Reflections Part 4

Today’s post is fourth in a series written by Ron Stephens about his father-in-law Harvey E. Corder and the Blue Heron Coal Camp located in Kentucky. You can see the previous posts here:


Harvey E. Corder at blue heron coal camp

For years after Eighteen shut down there was a fuss about what to do with this country. Some wanted to dam the river and talked about all the recreation visits and money a lake would bring. Others wanted a national park and said there were already too many lakes and not enough wild rivers. Both sides thought their idea would be the economic salvation of the country.

The Park idea won, back in the ‘70’s. I guess if that had not happened, they would have sold the tipple for scrap, like the one at old Worley. (Me and Calvin tore it down for the timbers and the tin. It was the dirtiest job I ever got into in my life with every surface covered deep in coal dust. Compared to that, mining was clean.) I do not know if you could say we local people won. The Park has not made much difference that I can see; not nearly the difference the mines made. A lot of their people don’t even live here, too country I reckon. It is still a poor county with few opportunities. But we can’t blame the Park for ending mining.

Of course, I never thought much about it in those days. When I came here, I had a wife, a little boy living, and another son in the cemetery. Later, there was first a girl then another boy. They were all my responsibility and that was plenty. There were not many ways to make a living around here to start with. I fed, clothed, and housed my family and myself, taking what chances offered. My faith was, and still is, that there would always be a way made. We had no thoughts to waste on whether the work was significant beyond our understanding or our own time. None of us chooses our time and once caught in it we have to deal with what comes. Is that not how life goes, we just do what we have to and as we can?

I was not off too long before I was re-hired. I did not get out of coal mining; did not even have to move. I even stayed on a tipple, way down the river and west up Rock Creek to #16 mine. My job was to pick slate and rock off the screens. I guess that is where I lost a lot of my hearing with those screens and belts running beside my head. But even that mine was in the process of winding down. When it closed, they ran the tipple on a lease with coal trucked in for a time, then that dried up as well.

Many a day, down at Sixteen, I thought about when Dad worked at the quarry for the WPA, back in the Depression.  It was not far on up the creek. The WPA quarried limestone for the roads and schools they were building. Dad walked to and from work every day from all the way over in the Jones Holler on Little River. It was about ten miles by the near-way through the woods. He made a dollar a day, taking the only chance offered and making the best of it just like we have always done.

Those were lean times. I remember once Dad brought home some store-bought light bread. There was just enough for each of us to have one piece. I thought it was the best thing I have ever eat in my life. But we didn’t think we were poor. We knew too many who were just like us.

Along about then the Company was starting up the new Justus mine, named after the Company founder, down in what we called the Coffey Holler off of Paunch Creek. There was coal enough to last for years and years, reaching out ahead of the old works into new country. This time they had core drilled and they really knew. There wasn’t just one seam but three, the number one, the one and a half and the number two, each at different levels but reversed with seam one at the bottom and two at the top. I reckon they must have numbered them in the order they found them, coming upriver from the limestone country. Just as Eighteen was ground-breaking by being all-electric, the Justus used the latest in equipment. There was no tipple. Conveyor belts carried the coal and waste rock outside. The coal went to a storage pit in a side holler where a second belt carried it out of the holler, through a hole in the cliff and over the tracks to dump it in the cars. The third shift run rock and a dozer spread it as fill up the holler above the coal pit.

The Justus was only a mile or so north of the old Barthell camp where I grew up and only four or five miles from the old Eighteen tipple. It was an even shorter walk home than Eighteen had been. They moved me from #16 to the Justus. It looked like my prospects were even better than they had been in ‘54. I built a new house on Worley Hilltop, brick this time and with a basement. It was the best house I had ever lived in and I could finally quit renting.


Be on the lookout for the next part of the series “Reflections.”


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  • Reply
    June 12, 2020 at 7:53 am

    Hi Tipper, Ron’s story tickled my noodle this morning about a town of Centrailia, Pa. which is about 20-30 miles south of where I was born and raised in Northeast Pa. NE Pa is, (was), a coal mining area and many generations prospered on both mining as well as timbering. Centrailia is “famous” for its coal mine and more specifically, it’s coal mine fire which started back in the late 50’s or maybe early 60’s…despite all efforts to contain / put out the fire…it continues to burn to this day…

  • Reply
    June 11, 2020 at 12:07 am

    Always enjoy reading anything about the coal mining areas in Appalachia. Gary, WV a once booming coal mining town had all those numbers they used to designate different mines. It had US Steel, and so interesting to see some of the stately homes they built on “bosses row.” I still have a friend from there who refers to the different areas by number instead of name. It is so very interesting to read your stories and the way you explain things in such a simple down to earth way. I did not get to post before midnight, but just wanted you to know how much I appreciate reading about your life experiences with coal mining. I have heard say it gets in your blood, and I wonder how that could be possible.

