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.
The abandoned Lynch Graded and High School (in foreground) and Lynch High School (in background), against the backdrop of mountains.
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 Lynch Colored Public School, from the Louis Edward Nollau Nitrate Photographic Print Collection at the University of Kentucky, no date (but likely the 1920s-1930s).
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.
316 East Main St.
Lynch, KY 40855