The Alabaster Cities
THE HEART OF the eastern Kentucky coalfield lies in a group of eleven counties near the headwaters of three of Kentucky's major streams. These counties are Johnson, Floyd, Magoffin, Pike, Knott, Letcher, Harlan, Perry, Leslie, Clay and Bell. To pierce the coalfield on the broadest practical front the railroad builders followed the valleys of the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River, the North Fork of the Kentucky and the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy. In two or three years the track layers drove through the vitals of the plateau until, in the spring of 1912, the Lexington and Eastern Railroad reached McRoberts near the source spring of the Kentucky's North Fork. Within a short time thereafter the Louisville and Nashville reached the shabby village of Poor Fork in Harlan County, and the Baltimore and Ohio arrived within the shadow of the Breaks of the Big Sandy, a breathtakingly beautiful canyon later renowned as the "Grand Canyon of the South." When the construction gangs laid down their tools at these points on the eve of the First World War, the vast, backward Cumberland Plateau was tied inseparably to the colossal industrial complex centering in Pittsburgh, and a dynamic new phase in the region's history had begun.
The railroads were built by a small army of contractors, each of whom was assigned a stretch of two to five miles of line, and the work progressed remarkably fast in view of the difficult terrain and the primitive methods employed. Fleets of "section" cars followed