weapons for the war of 1812. From 1820, production in both the Eastern and Western Coal Fields increased, peaking at 56,000 tons in the Western Field and 74,600 tons in the Eastern Field by 1860. Each year until the Civil War, eastern Kentucky counties out produced their western counterparts, despite limitations in moving the product (Currens and Smith: 11-32; Jillson, 1924: 6-15).

    Lee County garnered early attention for its coal resources probably as much because the three branches of the Kentucky River converged there. The Beattyville Enterprise (April 15, 1910), recounted that Philadelphia merchant Thomas Flahoven, ca. 1797, bought 17823 acres in the Three Forks area, near the present-day seat of Lee County. Flahoven purchased mining supplies from Lexington merchants Gallatin and Fishal and in 1806 took supplies and several miners to his site. Flahoven died in December of 1807, apparently without selling enough coal to entice others to improve on his efforts (McClure: 148). Perhaps for a year, something of a company town might have operated at the site. Its location is unknown.

    A similar notion appears in a December, 1805 advertisement in the Frankfort Palladium. A Lexington merchant, William Leavy, advertised 18,000 acres near the Three Forks of the Kentucky River and noted the presence of coal near by the stream. He tempted prospective buyers with coal consumption in Kentucky's growing cities: Lexington, 162.5 tons and Frankfort, 62.5 tons (Collins, V. 1, 407-408). Eavenson (pp. 300-303) offers additional examples of commercial coal production in eastern Kentucky prior to the 1820s.

    Despite the efforts by land speculators or early mine operators, the movement of eastern Kentucky coal to urban areas increased slowly during the antebellum period. At least two factors dominated the marketing of coal. First, coal was adopted as a heating source and industrial fuel only gradually prior to the Civil War. During this period Kentuckians relied upon ubiquitous stands of wood for home heating. A certain amount of encouragement was needed before coal could displace wood as the fuel of choice. Geologist W.W. Mather provided some impetus for the switch in a report to the Kentucky legislature in 1838. He noted the many advantages of coal over wood. For instance, $1.00 bought ten bushels of coal while a cord of wood cost $2.50. While these amounts possessed comparable heating value, coal weighed one third as much, consumed one ninth the bulk, and required one-quarter the labor to be brought to the consumer. In addition to residential use, Kentucky iron works and steam-powered mills began to turn to coal. The mineral was also exported from the state in increasing amounts--to iron works in Nashville and to Louisiana sugar boiling plants. Burgeoning river traffic boosted consumption: riverboats required around 200 bushels per day (Mather: 255-257).

    The second factor affecting the acceptance of coal was the difficulty in transporting it. By the 1830s coal was known to underlay nearly all of the Appalachian area of Kentucky (see, eg., Mather, 1838). However, the amount of coal taken from eastern Kentucky and the place where it could be mined profitably depended more upon transportation access than upon the thickness of the coal seam. During the antebellum period coal was transported over land in wagons and by water in barges.

    Overland transport of the mineral proved to be feasible for local consumption only, due to the difficulty of hauling the mineral. Straight, level, regional roads which would have made hauling economically viable, were nearly non-existent. Roadbuilding in much of nineteenth-century eastern Kentucky was strictly a local affair. In this very democratic process, those who used the roads determined their course, paid for their construction, and were responsible for the road's maintenance. Residents of county precincts provided the materials and labor to build and improve roads, and the county financed bridge construction. (Verhoeff: 44-45).

    Some regional roads were present: Wilderness Road, Big Sandy Trail, Red River-Pound Gap, and the North Fork Trail, and state roads snaking their way to more accessible destinations, such as Manchester and Winchester. Privately funded toll roads and wagon roads financed by the State Board of Internal Improvements cut new travel paths into the mountains. But these pathways did not result in dramatic increases in coal output during the first half of the nineteenth century (Verhoeff: 78-96, 131). The amount of coal in eastern Kentucky exceeded the ability of roads and wagons to carry it far from the mine. The scale of mining for local use did not require the amount of labor which called company towns into being.

    Mining on a grander scale in eastern Kentucky took place in areas within easy access of water transportation. Meaningful amounts were produced in Greenup (beginning in 1824, and shipped via the Ohio River), McCreary (1827, via Big South Fork of the Cumberland), Clay (1829, via Goose Creek tributary of the Kentucky River), Breathitt (1837, via North and Middle Forks of the Kentucky River), Morgan (1837, via Licking River), and Lawrence (1838, via Levisa Fork and Big Sand River) Counties. Land around the Laurel and Rockcastle Rivers, which form the southern line of present-day Laurel County, was an established scene of coal mining well before the Civil War (Currens and Smith: 11-32; Scalf: 132-133).

