The valley along Looney Creek in Harlan County was a wooded wilderness in 1917 when U.S. Steel, hungry for coal to make steel during World War I, bought 19,000 acres and set about creating the largest company-owned coal town in the world.
The company built an entire town from scratch — hundreds of houses, stores, schools, a hotel, a hospital, a baseball field, a fire station, water and power plants and industrial buildings, including a machine shop and the highest-capacity coal tipple anywhere.
Despite the buzz of work and grand intentions, some thought the town would be a flash in the pan.
The L&N Railroad refused to extend tracks to Lynch from Benham, a coal town about a mile away, because officials felt the town would die after the war when demand for steel went down, according to one history by a U.S. Steel official.
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The company built its own tracks, and Lynch survived. The town at the foot of Kentucky’s highest peak, Black Mountain, turns 100 this year.
In that century, Lynch has mirrored the history of Eastern Kentucky as coal jobs swung up and down and families moved out to find work during hard times.
More than half the coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky have disappeared since a precipitous slide started in 2012. At the end of 2016, there were fewer miners on the job in all of Eastern Kentucky than there were at the U.S. Steel mines at Lynch at their peak.
The town’s population has declined to less than 800 from a peak of 10,000, and a third of the houses are vacant, according to U.S. Census figures.
Now, like the rest of the region, Lynch is looking for a new way forward. Residents are trying to promote tourism and small businesses to create jobs, and a study about the possibility of merging with two nearby towns is underway.
The challenges from an anemic economy and a declining tax base are steep, but many in Lynch have a fierce pride in the historic town and are determined to breathe new life into it.
A committee of volunteers is working to schedule events each month to mark the anniversary. On Jan. 1, local churches rang their bells for 100 seconds, and in February, residents put up red ribbons around town. The big event will be in September, with plans for a car show, vendors, family games and performances by several bands.
Residents also have set up a Facebook page where they are posting historic photos and trivia about the town’s past.
The hope is that the centennial will be a springboard for efforts to keep Lynch from withering away.
“The city was built by coal but it can be maintained by something else,” said Rev. Ronnie Hampton, a retired mine inspector who was the town’s first black mayor. “As long as we’ve got breath, we won’t give up.”
Coal companies built hundreds of towns in Southern Appalachia in the early 1900s. Many were thrown together with cookie-cutter houses, poor sanitation and few amenities.
Lynch, however, was considered a model town, with better-built houses of varying styles; health care better than that available to most people in the region; recreation opportunities that included lighted tennis courts, the baseball field, a bowling alley and dances at the hotel ballroom; paved streets; a sewage system; and a company commissary that was reputed to be the best department store in Eastern Kentucky, according to historians.
Italian immigrants used sandstone quarried from the nearby hills to build impressive public buildings.
“None of them rivaled Lynch,” James B. Goode, a retired community college professor who grew up in the neighboring coal town of Benham and has studied the history of Lynch, said of other coal towns.
The thought was that keeping miners content would enhance production and keep down problems.
‘A lot of fun here’
Lynch resident Irene Florek, who is 100, arrived in town with her family when she was a few months old. Her father had moved from a U.S. Steel coal town in West Virginia to work at the new Lynch mines.
Florek lived near the baseball field and remembers frequent activities including games and parades. One local history recounts that the company would close off the street to the hotel when it snowed so kids could go sledding.
“It was a lot of fun here at that time,” Florek said.
The company history recounts milestones from Lynch’s first 40 years, including a meningitis epidemic that hit the area in early 1936. U.S. Steel banned church services and public gatherings to try to limit the spread, and set up a temporary hospital.
Six of the 100 Lynch residents who got sick died, but the death rate was 80 percent or more in nearby communities, according to the company history, which attributed the relatively few deaths in town to the good medical care from company doctors.
In the Depression, people relied on gardens to help get by and the Red Cross gave out flour and other commodities, the history said.
Lynch was a classic melting pot of white people from the region, black people from the South and immigrants of more than 30 nationalities. In 1921, nearly 60 percent of the outgoing mail was to Europe, according to one history.
U.S. Steel recruited black workers from Alabama and other Southern states who were looking for better work than sharecropping, including some recruited from older mines in the Birmingham area.