  • Reply
    June 10, 2020 at 1:06 pm

    You know when reading these series, reminds me of an old hymn we use to sing in Church not sure of the title but it says ” Count your blessings name them one by one, Count your blessings see what God has done”. Just when things look dark in our lives, just read or look around, sorta helps me.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    June 10, 2020 at 12:18 pm

    “Those were lean times.” That got me to thinking. I went through some lean times though few. My parents lived through The Great Depression and the rationing of World War 2. My grandparents lived through both World Wars, the Depression and the Spanish Flu epidemic. My great grandparents lived through the aftereffects of the Civil War. My great great grandparents lived through the Civil War and with it the mistreatment of poor Appalachian white people. For four generations and more my ancestors eked out a living on poor rocky mountainside land with their own hands and a mule, a horse or an ox. Lean times was all there was up until the modern era.
    We are living in “fat times”. The poorest people nowdays have it better than the vast majority of the population in previous generations. There has always been an upper crust, people born with a silver spoon in their mouth, but like a pie the crust is supported by the filling. That filling is richer and at a greater volume than ever before and seems ready to bubble over at any moment.
    Sorry, I tend to ramble!

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    June 10, 2020 at 10:02 am

    And Ron,
    Computers have really changed things. I was raised ‘ Poor as a Snake’, but we didn’t know any better,everybody around us was like that. I know Tipper and Matt and the Girls. I know Miss Cindy and Tipper’s Mother, Pap and Steve and Paul. Pap was a Finean. They live in the same County as I do, only about 30 miles apart. I live at Topton and we’re both in Cherokee County, N.C.

    I enjoy your writings of Harvey, your Father-in-Law, in Kentucky, but I’ve got to admit, I don’t even know what a tipple is. I imagine it is something like a Guard House or something. We had one and a fellow we called Banjar ran it, he was a night watchman. He’d play “Red Wing” on his banjo for me, when he wasn’t busy, on the CB I had. His name was Hobby Whitener and we just called him Banjar.

    Names escape me sometimes, but there’s a girl in West Virginia I like the way she writes—Pinnicle Creek (I just remembered). I was there in her Country after I graduated, looking for a job in a Coal Camp. I took one look at that Shaft going down a half-mile or farther, and decided That’s not for Me. …Ken

  • Reply
    Paula Rhodarmer
    June 10, 2020 at 9:17 am

    This is a wonderful story. Congratulations, Ron, on such a thoughtful account of your experiences with mining.

  • Reply
    Steve Cox
    June 10, 2020 at 9:12 am


    These reflections have been very interesting to read. I was born and lived the first two years of my life in Stearns, and Pine Knot. Then mom and dad moved to Florida. I would encourage anyone if you are in that part of Kentucky to take a day and ride the train from Stearns to the mine. We owe a lot to those men and women who provided our country with this natural resource.

  • Reply
    June 10, 2020 at 8:54 am

    Such an insightful look into the past. Hard times – yes – but just look at a real man with integrity completely devoted to taking care of his family. My great grandfather’s father died in the civil war when my great grandfather was 7. His mother raised him and his sister in TN and as a very young man he worked for 25 cents a day. It is hard for us to grasp that times could be so bad that one would work for 25 cents or a dollar a day; and then you have today, when you know there are able bodied young men out that would not do manual labor. I’m sure thankful for all the hard-working people of the past and now. Enjoyed reading Reflections.

    • Reply
      June 10, 2020 at 1:09 pm


  • Reply
    gayle larson
    June 10, 2020 at 7:59 am

    Great story. Oh, how fortunate we are to have such wonderful opportunities.

  • Reply
    Ed Karshner
    June 10, 2020 at 7:43 am

    I love the line “None of us chooses our time and once caught in it we have to deal with what comes. Is that not how life goes[?]” I’ve thought about similar a lot, lately. There is a strength in humility. A wisdom in seeing things as they are. Meaningful action comes from a clear eyed looking at where we are and what’s at hand.

    Sometimes, it seems like we have surrendered our reason to other people telling us the way things are and what we should do.

    I’ve been wondering lately if self-reliance is more than just doing for yourself and living removed. Something less material and more internal. A thinking for yourself, I guess I’m trying to say.

    Today’s reflection was a great jolt to my brain this morning. Thanks, Ron.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    June 10, 2020 at 7:40 am

    With each of these installments I’m understanding more about how hard times were back then. It was an entirely different way of life. My family , my grandparents were in a paper mill town and it was hard, like this. My grandfather worked in the paper mill 14 hour shifts and my grandmother raised the kids, and ran the house, raised a garden, milked the cows, and preserved food for the winter.
    That was a hard life! What we do now in no way compares to our forefathers.
    Sometimes I wonder what the future holds for our people as we become less physical and more cerebral with each generation! …from shovel to ipad!

  • Reply
    aw griff
    June 10, 2020 at 6:56 am

    Ron I’m enjoying your good story. I guess part of it is I’m somewhat familiar with the river and the creeks that feed it. Rock Creek is now a trout stream. Making a national recreation area of the river in KY. and TN. doesn’t seem to have brought much prosperity to the area. A lake probably would have, but for people like myself I’m glad it’s a wild river, although a lake would have been beautiful trapped between those high steep hills and cliffs.
    Your story gives life to a way of life and people I wasn’t familiar with. In Elliot County KY. the coal seems were small but many families used to have their own small mines for personal use.

    • Reply
      aw griff
      June 10, 2020 at 9:28 am

      I posted and then seen my coal seems should be coal seams.

    • Reply
      June 10, 2020 at 11:41 am

      Wonderful writings!

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