Coal, Harry Caudill said, has always cursed the land in which it lies.
Debilitating poverty gripped Eastern Kentucky when Caudill, a Whitesburg lawyer, wrote his impassioned 1963 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area.
Caudill laid much of the blame on coal. Corporate agents and speculators bought the rights to hundreds of thousands of acres of coal in the region for a pittance in the 1800s. When demand for coal increased in the early 1900s to stoke factory furnaces and forge steel for a growing nation, much of Eastern Kentucky quickly became an industrial colony, where the profits from its black gold flowed to distant companies but the damage remained.
“When men begin to wrest it from the earth it leaves a legacy of foul streams, hideous slag heaps and polluted air. It peoples this transformed land with blind and crippled men and with widows and orphans,” Caudill wrote. “It is an extractive industry which takes all away and restores nothing. It mars but never beautifies. It corrupts but never purifies.”
Much has changed 50 years on, but the issues that Caudill raised continue to echo across the region.
Sunday, the Lexington Herald-Leader resumes its 50 Years of Night series by examining how the coal industry has altered the land, people and economy of one Eastern Kentucky county since Night Comes to the Cumberlands was published.
The newspaper chose Knott County, which has been more dependent on coal than any other place in Kentucky for much of the past two decades. We hope the next five chapters of our series will spark widespread discussion about the indelible mark that coal has left on Eastern Kentucky, and about what comes next for the region.