Explore KY's Coal History

Tour curated by: The ExploreKYHistory Team

Kentucky is almost as well known for its coal production as it is for its horse and bourbon industries. When one thinks of Kentucky coal, the mountains of the state's eastern counties most often come to mind. But, the Commonwealth's western coal fields have a long history, too. Coal's influence has been and continues to be felt across the state.

Coal mining has been a part of Kentucky's story since its earliest days of settlement. However, it was in the late-nineteenth century and into the twentieth century when coal began to be extracted in vast amounts. This era saw the rise of the railroad as a more efficient means of moving coal to newly emerging markets. In addition, the need for ever increasing amounts of household electricity, which often came from coal-burning plants, escalated the demand for Kentucky coal.

On this tour you will be introduced to some of the state's coal mining towns—many of which were started by corporations that needed local and immigrant labor for the difficult and dangerous work of mining. This tour also discusses some of the tragic disasters that have occurred in the state’s mines. These stories are illustrated with images that help one envision what life was like for those who made their living by mining. We hope that this tour provides you with a better understanding of Kentucky’s coal mining history as it is displayed on the historical markers across the state, because it is a story that has affected, at least in some small way, almost all of Kentucky.

Locations for Tour

Historical Marker #1804 in Jenkins notes the history of this Letcher County coal town. In the last decade of the 19th century coal production by industrial companies began in earnest. A rapidly industrializing United States needed a fuel source to…

Historical Marker #2314 in Letcher County notes the tragic mine explosions that occurred at Scotia Mine in 1976. The accidents are noted as being one of the worst mine disasters in U.S. history. When industrial coal mining came to the mountains of…

Historical Marker # 1632 in Johnson County remembers entrepreneur John Caldwell Calhoun Mayo as a "dreamer" and a "doer." Born in Pike County on September 16, 1864, the Mayo family moved to Paintsville in Johnson County when John…

Historical Marker #743 in Daviess County commemorates Robert Triplett, a coal magnate who constructed the first railway in the state. Triplett was a Virginian who arrived in the Owensboro area around 1817. He was employed to survey land claims, but…

Historical Markers #1178 and #1978 in Greenup County commemorate the Eastern Kentucky Railway, which played an important part in developing the area's coal, iron, and timber resources. The Eastern Kentucky Railway was originally chartered in…

Historical Marker #1272 commemorates Wallsend Coal Mine, the first to begin operation in Bell County. Commercial enterprises expanded in Bell County when the Louisville and Nashville Railroad was extended from Corbin to Pineville in 1888. The…

Historical Marker #1338 in Hopkins County celebrates Earlington, a western Kentucky coal town. Founded in 1870 by the St. Bernard Coal Co., Earlington was named for John B. Earle, who was credited with having stuck the first pick into the hillside…

Historical Marker #1803 in Harlan County commemorates Lynch, the largest company-owned town in Kentucky through World War II. Lynch was established by the U.S. Coal and Coke Company, a subsidiary of the United States Steel Company, in 1917. The…

Historical Marker #2109 in Lynch, Kentucky (Harlan County) commemorates the history of the Lynch Colored School, a segregation-era school that educated the community's African American students. When the coal boom hit eastern Kentucky in the…

Historical Marker #2130 in Pike County commemorates the connection of the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Railroad and the Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio Railroad (later Clinchfield) at Elkhorn City. When the junction was completed in 1915, Elkhorn…

Historical Marker #2359 in Leslie County remembers the Finley Mine disaster at Hurricane Creek in December 1970. Located four miles east of Hyden, Kentucky, the mine loaded an average of 1,500 tons of coal per day. Exactly one year prior to the…