    Kentucky lawmakers in 1837 probed the dependence of mining on water transportation by appointing a committee to study that relationship. Findings recommended ways that the state could increase coal production by joining the national frenzy for canal building. The committee reported that from 1834-1837, seventy-five to one-hundred flatboats left Kentucky for Tennessee markets annually--a healthy traffic even without waterway improvements (Mather: 263). Improvements included removal of debris, channel digging, and lock and dam construction. Locks and dams had been applied to the Licking, Little Sandy, and Kentucky Rivers by 1840. These internal improvements made establishment of perhaps the earliest coal company town, Peach Orchard, near Prestonsburg, feasible.

    Prestonsburg, in Floyd County, became an established commercial and mining center on the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River during the 1830s and 1840s. Steamboats reached the town in 1837, allowing enterprising businessmen to trade in Cincinnati markets. Ambitious sorts, such as partners May and Griffith, diversified their efforts by engaging in saw and grist milling, as well as coal mining (Scalf: 198-199).

    During the late 1840s Cincinnati capitalists took aim at the resource rich land around Prestonsburg. Archibald Miles of Cincinnati bought 110 acres south of Prestonsburg between 1845-1847, on which he built houses, mills, and a boat yard. It is not clear that coal mining was part of Miles' business which he sold in 1853 to escape debt. In 1849 Peach Orchard was initiated; by 1852 it consisted of 40 houses, a saw mill, steam grist mill, storehouse, shops, and a stable. Workers loaded 6000-8000 bushels of coal per day. In addition to coal, Peach Orchard's owners, Great Western Mining and Manufacturing Company, also built the coal barges and prefabricated houses to float downstream (Scalf: 200-205).

    Coal barges are an important but vanished artifact of this period of coal mining. Such boats were as necessary to mining activity as would be the company town two generations later. These vessels were caulked poplar rafts, 60'- 70' long with sides 8' high and could hold 1750-3500 bushels. They were built and filled during the fall and winter months. The bottom of the boat was built first, coated with waterproofing material. The strenuous process of turning over the many boat bottoms for final assembly became a tremendous social event celebrated with moonshine and other brews. Once loaded, the barges floated down streams swollen by spring rains, where the cargo was sold. After the conclusion of their journey, the boats were dismantled for use in construction, and the captains began a journey home on foot. The transitory nature of these boats caused shipbuilding and timbering to become important industries that supported coal mining (Watson: 50-51).

    The search for antebellum coal company towns is hampered by poor record keeping within the coal industry. One illustration of that deficiency is the difference in estimates of early coal usage in Frankfort. Leavy suggested Frankfort used 62.5 tons of coal in 1805; Jillson places consumption at 200 tons annually from 1800-1810 (Jillson, 1924: 15). The discrepancy between these rates of coal use is inimical to establishing reliable coal usage patterns and other factors which would have encouraged the creation of coal company towns.

    Furthering the difficulty in pinpointing nascent coal activity is that the earliest documented sales of coal and coal land in eastern Kentucky stretch back no further than 1827 (Verhoeff: 37; Sandman: i). While the earliest coal production figures are sometimes estimates, production amounts reported in Currens and Smith exhibit a regularity seems reliable. Perhaps the effort to locate antebellum coal towns should start with those production totals, concentrating survey efforts in counties with the highest activity.

back to the top


Transition to Modern Coal Mining in Eastern Kentucky: 1865-1900

    In the second half of the nineteenth century transportation continued to influence the coal industry as much as any factor. By the close of the period railroads had made a few passes across the Eastern Coal Field. The region's secondary waterways, less predictable as a means of transport, declined in importance for coal shipping though continued to serve as an important channel for vast timber resources taken from the area. Because the Western Coal Field enjoyed more level terrain and more navigable streams, it surpassed the Eastern Field in production annually until after 1910. Nonetheless, the eastern Kentucky rail lines completed during this thirty-five year period were of vital importance because they laid a foundation for opening the more remote, and more lucrative, reaches of the Eastern Coal Field. The identification of coal communities from this period will be facilitated by plotting the course of railroad development and the communities which resulted from that activity.

