Written by Karen Nickless
It’s not easy to get to Black Mountain, Kentucky. From the Virginia side of the mountain a two-lane “highway” (well, it is high) rises over 2,500 feet to the summit of Black Mountain (elevation 4,145), the highest peak in Kentucky. One side of the road features sheer rock faces, covered with icicles at this time of the year, while the other is a drop off, partially protected with guard rails. Add hairpin curves and few pull offs, and it can be a sweaty palms journey to the top, at least to this flatlander. Then there is the wild ride down into the communities of Benham and Lynch, KY.
What am I doing here? I thought, as I crossed the mountain long past dark on December day. Does the National Trust have any kind of hazard pay? Because I think I deserve it! I had visions of ending up in a ditch with no cell phone coverage. There weren’t many people out—one lone car behind me for awhile, probably locals making fun of my driving. (I found a miniscule spot to pull over so they could pass me and figured they were home in bed before I got off the mountain.)
Once I came down I took a deep breath, checked online for alternative routes out (alas, there were none) and thought about what brought me here. Black Mountain and the communities of Lynch and Benham are among the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2010. I was there to attend the Harlan County Chapter of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth’s annual meeting to honor the many people who are working to keep their mountain pristine and their historic towns preserved.
You might ask, why did anyone choose to settle in this place that is so hard to get to? They didn’t. With no easy access, the area was mostly wooded wilderness until the early twentieth century. Lynch and Benham are company towns, planted in the woods to mine the coal that fed the steel furnaces of America. Miners came from all over—Italians, Poles, Irish, African Americans from the Deep South, creating a diverse community that is rare in the Appalachian chain. They put down deep roots here, and their descendants are fearful that the coal mining that built the towns could now destroy them.
The population has dwindled to a fraction of what it was during the days of shaft mining, and many structures have come down. Yet so many remain—former company housing, schools, a hospital, a theater and office buildings. One of the white schools has been reused as the Old Schoolhouse Inn; one of the African American schools is home to the Eastern Kentucky Social Club. A former commissary is now the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum, which operates Portal 31, a tour of an underground coal mine.
But it’s not just the mountain and the buildings that remain. There are also the people and their stories: stories of labor unrest, of the integration of the mines, of the closing of shaft mines and the beginnings of strip mining, stories of childhoods spent in the woods, of fishing and hunting, and, now, of how to save what they love as the mining companies attempt to get the needed permits to strip mine the mountain. It only takes a trip to the top of Black Mountain (in the daylight, with someone else driving) to see the contrast between the beauty of Black Mountain and the destruction of the land on the Virginia side caused by strip mining. Even a layer of snow can’t cover the slurry ponds and the downed timber, the moonscape left when strip mining is allowed in fragile areas. The strip mining of Black Mountain could ruin the towns’ water supply, kill the burgeoning heritage tourism industry and damage the fragile ecosystem.
That’s why I was there and what we do at the National Trust—we help save people places that matter to them. Black Mountain matters to the people of Benham and Lynch and it should matter to all of us. It matters to me, as a descendant of coal miners, as someone who loves the outdoors, as someone who cares about historic preservation and about the planet. I’ll be back, but I think I will visit my mom and sister in Asheville first and practice my mountain driving.
Karen Nickless, PhD, is a field representative in the Southern Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.