The company also had recruiters at Ellis Island who used ship manifests to identify European immigrants with mining experience that they could hire, Goode said.
The first load of coal left Lynch in November 1917. By June of 1920, the Lynch mines employed 2,300 men and the population of the town had already reached 5,350, according to a company history.
“It was hustle and bustle here,” said Mike O’Bradovich, a first-generation American whose father came to Lynch from what became Yugoslavia and whose mother was from Germany.
O’Bradovich followed his father into the mines, working from 1974 to 2002.
The sense of pride many in Lynch felt was rooted in immigrants making their way in a new country, O’Bradovich said.
“The pride started when these people were coming over, becoming Americans,” he said.
Generations of black residents have maintained ties to Lynch through the Eastern Kentucky Social Club, which has chapters around the country and sponsors a Labor Day reunion each year, and through a homecoming to Lynch each Memorial Day.
When a former city clerk was charged in 2009 with stealing $137,000 from the city, leaving it strapped, the city council appointed Hampton to steer the city through the crisis.
Hampton sent letters to Eastern Kentucky Social Club members and former residents seeking help, which brought in thousands in donations.
Lynch was segregated until the 1960s. Black and white employees worked together in the mines, but black miners could not move up to supervisory positions until winning a lawsuit in the 1970s, and schools and entertainment were segregated.
There was racial violence directed at black residents in the Appalachian coalfields, especially in the early days, but there was a relatively high degree of harmony between the races at a personal level, historian Ron Eller wrote in his 1982 book “Miners, Millhands and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the American South 1880-1930.”
Whites and blacks in the mines had to rely on each other for their safety, and there were not major differences in pay or living conditions for miners of different races, Eller said.
When the schools integrated in the mid-1960s, U.S. Steel “made it seamless,” said Dwain Morrow, whose father, William Morrow, retired after working 40 years for the company.
‘Virtual reign of terror’
Labor relations were another matter.
Harlan County had some of the most widely reported labor clashes in the country between the world wars. Coal operators used control over the county's economy and politicians to beat back organizing efforts, evicting union members from company houses, blacklisting them from getting jobs and paying the salaries of sheriff's deputies who intimidated miners.
Lynch was not immune from the violence associated with those struggles that cemented the nickname “Bloody Harlan.”
There were shootings in Lynch, including one fight at the bathhouse in which two men died, Goode said.
“They didn’t hesitate to resort to violence,” he said of the union organizers and the coal companies.
U.S. Steel and other coal companies exerted authoritarian control over employees and the economic, political and social life in the county, John W. Hevener said in his 1978 account of the labor battles of the 1930s, “Which Side Are You On?”
When the United Mine Workers of America tried in 1935 to sign up members at U.S. Coal and Coke, the U.S. Steel division that operated Lynch, the company laid in a supply of tear gas and extra ammunition, barred organizers and followed union members and destroyed their literature, Hevener wrote.
A state commission later said that a “virtual reign of terror” existed in the county, financed by coal operators in collusion with public officials, and that miners had been evicted, beaten and mistreated.
Goode said U.S. Steel eventually accepted the UMW at Lynch in the late 1930s, deciding that the cost wouldn’t be onerous.
Pay and benefits for miners improved under the union, said William Morrow, 94, who lied about his age to go to work for U.S. Steel at 16.
“It made it better,” Morrow said.
By the late 1950s, mechanization had eliminated many miners’ jobs and railroads and factories switched to other fuel sources, reducing demand for coal.
Coal production hit a 50-year-low in Harlan County in 1960, and the county’s population dropped by nearly half between 1950 and 1970 as people left to find work, according to Census figures.
U.S. Steel and other companies, including International Harvester at neighboring Benham, decided it was too costly to maintain company-owned towns. They tore down many houses, sold others to residents, turned over schools to county districts and gave offices and other buildings to the towns, keeping only their mining operations.
U.S. Steel eventually ended its involvement in Lynch after more than six decades, selling its mines to Arch Coal in 1984.
These days, the city is living month to month financially and operates in the red at times, said Mayor John Adams.
“Getting by — that would be optimistic,” Adams said.
Arch stopped mining around town in the late 1980s, cutting a key source of revenue for the city from selling water to the mines.