    Industrialists and other speculators recognized the profits from extending rail lines into eastern Kentucky would offset the huge expense of negotiating steep grades and twisted stream valleys. As early as the 1850s companies had begun to extend rails from the main waterways into the coalfield. For instance, the Lexington and Big Sandy Railroad Company received estimates that each acre of land within a mile of their right of way contained 5,000 tons of coal (Mather, 1854); within two years they laid thirteen miles of track that connected Rush in southwest Boyd County to Ashland by 1856 (Sulzer: 145). The presence of a number of mid- to late-nineteenth century vernacular houses in and near Rush should be investigated for possible connections with this middle period of coal mining.

    Bold plans by Boston capitalists John and Nathaniel Thayer, and merchant George Hunnewell, were initiated immediately after the Civil War. They hoped to connect Greenup town with the Southern Atlantic and Ohio Railroad at the breaks of the Big Sandy River in Pike County, reaping the benefit of natural resources along the way (Sulzer: 140). The investors formed the Argillite Mining and Manufacturing Company in 1865, and gave the name Argillite to their mining town railhead six-and-one-half miles south of Greenup on the Ohio River. Argillite Mining sold its railroad to the Eastern Kentucky Railway Company in 1870 for much-needed capital. Eastern Kentucky Railway pushed through Greenup to its terminus at Webbville in Lawrence County, unearthing coal, iron, and timber resources along the way.

    Other early players included the Cumberland River and Big Sandy Railroad Company, which in 1873 sought to stretch from Cumberland Gap to Louisa where it would connect with the Elizabethtown, Lexington, and Big Sandy Railroad. Also in 1873 the Chatteroi Railroad incorporated to run northward to the mouth of the Big Sandy in Boyd County from Peach Orchard in Lawrence County; by 1882 the 45 miles were complete (Scalf: 205-207).

    These early efforts were watched carefully, and did not touch off a wild rush of rails and picks to the coal field. As late as 1880, counties with the highest number of mines, Lee, Rockcastle, and Pulaski (1880 Census, from Eavenson's map of Coal Mines Operating in 1880), were those counties which had antebellum mining and depended upon the Kentucky, Rockcastle, and Cumberland Rivers, respectively, as the transportation medium. But as the century drew to a close, a number of assaults on the mountainous terrain by railway companies yielded more exciting results. In the 1880s the Louisville and Nashville mainline cut through Rockcastle, Laurel, and Whitley Counties before entering Tennessee at Jellico. By 1890 The Cincinnati Southern completed a run parallel to the L & N through western Whitley (now McCreary) County and beyond the state line which linked the Stearns Coal company's more than twenty company towns after the turn of the twentieth century.

    These transportation arteries resulted in unprecedented yields from eastern Kentucky mines. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century numerous short lines and branches shot outward to coal mines and the towns of people who worked in them. Numerous lines less than ten miles in length extended from Jellico into Whitley County, forming dozens of coal towns in the process (Sulzer: 131-132).

    The creation of Pineville and Middlesboro in Bell County illustrate the dizzying speed at which the mountains could be transformed by the industrial forces. From the main trunk at Corbin, the L & N branched eastward, arriving at Pineville in 1888. National Coal and Iron Company platted the town when the railroad arrived, and it quickly became home to nearly 5000 residents (Fuson: 361-362). The town remained in private hands, functioning as the seat of county government.

    Alexander A. Arthur, a Scotch-Canadian, conceived Middlesboro in 1886 on even grander scale. He planned for a mile long tunnel under Cumberland Gap to connect with national lines in Tennessee. When this daring scared off investors, he assembled the American Association, a group of British capitalists, and established Middlesboro, after the British mine town of the same name. The railroad entered the fledgling town by 1889, and as late as autumn of that year, the wide valley was still full of tents occupied by rail and mine workers. By the end of 1891 the town held 6000 folks, and boasted a street car line, electric light plant, and a water system (Tipton: n.p.; Fuson: 561-571). Middlesboro was without peer in the nineteenth century because no other location possessed as high a concentration of high grade coal and, perhaps more importantly, flat land.    

    Between Middlesboro's high profile and the obscurity of forgotten mine locations, reside hundreds of nineteenth century coal company towns. The difficulty in locating them and in defining their characteristics is doubled by lost records of defunct mine companies and a destruction of physical town remains. Their identification, though, may be aided by examining railroad development and coal production statistics. Those statistics correspond well with the progress of rail lines in a given county in eastern Kentucky. That is, coal production in a county increases in proportion to the number of railroad miles in that county. An examination of the relationship between such factors may help predict where company towns are more likely to be found during specific periods of time.

