Fifty Years of Night

Chapter 7: Bombs and bullets in Clear Creek

In January 1972, about two dozen women walked up a muddy road to occupy a surface mine site above Clear Creek in Knott County. Photo by Robert Newton Cooper
In January 1972, about two dozen women walked up a muddy road to occupy a surface mine site above Clear Creek in Knott County. Photo by Robert Newton Cooper

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50 Years of Night

In 1963, Harry Caudill of Whitesburg published “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area,” which shone a spotlight on the plundering of the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. The book forever changed Appalachia. On the eve of the book’s 50th anniversary, the Lexington Herald-Leader launched a yearlong look at the region’s struggles since Night was published.

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CLEAR CREEK — Twenty-one women slogged through a cold rain in Knott County on Jan. 20, 1972, hoping to get arrested.

This muddy hillside would be the final battlefield in the war over Eastern Kentucky surface mining. The so-called “war on coal” today is an endless paperwork tussle among coal operators, government regulators and citizens over the enforcement of four decades of environmental protection law. It can be hostile, but it’s not violent.

There was a war as 1972 dawned, replete with beatings, bullets and bombs. “A mood of anger is spreading across the remote ridges of the Cumberland Plateau,” The New York Times reported.

The women at Clear Creek planned to occupy land being strip-mined by the Ken Mack Coal Co. They were members of the Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People. The group rose in Knott County in 1965 and spread over the mountains to oppose surface mining’s environmental devastation. It especially loathed the broad-form deed, which let coal operators rip up private land to reach underground minerals.

The Appalachian Group sent a female delegation that morning to keep things peaceful.

“We were aware of the industry’s willingness to use violence, and that was a primary reason women were the ones most directly involved,” one of the protesters, Beth Bingman, wrote in the 1993 book Fighting Back in Appalachia. “We thought women could get away with more than men. We expected to go up on the mine, stop the operation, get arrested and plan from there.”

But somebody had tipped off the coal company. It was ready.

The women found armed guards at the main gate. The guards stopped their male escorts and several journalists while allowing the women to trudge alone for two miles up the slope and onto the “bench,” the flat shelf carved into the side of the mountain where mining was under way.

The protesters blocked the bulldozers, but they weren’t arrested. Work simply halted for the day.

Eventually, night fell. The women built a fire and tried to stay dry under a tarp. Tough-looking men drinking liquor emerged from the darkness to surround them. The guards did not stop the trucks carrying these men, who cursed about lost wages and made crude threats.

“We were not prepared for this,” Bingman wrote. “Someone, somewhere, decided not to arrest (us), but to leave us exposed on the mountainside.”

Simultaneously, in the woods around the mine, some of the protesters’ husbands, brothers and sons were closing in with rifles. One rash act would mean all hell breaking loose, Doris Shepherd, one of the protesters, recalled in a recent interview. Shepherd, now 63, still lives near Clear Creek.

“It just got uglier and uglier,” Shepherd said. “It was just exactly like you see on TV with a lynch mob. The men were drinking and talking loudly about which one of us they planned to rape first.”

Coal came late

King Coal claimed dominion over southeastern Kentucky early in the 20th century, building camps for tens of thousands of miners and their families. Residents shopped in company stores with company scrip and accepted coal into every part of their lives. But Knott County remained beyond the industry’s reach.

The county’s rugged mountains and narrow valleys kept it isolated, largely untouched by highway or railroad until after World War II. Because Knott’s several billion tons of coal could not be removed, there was no reason to mine it. There were a few underground mines along the Knott-Perry county line, but most men here identified themselves as farmers who depended on the land to feed their families.

“Poor though the land is, the county’s chief resource for the support of its large and growing population is its farms,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture wrote in a 1937 report. “Although the county is close to the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky and western Virginia, its coal production is not enough to merit classifying it as one of the coal counties of the southern Appalachians.”

After the war, however, a decent road system was paved into Knott County, followed by railroads, cracking it open like a nut. By the close of the 1940s, the county produced more than 1.5 million tons of coal a year.