Adams said the city needs more employees but can’t afford to hire. When both of its water-plant operators quit in January, the mayor pressed his sons into service to keep the plant going.
But residents say Lynch also has assets to develop its tourism economy, including the beauty of the mountains, a fascinating history and its coal-camp houses and buildings.
Some of the original buildings in town are still in use, such as the hospital and a building that was a bank and post office, which now holds City Hall.
Kitty Dougoud, administrator of the Kentucky Main Street Program at the Kentucky Heritage Council, said she was not aware of a more intact coal town.
“The potential is there,” Dougoud said.
Neighboring Benham is home to the Kentucky Coal Museum in the renovated coal-company commissary and other historic buildings, including the School House Inn, which was a high school for decades beginning in the 1920s but was converted to a hotel.
Cumberland, Benham and Lynch have been designated as trail towns. They are working to develop hiking and horse trails, and Lynch has started work on a campground.
The city received a grant to renovate the old coal-camp fire station, which now houses Fire House Gifts and Crafts, and a Christian service organization called Meridzo Center Ministries financed the renovation of a building that housed a popular restaurant in the 1920s across from the portal of a mine in the center of town. The Lamp House Coffee shop is in the building now.
There has been interest for years in restoring more of the town’s old stone buildings, but not enough money to match the interest.
The town did receive financing to create a unique attraction at the Portal 31 exhibition mine. Visitors tour a restored section of an underground mine where workers produced more than 100 million tons of coal from 1917 to the early 1960s.
Recordings and animatronic displays tell the story of mining and the town over decades, covering technology, safety concerns, union organizing, and the rise and fall of Lynch.
‘Here to help people’
Residents say Meridzo also is a key resource for the town.
In addition to renovating the building for the coffee shop, the ministry operates a convenience store, a gym, a veterinary clinic, retreat centers and a stable in Harlan and Letcher counties.
Meridzo sees its mission as helping people with practical needs, including jobs, and in the process share the Gospel of Christ, said Lonnie Riley, who founded the ministry with his wife, Belinda, in 1999.
“We’re here to help people,” Riley said.
Meridzo is working to recruit a chiropractor, and has started a facility to grow shiitake mushrooms in sections of hardwood logs in the old bathhouse where miners cleaned up before going home.
There also is an effort underway to develop a customer-service center to provide jobs locally.
Betsy Shirey, who is developing the project, said her idea is a center where employees would field telephone calls and emails for other companies, and could provide other services, such as bookkeeping and marketing.
Shirey works for Humana, but after visiting Lynch on mission trips coordinated by Meridzo, she felt a spiritual calling to try to bring jobs to the area.
She can do her job from home, so she bought a house in Lynch and moved from Louisville.
Shirey said the lack of jobs in the area has helped create an attitude of entrenched hopelessness for many people.
“We’ve got to build up some infrastructure of meaningful work for people,” Shirey said.
Some think merging services for Lynch, Benham and Cumberland — or even merging local governments — would put all three on better footing.
The three lie end to end over a space of a few miles and have been known as the Tri-Cities for decades, but grew up as distinct places, with their own schools and competing sports teams, and have always maintained separate city services.
With all three stretched thin, however, their councils agreed to a merger study proposed by the Tri-City Chamber of Commerce, which said in its application for a grant that with declining populations and tax bases, the three towns “have struggled mightily in their efforts to maintain basic services to their citizens.”
The study will focus on how the towns could form one government, how services could be combined, potential savings and how layoffs would be handled if needed.
I really fear for their existence unless they are willing to come together and work as one.
W. Bruce Ayers, former president of Southeast Community and Technical College
W. Bruce Ayers, former president of Southeast Community and Technical College in Cumberland and head of the chamber, said many members believe merger is needed.
A merger would reduce costs, increase efficiency and give the unified city a better shot at government grants, Ayers said.
“I really fear for their existence unless they are willing to come together and work as one,” Ayers said.
It will probably be next year before the study is done and the towns have to decide on merging.
Even if they do, Lynch won’t lose its identity in its second century, said Mary Jo O’Bradovich, who with her husband Mike is involved in the centennial committee.
“After 100 years, I don’t think anyone is going to say, I am from the Tri-Cities,’” she said. “Lynch will be Lynch.”