    Carter, Greenup, and Boyd Counties were among the earliest to receive railroad development and among the most prolific counties in annual output through the mid-1880s (Get Brenda to type table). A comparison between Carter and Boyd Counties bears out the ratio between track miles and production. Carter County was served for many years by one line, the Eastern Kentucky Railway. The Eastern Kentucky pushed southward through the county, allowing new mines and coal towns to open. The single line supported moderate increases in yearly production. Carter County's production rose steadily from 12,000 tons in 1867, probably all from the Argillite operation, to the 200,000 ton level by the 1890s when a second line crossed the county, the Newport News and Mississippi Valley Railroad.

    Boyd County, by contrast, witnessed a more accelerated rate of production increase from 1874-1880, and led all eastern Kentucky counties in production from 1874-1885. This is explained by the fact that both Catlettsburg and Ashland became focal points of rail shipping to the Ohio River during this time. The several rails that crossed the county provided new mining opportunities as a by-product. During this period of rapid production growth, Boyd County reached the 200,000 ton level of production by 1879, more than a decade before Carter County reached that mark. From this it is reasonable to suspect that Boyd County is likely to have held more company towns from 1875-1885 than Carter County did.

    Laurel, Whitley, and to some extent, Knox County, quickly displaced Boyd County as the eastern Kentucky production leaders from 1886 until the close of the century. Phenomenal rates of increased coal tonnages were recorded, sometimes in back-to-back years. Relative to the previous year's totals, Laurel County increased its production 52% in 1887, 25% in 1888, 26% in 1890. Whitley County jumped 800% from 1880-1886, then increased 54% in 1887, 28% in 1888, 25% in 1892, and 41% in 1899. It is during this time that the L & N and Cincinnati Southern made these areas accessible to mine companies. Following the formula from above, those counties should be the focus of attempts to identify company towns of the late-nineteenth century, not only because they led production, but also because they were able to muster continuous growth in output over a relatively long period of time. By contrast, Boyd County, having reached a plateau in 1885, simply maintained production levels during the same 1885-1900 period. Boyd County might be expected to provide fewer examples of company towns representing the close of the nineteenth century.

back to the top


The Golden Age of Coal Mining in Eastern Kentucky, 1900-1941

    Little occurred at the dawn of the twentieth century to signify a radical departure from the previous two decades of coal development in Eastern Kentucky. Business continued as had before, only more aggressively. Railroads and coal companies inched further into the most promising areas of the coal field and saw their profits grow with the amount of coal transported.

    The watershed occurred in the second decade of the twentieth century, as the railroads extended their lines to make contact with legendary coal seams. The Louisville and Nashville climbed along the Poor Fork of the Cumberland into Harlan County about 1912. At the same time, the Lexington and Eastern paralleled the North Fork of the Kentucky River to McRoberts in Letcher County. The Baltimore and Ohio followed the Levisa Fork to the Breaks of the Big Sandy in Pike County. State Geologist and avid historian Willard Rouse Jillson summed things up this way in 1924:

    "Only during the last decade has eastern Kentucky become a coal field of national importance. It is now a far-flung battleground of old traditions and new ideas. The old-time, quiet, picturesque mountain and hill land regions are rapidly becoming more and more restricted in area. Everywhere may be noted the advance of new railroad grades, the construction of new coal mining operations, and the growth of new industrial cities (1924: p. 109-110)."

    For some, the arrival of the coal age fulfilled long-standing hopes. Speculators had flocked to the region from the 1870s onward to purchase mineral rights from eastern Kentucky families at near give-away prices. Some bought tens of thousands of acres of those rights with the pledge that coal mining would not alter the mountain man's ownership rights (Caudill: 70-76). Mineral rights holders would have to retain their claims for decades, hoping for the day when a branch or spur line would come within a mile or two of their holdings.

    For others, particularly the coal field natives, the very structure of their society was disrupted. Prior to the contact with the coal company, the region was dominated by a patriarchal social system, with loosely defined communities populated by extended families. In this world, the economic currency consisted of bartered labor and locally produced goods. Outside observers described the people as self-reliant to the point of isolation because, by contrast with urban areas, the eastern Kentucky local economy did not revolve as completely upon the exchange of money for goods manufactured outside the community. But once locals descended from the hollows to take jobs with the nearby coal company, labor ceased to be an activity by which a person defined his or her place in the social system; it became a commodity traded for cash, which was used to purchase imported goods. Consequently, coal company towns accelerated the transformation of mountain society (Martin, 1984: 85-97).