Simultaneously, the post-war coal industry was undergoing a revolution. It began relying less on labor-intensive underground mines that opened slender tunnels into hillsides to reach portions of coal seams. Instead, massive equipment designed during the war — augers, shovels, bulldozers — enabled surface mining. The machines removed acres of vegetation, soil and rock to scoop out the coal underneath. They carved into the sides of ancient mountains like knives into Thanksgiving turkeys.

Surface mining was far more profitable for coal companies but left a terrible mess. It reduced sloping mountainside forests to flat stone where virtually nothing grew. Creeks were choked with debris and were laced with acid, iron, manganese and toxic levels of other heavy metals once buried in the earth, and industrial contaminants, such as diesel fuel. After mining, rainstorms plagued nearby communities with flash floods. With the natural drainage system obliterated, torrents of water poured directly into hollows where people lived.

“It was just rampant rape-and-run. I don’t know how they could justify what they did to this county,” said Shepherd, the Appalachian Group protester. “And a lot of them, as soon as they filled their pocketbooks, they left; they left us to deal with the problems — the ruined land, the polluted air and water. We’re still dealing with that today.”

‘Trial and error’

Surface mining’s pioneer in Eastern Kentucky was a Floyd County native named William Bartram Sturgill.

Sturgill and his partner, Dick Kelly, founded Kentucky Oak Mining Co. in 1959. Sturgill would grow rich and powerful, a major political donor who was Gov. John Y. Brown’s energy secretary, a banker and owner of radio stations, chairman of the State Racing Commission and of the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees.

Harry Caudill, author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, wrote that Sturgill owned “the largest coal auger in the world at the time, with a seven-foot blade that could penetrate 100 feet into a seam and dig 4,600 tons in 10 hours. Although local people protested the noise, the blasting, the landslides and the flooding caused by denuding of the steep slopes, and the ruining of their roads by overloaded coal trucks, their protests were to no avail. The governors heard the complaints but heeded Sturgill, who characterized the critics as ‘emotional’ and the floods as ‘acts of God.’”

Now 88 years old and living in Lexington, Sturgill repeatedly declined to speak for this story.

“In the early ‘60s, we knew that we were doing things wrong,” Sturgill said in a 1988 interview for the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at UK.

William Bartram Sturgill

“We would come to Frankfort and beg (state surface mining regulators) Jack Matlick and Henry Ward to give us some guidelines and some regulations that would protect the environment,” Sturgill said. “We didn’t know what they were. We did everything by trial and error.”

That trial and error was Knott County’s introduction to surface mining. By the mid-1960s, surface mining produced between 700,000 and one million tons of Knott County coal annually, figures that would double, then triple, then quadruple in the decades ahead.

Once mining was viable here, coal companies made it clear that they quietly had acquired many of Knott’s 225,825 acres. One study showed that a handful of corporations owned more than one-fourth of the county. They could do as they wished with their land. Typically, they wished to mine it.

In hardened coal counties such as Pike, Harlan and Perry, surface mining simply was the next logical step for the biggest local employer. But wreckage on such a grand scale appalled many residents in Knott County, where farmers traditionally depended on the land to grow, fish and hunt their food.

And worse for them, it turned out that their own homes were at risk.

Broad-form deed

Countless residents discovered that they merely held the so-called “surface rights” to their homes and farms. Outside corporations owned the mineral rights to any coal, gas and oil that lay underneath.

Mineral rights had been purchased in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by visiting land agents using the broad-form deed. Residents’ ancestors allegedly signed the deeds, marking them with a spidery “X” if they were illiterate. Tales of forged signatures would be commonplace as mining commenced.

The broad-form deed gave landowners no protection. Kentucky courts ruled that “the owner of mineral rights under a broad-form deed may use the surface — all of it — to acquire the minerals lying thereunder.” If a family’s homestead stood between a company’s bulldozers and a coal seam, then that was unfortunate for the family. Even family graveyards could be demolished.

