I’ve explored – and daydreamed about – many a rural hamlet, with only a few souls still in residence, while most lie peacefully in the small family cemeteries nearby. Old churches, post offices, feed mills, and schools still stand, in various stages of decay, to testify to a community once bustling with human activity,and tied into the stream of energy that is the living world. These crossroad communities are familiar to me, in the way that words from a much-loved poem drift across your mind with ease during a moment of quiet. None of my time in Kentucky’s rural villages, however, prepared me for the experience of a coal-mining town carved from a mountain valley and shrunken from a giddy high of 10,000 residents to less than 1,000 inhabitants, where entire streets hold less than half a dozen occupied dwellings.
Lynch, Kentucky, nestled in a narrow valley along Looney Creek in southeastern Harlan County, was once the largest coal camp in the world. Founded in 1917 by US Coal and Coke, a subsidiary of US Steel, this three-mile long model town was designed to include everything for its residents, which comprised over 38 nationalities.
The company built everything that a community might need – public buildings, houses, stores – and schools.* As any reader of this blog will know, I have a soft spot for historic schools, and consider their closing to be the shuttering of a certain portion of a community’s soul.
The Lynch Graded School System, formed in 1919, followed the segregated strictures of the non-coal mining world, with separate facilities for African American and white students. The Lynch Colored Public School, built in 1924, is located on the west or “Lower End” of Lynch.
What began as a five bay wide, two-story, fireproof brick building was enlarged over the years by the addition of five more bays to the east. Handsome brick pilasters with inset panels flank each opening, while small stone squares segment the window lintels.
Following integration of the schools in 1963, the building served as the West Main High School. Though most of the windows are boarded over, the building appears to be in relatively good condition, and though it hasn’t operated as a school for quite some time, serves as the headquarters of the Lynch chapter of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club.
Unlike many company towns, US Steel sought to use native stone in the construction of many public buildings in Lynch (another reason the red brick of the Lynch Colored Public School is so striking – the company used location, form of buildings, and materials to segregate its residents and workers).
The two other schools in Lynch, located on the opposite end of town, provide a sharp contrast to the Lynch Colored Public School – and in their decline, speak to the struggle of former company towns across the region to prosper economically and survive in the 21st century.
Lynch High School, constructed between 1922-1924, is built of that native stone, and the main entry, recessed behind square stone supports, features a still lovely arched window with green trim. Its companion to the immediate west appears to be losing the battle against nature, as a tree grows up through its main entryway on the facade.
In the mid-1950s, US Steel began to sell many houses to residents as it made plans to move coal production out of the area. And by 1962, the grand experiment of Lynch began to be dismantled by US Steel. Coal mining jobs declined, and county consolidation in 1981 closed the Lynch schools. The population of Harlan County as a whole began to shift at the same time – those under 35 started leaving – and didn’t come back.
The population of Lynch numbered less than 800 in the last census, but the exodus of people over the decades isn’t readily apparent as you drive through on Main Street – not unless you are a native, or until you reach the stone schools backing up to Looney Creek, window glass broken, and vegetation clambering over the stone walls.
The side streets, too, bear evidence of a town built for more people, in the heady days of pre-World War II coal production. Lynch is by no means a dead community, but the world that saw it built has changed dramatically. The evocative sense of a vanished time is reinforced by those stone edifices of education: empty, crumbling, and yet standing stalwart against the erosion of time.
*While US Steel did not construct churches, it encouraged their establishment by donating the land and one-half of the building costs. Seven churches had been built in Lynch by the 1930s.