    Coal towns gave county residents a place to work, if not to live. The upland farmer may have remained on his land, but many left the farm for work in the mines. The number of farms in eastern Kentucky counties from 1900-1930 either rose only slightly, and declined in many. When offered a new employment opportunity, few continued farming at their homes. For instance, in 1927, only 22 of 203 Laurel County farms studied relied on farming entirely for their subsistence (US Department of Agriculture: 43).

    The impact of this shift from an agricultural to industrial order is evident from the population explosion in counties with the most mining activity. Floyd and Pike Counties doubled in population between 1900 and 1920. Between 1910 and 1920, Perry and Letcher Counties increased residents by a factor of two and a half, Harlan County's population tripled also between 1910 and 1920 (US Census). Only a fraction of county population growth in southeast Kentucky's richest coal counties can be attributed to growth in rural areas. In fact, the number of farms in Harlan County decreased every decade from 1900-1930 (USDA: 19-20). With that decline in the face of increased numbers of coal towns established, Harlan could be said to be the most urban eastern Kentucky county due to the effect of coal mining.

    Both Eastern and Western Coal Fields had increased production steadily since the Civil War, with the western counties yielding more annually, and Hopkins and Muhlenberg Counties yielding more individually than any counties in the Eastern Field. By 1911, vital rail lines and mine towns were in place or initiated in key eastern counties, enabling Eastern Field to deliver more coal than their western rivals for the first time since the antebellum period. With further development, the Eastern Coal Field increased output exponentially (See graph of production). In 1917, eastern Kentucky produced twice as much as its western counterpart, three times as much in 1923 and five times as much in 1924. Both fields peaked in 1928-1930, and maintained those levels until the Second World War. By the mid-'teens Harlan and Pike Counties traded honors as the state's most productive counties, with Letcher, Perry, and Floyd following (Currens and Smith: 37-43).

    These changes took place over a roughly thirty year period, and left a multitude of problems in their wake. Much blame can be attributed to the absence of regulatory or planning agencies at the state, regional, or local levels. Without such watchdog groups, coal companies could make self-interested decisions without respect for public interests. Coal companies benefited by pushing aside local power groups, because that facilitated a more efficient transformation of the agrarian economy of self-sufficiency to and industrial-colonial economy. Consequently, rules governing life in company towns often benefited the company more than the individual.

    Coal companies fought outside regulation of mining and coal marketing in an effort to boost profits; ironically, their success ultimately backfired in their pocketbook. Development of the coal field continued long after the market for coal began to show signs of saturation in the 1920s. The nation's coal producers allowed production to skyrocket: output in 1900 was 76% higher than in 1891; 1910 stood 96.7% above 1900 output; and 1918 saw still a 38% increase over 1910 levels. A number of forces in the 1920s conspired to challenge the supremacy of coal. Technology increased the efficiency of coal fired locomotive and electric generating engines, reducing the need for coal. A few cities and other energy users found natural gas, water power, and oil to be more economical fuels.

    The example set by other industries would have urged mine operators to reduce output in response to the low demand for coal, and consequent lowered prices. Instead, operators mined more coal in hopes of gaining a larger market share, thereby offsetting lowered profits per ton. Their decision to do so was encouraged by Kentucky mine workers who accepted lower wages and were slower to unionize than workers in other states, and by railroad competition, which led to lower freight rates. In addition, reopening a mothballed mine was costly due to rapid deterioration; operators believed it to be preferable to produce coal at a loss than to idle a mine until prices rebounded (Morris: 2-14).

