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

By Harry M. Caudill | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
The Frontier a Century After

MANY OF THE little swarm of teachers, missionaries and school and church organizers who followed the railroads into the plateau were so impressed by the surviving frontier modes and methods that they saw the mountaineer as a sort of latter-day border pioneer, summed up in the expression "our contemporary ancestors." To a remarkable degree this concept was accurate -- but its accuracy was limited, and it fell far short of describing the mind and manners of the mountaineer. True, an astounding number of his habits, tastes and outlooks had come down to him little diluted from his pioneer fathers of the eighteenth century, but in the meantime he had acquired serious defects which had not plagued his forebears.

A terrific population explosion had multiplied the highlanders at a breathtaking rate in the half-century since 1860. In that year the Federal census revealed a total population, including slaves, of 84,028 in the plateau counties. Despite the distractions of war, feuds, reconstruction and exodus the total climbed to 98,150 in 1870. Twenty years later it was 173,927. In 1910 the enumerators found 294,193 residents! This incredible upsurge of nearly 400 per cent reflected a very slight influx and occurred not withstanding a substantial outflow.

To be sure, the plateau had experienced its first great boom in the Eighties and Nineties when English steel interests had sought to build a great iron and coal empire in Bell County. The ridges full of coal and the millions of tons of low-grade iron ore in the surrounding area touched off a frantic era of coal buying and town building.

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