|Kentucky Coal Heritage
Coal Camps & Communities
This author has made several trips into eastern Kentucky to become familiar with the region's resources and to locate remnants of coal company towns. An attempt was made to visit all areas where coal company-owned towns once existed. A set of county road maps has been appended that depict the courses of these investigations and the date of each visit. The following Eastern Coal Field counties were visited on the specified days:
The only systematic aspect of the reconnaissance survey was the attempt to drive all roads paralleling railroads. Many candidates for future intensive study were found through this approach. Those included towns which were not known to have survived and possible nineteenth century mine towns. Coal towns existing prior to railroads were not found; however, a strategy for investigating them at the reconnaissance level was not developed.
Factors which limited this phase of the project included the extensive mileage to be covered and the slow speeds required to negotiate many of the region's roads. Rarely did opportunities occur to interview local informants. Frequently, those who were contacted claimed not to know anything about the locality's identity as a historic coal town. Consequently, most locations were simply noted, the number of coal-town buildings counted, and representative photography completed.
Identifying eastern Kentucky coal company towns and counting structures which belong to that historic activity are slippery tasks. The job is easy when one encounters a row of identical houses, but such findings do not occur frequently. Many coal towns have vanished totally with their houses moved to new locations or disassembled for their lumber. Other coal towns may contain a few diminutive historic houses--possible company owned homes--but have lost that sense of uniformity because dozens of newer small houses inundate the few older ones that survive. Even when groupings of historic company owned houses remain, they are obscured by current owners who alter them to accommodate current needs or to personalize their homes.
Despite these challenges, the following list offers impressions gained from looking for company owned structures in areas where they stood historically. The effort attempts to identify areas with high potential for further study due to the survival of greater numbers of historic features. The list names the company town and gives the estimated number of structures based on a quick inspection. Notes are offered in a few cases to suggest why a particular town site with fewer buildings might be given a higher priority for study.
I. Name: Coal Company Towns
Coal company towns are areas with collections of features which were formerly owned by coal companies to accomplish the work of mining coal. These areas provided a place for the company's workers to live when the mine was remote from previously established towns and farms. These areas consisted mainly of dwellings that housed the company's workers, along with buildings in which commercial, social, educational, medical, recreation, and religious activities were conducted. In addition, many such towns contained structures associated with the work of coal mining, such as mine entrances, wash houses, rail facilities, tool houses, water towers, power plants, tipples, etc.
The geographic location of eastern Kentucky's coal towns influenced their design. These towns are found in the Eastern Coal Field, an area within the Appalachian highlands. The area which yielded the most coal is the commonwealth's most rugged and was the last to be open to rail traffic. Company towns established during the coal industry's greatest growth (ca. 1912-1930) were mostly linear affairs, sharing the narrow margin of flat land on a stream valley floor with the rail line which brought the town into being, and which connected it with national markets.
Company owners balanced the benefits of providing substantial housing for their workers with the risks and costs of doing so in a temporary location. Many mine owners believed their mines had a life of less than twenty years, so considered it unnecessary to build housing that would last beyond that point.
The residential area has become a dominant image of the coal town. Sometimes hundreds of houses in a town would be constructed of one repeated design. These areas generally were the most extensive components of such locations because of the great workforce involved with extracting coal.
Coal mining in eastern Kentucky is divided into three phases in the historic context. The physical organization of coal-company owned towns can be broken into at least two phases, and perhaps more after more intensive field research.
A nineteenth century coal town can be distinguished from a twentieth century coal town. These are expected to be found in areas which were more productive in the nineteenth century than later. The earliest coal mining was undertaken without the benefit of rail transport. Thus, eastern Kentucky company towns prior to 1880 were located along or within about two miles of navigable water ways.
The earlier towns seem to have been looser spatially, that is, more area per building, than were their twentieth century counterparts. Houses in the early coal towns are believed to have been constructed less tightly and permanently than in later towns, which makes their survival a problem. A certain randomness in the placement of houses is also observed, i.e., a less rigid segregation of buildings by function into districts.
The nineteenth century coal town could exist for as long as it was profitable. But remnants of a nineteenth century coal town are more likely to survive from a town that ceased operations not long after 1900 than one which was productive long into the twentieth century. If a nineteenth century coal town would have survived much longer than the turn of the century, then economic and spatial considerations would have encouraged the mine engineer to knock down the old town and build new. In doing so, the company would have been constructing a twentieth century mine town at a nineteenth century mine town location.