    Company towns were integral to this approach to coal marketing. Kentucky mine owners lowered their overhead by offering stingy wages to workers through the control afforded by company housing. Owners persisted in relying on low wages to keep coal costs low, even when other choices were available. Kentucky was among the last states to mechanize coal loading, with only 2% loaded by machine as late as 1936 (Hotchkiss: 194). Plans by the workers to unionize and to strike for higher wages often fell victim to the threat that dismissal and eviction followed shortly after a challenge to management. Until other options presented themselves, workers were forced to accept cost cutting measures that affected their paycheck and living conditions. Magnusson found in 1920 that 80.4% of all coal workers in Kentucky, Alabama, and Tennessee lived in company housing. Within the 213 communities studies by Magnusson, no other industry, and no other multi-state coal mining area, had a higher percentage of workers in company housing (1920: 11). Because mines were far from the few towns such as Hazard and Harlan, which contained some non-company-owned dwellings, miners in Kentucky had little choice but to live in company-owned housing.

back to the top


CHARACTERISTICS OF COAL COMPANY TOWNS

    Most eastern Kentucky coal company towns have been erased by demolition. It is no longer possible to know about them primarily through a survey of extant examples. A number of printed sources, though, can provide general information about them as a type of historic property. Such general information about the nature of coal towns will help in analysis of individual properties encountered in the field. These sources include documentary records (primarily government-sponsored studies and corporate records), oral interview, and written narratives (both primary and secondary). This section, concerned with the physical nature of company-owned coal towns in eastern Kentucky, relies heavily upon government studies. From this section will come general trends in coal towns that can aid recognition of coal town fragments by surveyors in the field. A property type analysis follows and will be stated in summary fashion, comparing the results of fieldwork with the concept of company town developed in this section.

     One cannot help but to be struck by the range of expressions coal company towns took in eastern Kentucky. They could be found in all shapes, sizes, quality, and comfort. The largest of these, Lynch, Benham, Jenkins, Middlesboro, etc., are the most well known among the property type. These towns left behind the most enduring physical resources, their construction was chronicled by industry journal and popular magazine, they were the most desirable places to live because of their range of creature comforts and the suggestion of paternalistic influences. But these towns are the least typical of the resource type overall. Much more common were more haphazardly created collections of one or two house types, cloned by the hundreds in a single location and squashed together in a narrow stream valley. Only a small fraction of these remain from the hundreds which once existed, their houses long since cannibalized or moved elsewhere.

     Magnusson's profile of company-owned industrial towns in 1920, based on study of 213 such places nationwide, describes eastern Kentucky coal towns fairly well. He found that, in general, all company towns exhibited a sterile appearance brought about by uniformity of housing stock, a lack of landscaping or natural plant growth, and vague spatial definition due to dirt streets. Detached wood-frame four-room houses dominate the landscape, with privies tucked onto the rear of the lot (pp. 12-13). Magnusson noted in a separate publication that Kentucky, Alabama, and Tennessee had a greater share of two-room houses than other study areas (1920a: 1048). Unlike mainstream American towns which depend upon democratic control and support, these towns were under the financial care of the coal company; decisions about the town's maintenance and appearance were made according to how it benefitted the company. Magnusson noted that only one in seven study towns exhibited any form of planning, most of those being manufacturing towns whose owners viewed them as permanent installations, therefore, worth the expense of such niceties (p. 29).

     Model towns may be seen as distinct from more temporary camps, but also may have some historical/physical connection to them. A single mine company could own both model town and several smaller, less-plush villages. These may extend stinglike along a mile or more of stream valley. The model community would serve as the control center for these several satellite towns connected by rail (see, eg., "A Mining Principality," in Black Diamond). This organization of activity across space would advertise the company's economic dominance of an area, and more important, would assemble a stable of workers whom could be shifted as needed. There is some suggestion that mine companies used such arrangements much like a professional baseball team, which moves players from farm clubs to the big leagues or vice versa according to their performance. Nettie McGill, studying 464 miners in West Virginia coal towns in 1923, reported that model towns had a waiting list of miners hoping to be hired so they could enjoy the comforts not found in the company's other towns where they currently worked. She also found that fully one-third of those studied had moved from another town in the prior two years (pp. 7-8). With this frequency of turnover and mobility, a coal company town should be investigated by comparing it with other towns known to have been owned by the same company. In other words, a surveyor investigating a company town should look for signs that the town is part of a larger entity.

     Many model company towns contained features found in typical American towns of comparable size in the early twentieth century. Benham, laid out in Harlan County by Wisconsin Steel Company, still has its historic theater, commissary, post office, hospital, meat market, city hall, firehouse, church, grade school, and a park. Lynch, built by U.S. Steel only a few miles east of Benham, contained most of the same features, as well as churches of additional denominations and segregated schools for the children of Black miners. Stone, in Pike County, still shows its large warehouses for storage of supplies and machinery shops where equipment was repaired. Other features would have included washhouses, electric generating stations, and water and sewer plant.

