Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area

By Harry M. Caudill | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN

Coal

ITS LORDLY trees were not the plateau's only wealth to attract the interest of distant speculators. In fact, by the middle Nineties interest in them had become secondary and emphasis had shifted to the numerous thick seams of high-grade bituminous coal striating the hillsides and underlying mountain and valley floor alike.

Christopher Gist, one of the earliest explorers of the region, had reported the finding of "fine coal" nearly a century and a half earlier, and in the intervening generations geologists had been able to form a comprehensive picture of its extent and quality. Some geological explorers had been sent into the area by the state as early as 1836 and thereafter others came in the employ of the United States or as spies for prospective railroad builders. While knowledge of their mineral riches was commonplace enough in scientific and industrial circles, most of the mountaineers had remained blissfully ignorant of their significance and, frequently, of their very existence. Few of them had ever burned anything but wood in the huge fireplaces of their cabins, though in some areas, notably in Perry County, mountaineers had occasionally dug a hundred bushels or so of coal and floated it on rafts or flatboats down the Kentucky River for sale at Richmond or Frankfort. Bell County, too, had been the scene of considerable small-scale mining. But such operations were primitive and minuscule and such knowledge of his coal as the plateau dweller may have possessed had, more often than not, come to him quite by accident rather than through curiosity and investigation. It should not surprise us that when, a dozen years after Appomattox,

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