The typical twentieth century towns differ from their nineteenth century parents in their spatial organization, range of services, and housing types. Urban and social planners convinced mine engineers that more active use of space could occur with benefit to the workers. This resulted in twentieth century coal towns being highly planned, with at least one residential zone, a commercial-service zone, and a work zone.
Coal company housing in the residential zone was generally constructed better than dwellings from the earlier phase. Still, it can be seen as built of inferior materials and with less care than was lavished upon housing meant to last more than a single generation. Houses were sometimes built by company laborers, with the green timber milled from trees cleared to make the company town. Other towns were built out of pre-cut house packages available from companies such as Alladin, Montgomery Ward, or Sears.
Houses generally were filled with as many people as possible. A single family dwelling was often occupied by a family who took in a boarder or two for additional income. The same was true for duplexes. Most company towns contained one or more boarding houses, a barrack-like structure that housed many men without families.
Company houses were typically constructed of wood, with Western, balloon, or box framing. Exterior wood siding was applied either in horizontal laps or in vertical board and batten. Houses ranged in height between one and two stories, the larger frequently being employed as duplexes or other multi-family dwellings. The plan of these houses were simple, rarely more than a square or rectangle. Many, perhaps most had porches. Materials for roofs and interior surfaces varied tremendously. While by the twentieth century many utilities were standard in urban housing in America, coal towns in eastern Kentucky frequently lacked indoor plumbing and toilets, and many did not have electricity or natural gas lines.
Mine towns varied tremendously according to other functions and services. The average mine town of the twentieth century contained few creature comforts. A few of the largest towns, so called "model towns," offered residents a palate of activities and services that would have been typical of a conventional town.
Any activity and service provided by the company to the miners was owned by the mine company. Some towns had structures for entertainment such as a theater and social hall. Needs for recreation were normally addressed by a baseball field and/or basketball courts. Because of transportation limits, mine families depended largely upon the company for consumer goods; impressive commissary buildings and other stores opened to fill those needs. Many mine companies operated schools and built churches for the miners and their families.
Mine towns were segregated on a number of levels. The residential areas were segregated from the commercial areas, both of which were separate from the work area. Within the residential zone, smaller areas distinguished by better or worse housing were apparent. Those residential areas were segregated on the basis of race, ethnicity, family size, and/or skill.
Beginning in the 1930s, most company-owned mine towns began to dismantle from single ownership. Some companies salvaged all structures for materials to be used in other locations. Other companies sold houses to the tenants. Land holding companies also bought towns, replacing the coal company as landlords to the miners who stayed as tenants.
Today, the former model towns continue to exist in some form. Those towns were sufficiently populous and diverse for entrepreneurial interests to enter and maintain many activities. But residents of smaller towns lacked the capital and acumen to maintain the range of services that they once enjoyed. By the 1960s most company towns had disappeared and those that remained were ghosts of their former selves. The remnants of the typical twentieth century company town are little more than a small group of identical houses or a scattering of such structures through a larger area. A few non-residential structures can be found, such as churches, schools, meeting halls, and company stores. These survive if financial support for the building is feasible.
If the mine continues to operate, buildings in the work zone will be used as current technology and economics permit. The change from shaft to strip mining, tight profit margins, and the tapping out of older mines have made it difficult for mine operators to continue to use the historic industrial areas of old mine towns. The work areas are less apparent in cursory examination of mine towns than were the residential or commercial-social areas of mine towns.
Evaluating the significance of coal company towns is a process of assessing the town's eligibility for listing on the National Register of historic places. National Register Bulletin 42, Evaluating and Nominating Historic Mining Sites (draft, 1991), provides several approaches to making this assessment. This document is general because it applies to many resources other than coal towns and many places other than eastern Kentucky. Eligibility specifications for eastern Kentucky coal towns will be tailored to the region's particular history and resource base. Evaluation of particular towns will require definition of appropriate types of coal towns and comparison of the study town with others of the same type.
Several perspectives for erecting a typology are discussed in the historic context in the section "Company Town Morphology." Intensive level field work will be necessary to study remaining eastern Kentucky company towns so that appropriate typologies can be completed to support evaluation. That field work will focus on defining the spatial and functional dimensions of the towns according to the particular typological perspective. It is expected that the various bases upon which a typology can be built include types according to time period, according to the company that owned and designed it, according to formal considerations, according to levels of development (eg., model vs. average vs. marginal towns), or according to aesthetic considerations, according to the evidence of professional planning, and upon many other considerations.