     A wider range of housing is found in model company towns than in lesser outposts. All company towns contained people of varying employment status. Small towns were home to miners, foremen, and probably an engineer or two. In addition, larger towns had several engineers, white collar workers from company stores, superintendents, etc. Houses in any location reflected these differences in status. A particular house's workmanship, materials quality, size, sitting, and styling generally corresponded to the tenant's relative status. With model towns serving as headquarters for a company's regional activities, and with its employees of higher ranks, these towns hold some of the Eastern Coal Field's grander residences. Generally the finest house(s) of both model town and smaller mine town commanded prominent overlooks on hilltop sites.

     House designs for lower echelon workers were monotonously repetitive within a typical coal town. Variation occurred from town to town, and within large model towns, a range of 6-12 house types might be available. No single house plan, facade treatment, or stylistic expression dominated, but trends are perceptible. The U.S. Coal Commission found that 95% of the houses were wood framed with wood siding in the 713 communities studied. Houses typically were built on post foundations without cellars. All but the smallest houses generally had porches. About one-half of the interiors were finished with wood, and with plaster about 38% of the time. One-room shanties, generally without porches or stoops, were noted by the Commission as a common feature; if these were ever in eastern Kentucky, they no longer are in evidence (p. 1429).

     Another practice in response to that pressure occurred with the existence of single-room houses testifies to the pressure for high density housing. Many families who took in boarders to supplement their incomes. Duplexes also were a solution to shoehorn two families into what was commonly used as a single family dwelling in American cities. Caudill points to the boarding houses which also comprised the company town landscape but which may not have survived as well to the present. Such buildings contain 10-25 rooms for single men (p. 104).

    The Coal Commission combined statistics for houses in both Kentucky coal fields with data from Alabama, Maryland, and Virginia. The Commission found horizontal wood siding on 68% of the houses and 28% with board and batten, although Maryland and Virginia skew the proportions due to their strong tradition of horizontal wood siding prior to coal mining. Eastern Kentucky probably accounted for a strong share of the houses with vertical siding. The Commission also found that tar paper covered nearly three quarters of the roofs of these houses and wood shingles nearly all of the rest. Tin covered only 3% of the roofs (p. 1471). Interestingly, houses were found in Pruden and Fronde (Bell County) in 1991 with a new application of rolled asphalt roofing. This material also was applied to a few of the houses' exterior walls, as well.

     Electricity appears to have been the typical creature comfort in mine workers' housing. The Coal Commission noted that 72% of the company owned homes had hookups to electricity and/or gas, but that only 15.8% had running water and less than 1% had a bath, shower, or indoor toilet. Dismal as it seems, the eastern Kentucky situation was better than in some states, particularly Indiana and Illinois, which had a lower percentage of houses with indoor plumbing and a higher reliance upon outdoor privies (p. 1474-76).

     Company towns with larger populations had distinct areas for different racial and ethnic groups. Such districting of a company town may be in evidence today as visible differences among house design. Blacks and European peoples were recruited for the mines both because they worked for low wages and because management could play minority groups off of one another, thereby reducing worker solidarity and lowering the potential for strikes. Some have used the term "balkanization" to describe the racial tensions of segregated coal towns; Caudill calls such areas "turbulent Babels set in a wilderness" (p. 103-104). Housing with which these groups were associated may no longer be standing, though, because those houses would have been built with the poorest quality materials and construction techniques, given the company town practice of equating status and housing quality.

     Box framing was a popular type of construction in coal field housing, more than is indicated by the number of surviving buildings with that type of structure. This structural system consisted of a simple box of post and beams to which exterior board and battens were attached. Many such houses were not plastered inside, and would have admitted cold wind in the winter unless the tenants took care to cover openings with newspaper or some other material.

     Houses with box framing are fewer in number now due in part to the fact that it is structurally weaker than balloon or western frames, and because of that, it was attractive for dismantling. Despite the low numbers, it is strongly representative of coal company towns in eastern Kentucky. Its origin has not yet been discovered, and it may have been imported to the coal field in the late nineteenth century. For many decades, it was adopted by coal and timber companies in eastern Kentucky as a building technique. Its ease in assembly, low materials cost, and interchangeability of parts made it very popular among those familiar with other building traditions.

