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Friday, May 16, 2008

An Old Chunk of Coal...Part One

This is the first post in my series on Coal Country. I hope you find it informative and at least somewhat entertaining.

Lately, I've been reading lots of books that seem to reference coal country or mining towns and well, they've got me thinking. My grandmother, Srilda, lived in or around Beattyville, KY for most of her life. I can remember her telling me stories about the coal mines when I was younger. Even today, all I have to do is think of Beattyville and I can smell the coal burning. Because I have family from this area in Kentucky, I've always been interested in finding out more about the coal industry and Appalachian culture. So, I'm taking this opportunity to find what I can find and share it with you. Here's some of what I've found so far:

Beattyville, Kentucky was originally known as Taylor's Landing. Eventually, it became known as Beatty after early settler and landowner, Samuel Beatty. For reasons unknown, it eventually came to be known as Beattyville. This town, is about eighty miles from Lexington, KY and lies somewhere between Cincinnati and Louisville. Please forgive the vague information, but to me, it has always seemed like one of those little towns that appears to be tucked in the middle of nowhere.

The following bits of information comes from a rather interesting article by William J. Lampton, written in 1895:

"Beattyville is at the head of navigation on the Kentucky River, and something like $250,000 has been spent by the government on a dam and lock here, which are now more in the way than anything else. Just why the engineers should begin at the head of a river to lock and dam it instead of at the other end does not appear, though some distinguished politician who worked the appropriation might explain.

Socially, Beattyville is the Paris (France) of the mountains, and the youth and beauty love to dance and hold church suppers and boat rides and have a good time generally. The girls are pretty and dress in the latest styles, and are quite fin de siecle in all the little details that go to make up society with a big S. The men wear dress suits on swell occasions, and the stranger in those parts would scarcely realize that he was in a mountain town." For more of this article, go here.

What does any of this have to do with coal? Well, Beattyville is located where the North, Middle and South forks of the Kentucky River meet the Ohio River at Carrollton (The Three Forks Region). This is where the Kentucky River begins. It is also situated near a town called Proctor. In the 1840's, some of Proctor's main business enterprises included boat building, salt gathering, coal mining, timber operations, and flour milling. From what I can gather, in the 1870's, the Three Forks Region began to evolve as a key economic center in Eastern Kentucky. This was a center of operations for moving the natural resources such as timber, coal, and oil down the Kentucky River and along the new railroads being built at the time.

By the time Lampton wrote his Beattyville article some twenty years later, he relates that there were "thirteen stores in town, three sawmills, a stream grist mill, and the Avent, the Beattyville, and the Crystal Creek coal companies and several individuals who dig and ship coal. The principal business is coal and timber, and about three hundred carloads of coal are shipped each month. The coal is of good quality and is shipped all over the state. Between two and three hundred men are employed about the mines, and labor troubles are not unknown. Coal sells in town at six cents a bushel, delivered."

I find it fascinating that Lampton can portray this area in such a romantic light. When I was younger and we would travel to Beattyville to visit relatives, I never saw it this way. To me, it was eerie and there was an unsettling sense that something was askew. Maybe that's just childish superstition, but that's how it hit me. The last time I had occasion to be in Beattyville was for my grandmother's funeral back in 1989. I'll never forget the Woolly Worm Festival that was going on outside the funeral home there. The town, albeit strange, has it's charms. I'll share more fascinating information for you next time in Part Two of An Old Chunk of Coal.

Photo of Beattyville, KY and information from the article by William J. Lampton was taken from the City of Beattyville, KY website at

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A Little Bit of Mystery: Short Mysteries to Confuse and Amuse

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