Coal company towns are significant under National Register Criterion A when they are associated with important events or developments in local or regional history. The establishment of the town may be an important event in and of itself. This is the case especially when the town was important to opening mining in a remote area, or if the town is a good representative of one of the three phases of coal mining in the region, or when the town accounted for impressive amounts of coal production. The coal town may be locally significant as the best resource in a county that represents coal mining if that theme is defined as an important theme in the county's history. Other isolated events, such as miner strikes, changes in the coal industry, mine disasters, etc., which can be viewed as significant and having an impact on local or regional history, may cause the associated mine town to be viewed as significant.
Coal towns can be significant under National Register Criterion B when they are the best resource associated with the productive life of an individual who was important. This association is strongest, thus most useful for assessing National Register eligibility, when the individual accomplished his or her important work while living in the coal town, or the experience of the coal town can be shown to have shaped the person's later accomplishments.
Company-owned coal towns can be eligible to the National Register Criterion C when they are good examples of particular company town types, somewhat irrespective of historical associations. That is, a particularly well preserved town may be eligible under Criterion C even though it was not distinguished according to factors which would make it eligible under Criterion A. As defined by the National Register, company towns seen as significant for their aesthetics and/or engineering character are eligible under Criterion C.
Coal towns can be eligible for the National Register under Criterion D for their research potential. The archeological remains of coal towns can hold very important information to aid in knowing, for example, nineteenth century coal town types. Standing resources, such as an early coal town remnant, can be equally important in defining a type of coal town for which there are no other known survivors. Claiming a coal town is eligible under Criterion D will require that the applicable typology is defined, that specific questions remain to be learned about the typology, specific questions are posed to fill those data gaps in the typology, and that the coal town has information which will answer those questions. Within this approach to evaluation, both the archeological and the standing resources of a coal town can be assessed as eligible, because both can answer research questions.
The applicable National Register criterion will determine which integrity factors must be present for an eastern Kentucky coal town to be eligible. Properties eligible under Criteria A, B, and D must have integrity of association. Those eligible under Criterion C must have integrity of feeling. Additional integrity factors apply as appropriate: integrity of location and setting help establish integrity of association; integrity of materials, workmanship, and design help establish integrity of feeling.
Those undertaking intensive survey of coal town sites must define the specific amount of materials that must be retained to constitute the various integrity factors. Such an assessment will depend upon the surveyor's view of significance and what is the appropriate typology within which to compare the subject town. Once the particular typological perspective is defined, certain material factors will become more important to evaluating whether a particular coal town is a good example of the type compared with other examples of the type. Further, within a single coal town type, integrity considerations for historical significance will be different from integrity requirements for architectural significance. Within the same type, integrity considerations for information potential, i.e., the basis for eligibility under Criterion D, will differ from integrity standards for eligibility under Criteria A, B, or C.
In summary, the particular perspective used by the surveyor to study a coal company town will determine registration requirements. That perspective will select one typology (or several, as meaningful) for the basis of recording and comparing the subject town against similar towns. The typology will suggest an ideal form of the historic company town as a way to interpret data about actual towns encountered in the field. Data from field study will be recognized and recorded insofar as they help connect the subject town with the ideal town type envisioned by the typology. By focusing on an ideal town form, the typology will suggest bases for evaluating the significance of historical, and architectural data, and the importance of the site's scientific data. Finally, the surveyor will define minimal amounts of physical material which the town must retain to assert that the town exhibits characteristics which are significant.
Currently, only reconnaissance survey of coal towns has been undertaken. This approach was aimed at ascertaining the location of remnant company towns and the number of buildings in them. This survey is intended to suggest places for more intensive survey work.
In prior projects, the results of reconnaissance survey have been used to evaluate National Register eligibility of many types of resources. Under such an evaluative scheme, eligibility of field examples is based on the amount of existing historic material. That is, the town with the highest percentage of existing fabric is the most significant. But eligibility based on the percentage of visible material does not help to explain the historic, architectural, or scientific values of the town remnants. Listing in the National Register without a firm understanding of the values of coal town remnants will not help plan preservation treatments for those resources. That is why integrity based on material considerations alone is not advised for coal town resources. An intensive survey is required to define registration requirements according to the perspectives of the surveyor based on comparisons with the ideal town type and the real examples found in the field