     In a recent survey of Hollybush, an abandoned eastern Kentucky community in Knott County, box framing was recognized and recorded. The first box framed house appeared in 1915; but after that, log still dominated. Twenty-two log houses were built versus six box frame structures before all construction ceased in the community in 1960. Members of the community, though, began to experiment with the construction technique and aesthetic, and most room-sized additions to log or box frame buildings were themselves box framed. Residents of Hollybush traveled to nearby coal camps for temporary work throughout the year and would return home with knowledge of the new buildings and with some understanding of their construction. The adoption of the new method of house building coincided with residents' forays into the world outside their world (Martin, 1984: 33-58).

     Box framing was found in surprisingly high numbers as early as the Great Depression. In 1937 the University of Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station studied economic factors in a 68,000 acre area of Knox County not known for mining. All houses were classed into four groups based on structural condition: good, fair, poor, and dilapidated. Among the 188 buildings examined in the study area, ninety were box framed, and fourteen more were log with a box framed addition (Nichols and Bondurant, 1937: 178-181). With more than half of the houses in the study area employing box framing before 1940, Knox County shows a much quicker acceptance of box framing than the Hollybush area of Knott County.

     A second study by the Experiment Station in 1946 reported similar numbers of box framing found on 74 farms in Breathitt County. Box framing comprised 58% of all owners' primary residence on the farm, versus 38% which were stick frame systems and 4% which were log. Almost half of these farms had a second dwelling, for a tenant or family member, and 75% of those houses were box framed (Nichols and Bondurant, 1946: 37).

     A relationship revealed by this study is that with box framing, the greater the structural deterioration, the higher the percentage of box construction in any condition category: 6% of the good, 27% of the fair, 53% of the poor. This pattern did not hold true for dilapidated structures, though, of which box framing comprised only 12% (Nichols and Bondurant, 1937: 178-181). The fact that box framed houses were easy to erect and as easily deteriorated is suggested by its the percentages of the top three classes, but the relative rarity of dilapidated box framed houses is a puzzle. Two possible explanations come to mind. Either owners expended the effort to keep them repaired at least to a poor condition or better, or owners abandoned them as living quarters once a building deteriorated to a point where it was no longer desirable as a living quarter, and would dismantle it and reuse the wood rather than to fix it.

     It is easier to support the hypothesis that builders of coal company towns gave the idea of box framing to eastern Kentucky, rather than vice versa. Martin's study documents the temporal transition from log to box construction. Until the later 'teens and early 1920s, log was both state of the art technology and the physical expression of Hollybush's long standing folk cultural system. By 1915, residents who left Hollybush to work were introduced to a new world, and a new conception of building that world which was signified and symbolized by box framing in the coal company towns. At least in that pocket of eastern Kentucky, box framing was unknown prior to contact with the coal town.

     Accounts of the construction of the model company towns also support the contention that box framing was imported, not brought from the hollow to the company town. The story of the construction of massive company towns generally includes reference to teams of carpenters from outside the local area. These carpenters could have been full time builders for the coal company or hired under contract to the company. Jenkins, for example, was constructed for Consolidation Coal Company by the Nicola Building Company of Pittsburgh (Webb: 456-457). It appears that Benham and Lynch were erected by their owners, Wisconsin Steel and U.S. Steel, respectively (see, eg., Eavenson, 1921: 532).

    The Experiment Station studies cited above found that box framing systems were entrenched in the local building vocabulary by the 1930s. Resource extraction had taken place in the two study counties well before the twentieth century. After 1890, after the L & N had cut across the county in its branch from Corbin to Pineville, Knox County became an important coal producer. The county was consistently the third highest in Eastern Kentucky in annual coal tonnage after about 1893, and continued at the 400,000-500,000 ton level into the 1920s. Jackson, in Breathitt County, was the railhead of the Railroad for many years, which allowed for early exploitation of the county's resources. Mining and timbering continued in the county well into the twentieth century. Company-owned towns were pervasive near the main and branch lines, so area residents would have had a chance to view the towns, if not live in them, on their way to work in the mines.

     These facts beg the question of where the carpenters who were building company towns obtained the know-how to construct box framed houses. Nonetheless, studies have not surfaced which identify eastern Kentucky locations whose houses were built in that system prior to the inhabitants' contact with coal mining towns.

back to the top



 

 

 

 

 

Copyright 1996-2007 Kentucky Foundation
All rights reserved. 
E-mail webmaster@miningusa.com 
 Hosted and designed by
Mining Internet Services, Inc.