Harlan County, You’ll never Get Out Alive! But we did.

One of my favorite shows Justified, was based on Harlan County.

A little backstory on Lynch in Harlan County. Lynch was established in 1917 by US Steel. It built the town, it built the roads. US Steel owned the mines and everything in the town including the people. Miners were paid not in money  but in script. Script was only redeemable in one place, the US Steel Company Store. At its hey day Cumberland, Benham and Lynch made up the Trip-Cities. At one point there was enough of a population to boast the name. Sadly today the population has dropped to around 700 citizens. It’s the type of region where the residents are mostly above 65 and the youth leave as soon as possible.  

Sunday, March 16, 2020. They day before the pandemic pretty much shut everything down, Jay Farrell and I decided to take a trip to Harlan County, KY. There we hoped to find several abandoned sites to explore and shoot. 8am found us on the interstate driving up into Bluegrass country and then beyond that to mountain country. The slip from the from the relatively flat to hill country was subtle but after 4 hrs of driving our view became one dominated by mountains. Mountains grey, where uncountable small waterfalls cascade into culverts and gullies by the road. Skeletal trees marked our progress, as well as raging creeks and rivers, nearly swollen beyond the confines of their banks. The sky remained gray, birds chased one another and fog crowned every mountain before us. 

The mountains bring to mind Tolkien’s Misty Mountains

Highway 119 took us past Totz, Hiram, Chad, then a right onto E. Main Street through the small town of Benham which in opens up to Lynch. E. Main St., really is the Main Street of Lynch which is a surprisingly narrow road that winds like a ribbon through the town.

A coal shuttle, these stretch over the highway in many places.

Rounding a bend we stopped at the Lynch Colored School. Yes, I said The Lynch Colored Public School. Built in 1923 by US Steel the school sits right smack in the middle of Main St. This massive brick two story structure is imposing and  proud bearing. The grounds are surrounded by plaques dedicated to the Black Miners of Benham (https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/05/03/they-will-remember-us-the-miners-of-black-harlan/).  African American miners were quite often given the most dangerous jobs. 

Stretching our legs was our first concern upon exiting the car, it had been a long drive on our muscles needed to limber up as we gathered our cameras. One thing we noticed was that all the windows of the school had been boarded up, and whomever did it, did a damned good job. Usually a short walk around an abandoned property usually net us a small overlooked entrance into a building. This was not the case today though.

It was somewhat puzzling, there had to be a reason. Circling to the back it was plain to see that not all of the building was closed. Some local outfit a community group, still used the property and that  might be why the building was sealed so tightly. Still it was a little odd. With a rueful shrug I and Jay got back on our ride and went in hunt of our next site, the Lynch Graded High-School. 

On our way to the school we came across another abandoned building we’d been looking for. The United  Supply Co. Corporation, a company store.

I don’t think they wanted any tourists.

Clothes, food, mining equipment, and more could be had at the store. But there was a catch. Nothing could be purchased here with the dollar, no, the mining company had their own currency called Script. This is what the miners used in lieu of actual money. What’s worse is that the goods within the store were outrageously expensive. The goods were so expensive that miners and their families would be in constant debt to the store. Let’s face it, this was little better than indentured servitude. 

Parking in the adjoining lot of the Lynch Post Office we gathered our cameras and after an appreciative look at the building before us, we approached. We stood in the valley of the surrounding mountains and next to us stood a building made of hewn stone, almost resembling a small castle. Windows stood staring out at the world with vacant eyes. The walls were scorched in places, large pieces of plywood had closed ooff what must have been long impressive show windows. Here and there burn marks peeked out from the edges of the plywood. At first glance it looked as if there’d be no way oof entering the building, and to an extent this was true.

But Jay and I are dogged about what we do and are seldom quick to lose hope. As it was there was an awful lot of abandoned building eye candy to be had and shutters clicked away. On the right side of the old company store we found a loading dock of sorts with what looked like a collapsed tunnel that ran along the back of the store and behind that another structure stood right beside the river that flowed quickly alongside it. Splitting up Jay went his own way as did I. I made my way along the front of the store then down a bank into what looked like another smaller parking lot on the left side of the store. A small wing lay before me a doorway open black and gaping to the world.

I’d look into that later, right now it was the structure nearer the river I was interested in. There stood an alley of sorts between the two, the floor of which was now a vibrant moss green. This combined with the sparse foliage, and massive stone structures to either side the alleyway had an almost mystical look, with a bit of menace thrown in. I decided this would keep too. 

No, I wanted to find a way into the the smaller of the two buildings. Carefully ,I climbed down to the buildings entrance and stood looking at a massive mound of debris and could steel wire almost as tall as myself.

Beyond it was a wonder of destruction. The building stood empty, minus a roof. All the flooring was covered in green moss and hardy weeds and creepers. There was almost magically floating a small squarish room, that stood upon a few girders and below that what looked to be a square metal lipped entrance to the underground. If it had been possible I’d been happy to climb over the mound of wires to more fully explore the room before me. But, sometimes it’s best not to tempt fate too much.

None of the mound of debris before me looked stable, it was rife with small holes that could easily swallow a person’s foot and boom, like that we’ve a frigging trip ending accident. Thanks but no thanks! So with a regretful sigh I scrambled back up to higher ground and went left to expire the alley I’d spied. I loved the look of the alley far more than I did going thru it.

The stunted trees, bushes, creepers and roots poked, pulled, stabbed, and ensnared me forward movement. With a surge I emerged from the alley and stood beside the back of the company store. There wasn’t a lot to see, but I did like the look of the one metal roll-up door that had been tagged with the obligatory legend “ Do not enter”.

Well, at least it was better than a badly rendered dick. I stood there shooting the concrete lip of the loading dock wondering just how long the store had been empty and how bad the fire must have been? From the empty windows on the left and the right it was easy to see that parts of the ceiling had collapsed at one point and likely so had the floor beneath it. What about the ground floor? Had it fallen into the basement? There was no way to tell, it would remain a mystery. 

With a few more shots from the parking lot Jay and I began to hike back to the car and begin looking for main reason we’d come to Lynch, which was the old Lynch High-school. 

More to come from our Harlan County trip.