Historical Marker #1227, located in Middlesboro, KY (Bell County) recalls the difficult work and community resilience that created an entirely new Appalachian town that still thrives today.
Prior to 1886, the Yellow Creek Valley in Bell County’s Cumberland Gap, just north of the Kentucky-Tennessee border, was nearly inaccessible and inhospitable, filled with thick forests and surrounded by harsh mountains. However, one entrepreneur saw promise in the area, and had the boldness to act upon it.
Alexander Alan Arthur was born on August 30, 1846 in Glasgow, Scotland, to a wealthy and connected family. Alexander Arthur and his wife, Mary Forrest, immigrated to the United States in 1879. They settled in Boston, where Arthur had secured a position as a representative for an English-owned steel company. By 1886, he had transferred to the Richmond & Danville Railroad Company, and was sent to survey the Cumberland Gap to assess the feasibility of new railroad extensions to the area.
Upon his arrival, Arthur quickly discovered that not only would it be possible to snake a rail line through Yellow Creek Valley, but also that the area offered abundant natural resources, with acres of dense forests, and rich seams of coal and iron lacing through the mountains. He carried this profitable news back to his professional network in the East, and quickly assembled a capable team of investors to back his endeavor. The group dubbed itself The Gap Association, and Arthur took them back to Yellow Creek Valley in the summer of 1886, bringing along British geographers from prominent steel interests in England.
Remembered as a flamboyant and colorful character, Arthur had within a few months entranced British investors by promising the growth of a “Magic City” in the Yellow Creek Valley. In 1887, the investors formed the American Association, intending to fully back Arthur’s development project. They invested $20 million and bought over 100,000 acres in the area.
Over the next six years, the newly established town of Middlesborough, which was shortened to Middlesboro in 1894, characterized the industrial boom towns of the frontier. Railroad lines were laid, and thousands of workers poured in, settling in numerous so-called company towns—corporate-owned and controlled residential districts. Arthur planned and built an extravagant downtown district, where wealthy businessmen and speculators could drink, gamble, and deal in high-end hotels and bars.
However, these gilded years would prove limited. The iron ore of the Valley turned out to be of a lower quality than anticipated, and while it could still be sold as brittle “pig iron,” the profits were lower than expected. Then disaster struck in 1890, when a fire destroyed much of the city’s downtown area, which was rebuilt at a great expense to the American Association. The year’s tribulations were worsened by the closing of the Baring Brothers banking firm, which handled most of the Association’s finances.
Another temporarily crippling blow fell with the onset of the Panic of 1893, a four-year economic depression that resulted in severe inflation for the American dollar. The American Association collapsed entirely. Many investors blamed Arthur’s extravagant overspending, and as Middlesborough slowly recuperated, many of the expensive venues were torn down as the town reformed its structure and oriented itself towards greater stability.
Many of Arthur’s dreams had been foiled, and he left the town to embark on other projects after the events of the Panic. Today, hardworking Kentucky laborers, businessowners, and educators preserve the legacy of Middlesboro and continue to guide it into the future. Its coal and timber industries, among other diverse opportunities, support a population of over 60,000 people. The Lincoln Memorial University, founded by the Reverend A. A. Myers on the land of one of Alexander Arthur’s old hotels, has maintained a vibrant tradition of higher education as well.
The long history of Middlesboro speaks to the boldness, reform, and vitality that established diverse communities across Kentucky, and that allows them to weather challenging regional and worldwide crises.