“One woman, weeping, had to sit there and watch her baby’s coffin being rolled over the hill,” Alice Slone, founder of the Lotts Creek Community School in Knott County, recalled in a 1999 documentary, To Save the Land and People.

“The bulldozer pushed over her hill and she begged them not to go through the graveyard,” Slone said. “And she looked out there and there was her baby’s coffin come rolling down the hill. One man said he wouldn’t go through and push it down. The other said, ‘Hell, I will,’ and he took the bulldozer and went right on through.”

The weeping mother, Bige Ritchie of Knott County’s Sassafras Creek, recounted her story at a 1965 meeting of surface-mine protesters. “I like to lost my mind over it,” she said.

The broad-form deed, with its violation of private property, enraged Knott County more than surface mining itself, locals say. People might grudgingly accept a company wrecking its own land, even if that affected its neighbors. But driving a bulldozer onto another man’s land was asking for trouble.

“It was this notion of using the law to run over people that really caused more outrage,” said Rich Kirby, who participated in the mining protests.

‘Right to destroy’

In 1964, a Lotts Creek school teacher named LeRoy Martin sued to prevent the strip-mining of his 10 acres. Martin’s ancestors allegedly sold the mineral rights in 1905 for $259 to the Slemp Coal Co., owned by a Virginia congressman. Slemp sold them to the Kentucky River Coal Co., which leased them to Sturgill’s Kentucky Oak Mining.

Martin’s lawyer was Harry Caudill, whose Night Comes to the Cumberlands told the nation in 1963 about the plundering of Eastern Kentucky’s mountains. Caudill brought the same passion into the courtroom. He argued that the broad-form deed did not allow surface mining because only underground mining existed when the deeds were signed.

“The Kentucky mountaineers were farmers and loggers,” Caudill wrote in briefs. “It is preposterous nonsense to suggest that they would have authorized the destruction of their land by stripping if the possibility had been suggested to their minds by the instruments they signed.”

Knott Circuit Judge John Chris Cornett sided with Martin, ruling that coal companies must compensate landowners if they damage private property while surface mining. The Kentucky Court of Appeals — at the time, the state’s highest court — overruled Cornett. The appellate court said the deed gave coal operators almost unlimited power.

“It appears to us that if the mineral owner bought and paid for the right to destroy the surface in a good-faith exercise of the right to remove the minerals, then there is no basis upon which there could rest an obligation to pay damages,” the Court of Appeals ruled in 1968.

‘A war zone’

Martin’s land was stripped. But he became founding chairman of the Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People, which challenged surface mining across the region — both legally, organizing peaceful protests, and illegally, winking at nighttime sabotage. The sun rose on more than a few burned and bomb-shattered shovels and bulldozers.

A hard-core splinter group, the Mountaintop Gun Club, established shooting ranges on private land about to be mined against owners’ wishes. Bullets whizzing past their heads gave coal operators something to consider as they approached with a broad-form deed in hand.

“This scared the hell out of them,” gun club organizer Charles “Buck” Maggard said, chuckling, in an early 1990s oral history interview.

Membership in a protest group carried risks as coal became more important locally. Knott County officials terminated food stamps and welfare benefits for Bessie Smith and her children because she refused to stop attending Appalachian Group events, Smith claimed. “Uncle” Dan Gibson, then 81, used his .22-caliber rifle to keep Sturgill’s miners off family land, but he ended up getting arrested and carted to jail in Hindman. Someone bombed the front of LeRoy Martin’s home, smashing windows but not injuring anyone.

“Look, people don’t realize it now, but it was like a war zone out here back then,” Knott County resident Sterling Martin said recently. LeRoy Martin, his father, died last year.

“There were battles royal on Clear Creek,” said Shepherd, the Appalachian Group protester. “There were snipers. You could hear shooting from the school I went to at Cordia. Mining equipment was wrecked.”

“But then, at the same time, our little hollow was destroyed by miners,” Shepherd said. “The hillside meadows, the orchards — all were gone. We did keep them from destroying Grandpa’s house, which is a blessing.”

