Series ably showing E. Ky. promise, peril

August 19, 2013 

Harry and Anne Caudill on their Whitesburg farm in July 1963. She now lives in southern Indiana near her children.

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  • At issue: Herald-Leader series of articles on Eastern Kentucky, 50 years after Harry Caudill's book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area

The Herald-Leader is doing a great service to Kentucky with its series "50 Years of Night." Your reporters, Bill Estep and John Cheves, have put before Kentuckians the ongoing distress of the eastern third of the state with its dependence on coal for their economic life.

Night Comes to the Cumberlands, indeed.

Your paper is telling how the people suffer. It tells how the land suffers. They have investigated thoroughly and told it well.

A few days ago, I had opportunity to revisit parts of the coal counties I had not seen in some years. For decades my husband, Harry Caudill, and I rambled along mountain hollows, through coal camps by car, and often hiked to high mountain tops or special beauty spots.

This time, with family at the wheel, I spent two days taking time to visit Salyersville, Prestonsburg, Pikeville and Hindman.

I saw impressive developments of handsome homes, beautiful city buildings and elaborate landscaping, indicating the profits from the coal economy in another of its boom times. The fine roads and modern institutions built, with government funds and severance tax money, have dramatically changed those towns from the way I first knew them more than 60 years ago.

Ending our first day, we watched the incomparable beauty of clouds rising through the gorge of the Breaks of Sandy to be colored orange, pink and lavender by the setting sun. And again early the next morning the spectacle reappeared with the rising sun.

Turning westward that Sunday we spent a long day driving the winding back roads through the long hollows, around the mountainsides, up through the gaps and down into the old coal towns of Pike, Floyd, Knott and Wolf counties.

It was a lovely day of intermittent rain and sunshine. The great canopy of trees dripped. Water gushed over rocky places. The creeks ran clear and fresh. It was a demonstration of how the forest captures and regulates the sources of the water supply on which all depends.

Then we came to the hideous spaces that once had been mountains and now are desolate expanses of barren rocks left by the mountaintop removal method of mining. Water rushing from the hollows filled with their rubble now yellow. We have learned that it is toxic.

All along the valleys and in the old coal towns the signs of distress are everywhere. So many houses are in disrepair, though most have gardens and show efforts to keep them neat. Here and there, new homes indicate recent prosperity for the fortunate who have had jobs.

In wider valleys pastures and corn crops remind us of the rural life of earlier years. There are too many, far too many abandoned derelict homes.

I could not help but weep for the beloved country and uncertain future of our people.

Your recent reporting of the importance of severance tax money to the counties is revealing. More than 70 years of the unremitting hauling away of the coal, and the back-breaking labor that produced it, passed before a severance tax on coal taken from the land was enacted.

The region gained nothing but day wages and housing for which the miners were charged. Whatever amenities the coal companies provided diminished the amounts the miners were paid.

It was in 1972 that the state legislature finally mandated a severance tax on coal. Harry Caudill had crusaded for 20 years to arouse Kentuckians to demand some payment for the hauling away of the state's resources. He introduced legislation which did not win approval. He wrote books and continual magazine and newspaper articles. He traveled to speak to groups wherever he was invited. When the tax bill passed, the operators proclaimed it would put them out of business. Your reporters have told part of the story of how that tax has been a major support for the counties. Most has been used wisely, but sometimes not.

I am especially pleased to learn that just this month a new library building for the town of Neon in Letcher County has opened its doors. It provides modern library services, computers as well as books. Its meeting space is a safe and welcoming place for students after school hours and for various community meetings.

There is no way to measure the impact a good free library has. Free to all who enter its doors, it is a vital component of ongoing education. And endless entertainment of the mind is to be found there. The development of library service in Letcher County has been an ongoning project for me for nearly 60 years.

Your in-depth reporting and editorial comment on the continuing challenges to the land and people of the eastern counties must raise again the attention of Kentuckians and the nation. May wise leaders find ways to diversify its economy while saving the vital renewable resources of clean water and verdant green land as a home for this generation and those to come.

I look forward to the future studies of the health, education and promising innovative approaches to today's bleak economic outlook.


At issue: Herald-Leader series of articles on Eastern Kentucky, 50 years after Harry Caudill's book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area

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