Sturgill resented the rebellion. One afternoon in the 1970s, he walked into the Colonial Club in Hazard as LeRoy Martin and another Appalachian Group leader, Eldon Davidson, finished their lunch.

“Bill Sturgill was so angry with them, he shouted and he ranted and he pounded his fist on their table,” said Alice Whitaker, executive director of the Lotts Creek Community School and a friend of the two protesters.

“When he was through, he scooped up the tip LeRoy and Eldon had left on the table for the waitress,” Whitaker said her friends told her. “That’s how mad he was. Or maybe it was just inherent in his character that if he saw any money anywhere, he figured he was entitled to it.”

Surface miners suffered “an unfair image,” Sturgill complained in his oral history interview. Any coal operator in Kentucky was considered at best a second-class citizen, he said, but a surface-mine operator was “never more than a sixth-class citizen.”

“I would like for people to remember that I was a useful citizen and established my time in supporting the priorities of Kentucky education and roads and social services and health care,” Sturgill said. “That’s what I would like to be remembered as, rather than a guy who wore horns and (chuckle) and did all those ugly things, because I have a very sensitive feeling about that.”

The widow Combs

LeRoy Martin sued to save his land. Ollie Combs sat down on hers.

In November 1965, Combs, 61 and recently widowed, was arrested by Kentucky State Police and carried down a mountainside near the Knott County community of Honey Gap. Combs refused to let the Caperton Coal Co. strip-mine her land. Instead, she and two of her sons sat before the bulldozers.

“About halfway down the hill, I began to get kind of heavy,” Combs said in a 1975 interview for the Appalachian Oral History Project at Alice Lloyd College. “One of the police officers said, ‘Mrs. Combs, if you’ll get up and walk, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.’ I said, ‘I don’t drink coffee.’”

A picture of state troopers hauling Combs to jail landed on the front of national newspapers, shocking Americans and turning her into an overnight celebrity. (Trying to avoid just that outcome, police also arrested Bill Strode, a photographer for The Courier-Journal who was shooting pictures at the scene. Strode somehow smuggled his film back to his editors in Louisville.)

An adviser to Gov. Edward “Ned” Breathitt, a liberal Democrat who disliked surface mining, shrewdly dubbed her “the widow Combs,” a name that stuck in news stories and made her even more sympathetic. Breathitt told state police to stop assisting coal operators in their face-offs with nonviolent landowners — or as he grandly phrased it, “in the enforcement of legal rights by the rich and powerful against the humble people of a community.”

Combs was bemused by the experience. She told people she wasn’t trying to make history. She just wanted to save her land, most of which, ultimately, was spared from stripping.

“It’s where I raised my family and it’s the only home I ever really owned,” Combs said in 1975. “I told them, ‘Go under the hill; you can go under the hill and get coal — people used to get it that way — go under the hill and get the coal.’”

Breathitt seized on the momentum of the protest movement to force through the legislature some modest restrictions on surface mining. The bill Breathitt signed into law in 1966 was meant to curb the worst abuses. It set basic reclamation rules, such as restoring mined land “to approximate original contour,” and it established minimum bench widths and maximum slope angles for mining.

Breathitt was proud, hailing the law as one of his finer achievements. In Knott County, people who wanted surface mining banned in the mountains were less impressed. However good his intentions, they said, Breathitt made surface mining legitimate by putting it in the statute books.

“We didn’t want it here at all,” said Shepherd of Clear Creek.

Knott says ‘No’

In April 1970, impassioned residents of Clear Creek and Lotts Creek approached the Knott County Fiscal Court to demand that surface mining be prohibited as a public nuisance.

Their southwest corner of the county had turned into the epicenter for dissent. According to news reports at the time, more than 100 men worked at 17 surface mines concentrated in that area.

Dr. Donald Martin of the Homeplace Clinic warned the fiscal court that “heavily loaded coal trucks” damaged rural roads and left them “barely passable,” making it difficult for ambulances to reach his patients.

“They are polluting our streams, causing landslides, destroying land for agricultural purposes and ruining some houses,” resident Paul Ashley said. “All the harm they do outweighs any benefits we can get.”

Two months later, at an emotionally charged meeting, the fiscal court split 2 to 2 on whether to ban surface mining. With hundreds of protesters urging him on, a reluctant Judge-Executive Sid Williams — who, on the side, sold equipment to mining companies — cast the deciding vote in favor of a ban. Each violation would bring a $500 fine.

Members of the Appalachian Group cheered uninterrupted for five minutes. “God bless the judge!” one woman cried. They marched down the courthouse steps to celebrate in the streets of Hindman.

Their victory was short-lived. Kentucky Attorney General John B. Breckinridge sent a terse letter informing the fiscal court that Knott County, as a subsidiary of the state, “has no authority to legislate in the field of strip-mining.”

Regardless of what the community wanted, surface mining would continue.

‘They got so mad’

To the women blocking the bulldozers on Clear Creek in 1972, democracy had failed. All that remained was direct action.

Fifteen hours into their sit-in, the women were surrounded by drunken, threatening men. The group anxiously debated whether to retreat, assuming they could find their way back down a muddy slope at night.

About 10 p.m., two Kentucky State Police troopers arrived with flashlights. There has been violence down at the main gate, the officers said. People are hurt. You can stay here if you choose, but it would be best if you let us take you to safety right now.

The women fled under police escort.

Back at the entrance, they learned that the troopers had told the truth. Unidentified men were attacking and beating a support group waiting for them, and several journalists who had arrived to cover the protest. Three men were pistol-whipped. Bloody head wounds needed medical attention at the nearest hospital, more than a half-hour away in Hazard.

Doris Shepherd saw two injured journalists in a car leave for Hazard. The attackers, whooping joyously, jumped into their own vehicles to chase it. To give the wounded men a head start, she and her sister tried to block the exit behind their car.

“Shirley and I stood holding hands together across the road,” Shepherd said. “We’d walk in front of the other cars so they couldn’t speed out of there. They got so mad at us! They were beeping their horns at us and getting as close to us as they could without hitting us. Finally, they were getting so close to us, we had to jump off the road and get out of the way.”

The day’s violence earned news coverage as far away as The New York Times and the Washington Post, but it was Knott County’s last major surface-mine protest. The Appalachian Group faded away.

“Eventually,” according to a Knott County history book published in 1994, “the big money from these operations defeated the landowners as one after another watershed fell victim to strip-mine bulldozers. Lotts Creek, Clear Creek, Mill Creek, Big Branch, Combs Branch, Ogden, Ball, Montgomery, Trace, Irishman, Yellow Creek, Blue Grass, Rough Holler, and the list goes on and on until all these watersheds were polluted with acid mine water and silt.”

Public sentiment turned as surface mines replaced farms. Coal became the top employer. Blocking a bulldozer meant costing neighbors a day’s pay — and as the violence at Clear Creek demonstrated, they were not grateful. One surface miner idled by a sit-in protest told The Courier-Journal, “You want to write a sad story? Write about the $40 a day I ain’t getting and the groceries I ain’t buying while this is going on.”

Beth Bingman, one of the Clear Creek women, now is managing director of Appalshop, an arts and education nonprofit in Whitesburg.

“We were oblivious to the jobs angle,” Bingman said recently. “If you didn’t personally know someone who worked on a strip job, and many of us didn’t, then you really didn’t understand how they felt — the people whose economy depends on mining.”

In years to come, when Knott County organized rallies about coal, it cheered coal operators and jeered environmentalists. Several rallies decrying a “war on coal” have been held since 2008 at the county’s Sportsplex, an athletics center built on a reclaimed mine.

“There’s no question that this coal industry and your job is under attack!” Kentucky House Democratic Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook shouted to a crowd of several thousand industry supporters at the 2011 coal rally. “This fight is worth fighting! It’s about our way of life! It’s about how we do our living out here in Eastern Kentucky!”

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