Black Mountain, near the town of Lynch in Harlan County, is Kentucky’s highest point, rising 4125 feet above sea level. It runs along the border of Harlan and Letcher counties, and also along the Kentucky -Virginia border.
Thousands of families, most of them Eastern European immigrants, streamed into the shadows of Black Mountain between the World Wars to mine coal.
“I come to this country in 1938. I started workin’ the mine when I was 19 years old. And United States Steel, they got a d.v. job in the mine before even I come to this country, and I work for United States Steel for 30-some years. We come over here and my Dad was workin’ in Lynch, my brother, my cousins—my Daddy, even his grandfather was working Tom’s Creek back in the 1800s.
“Back in the days it was a different company. They’d recruit. They’d recruit the Italian fellas because most of them was rock masons. They was rock masons, see, and all these big companies like Lynch [The Benham and Lynch Company], they had ’bout five or six hundred Italians. They all a cuttin’ rocks and buildin’ these hotels and motels all off the bathhouse. They all would work on that part, and they’s real Italians, that’s how it was done, except a few that went in the mines. But the big majority, they was rock masons. Lynch Company told my Daddy and th’other people ‘We need a certain class o’ people workin’ in the mine or workin’ as rock masons, whatever: ok?’
“One part of the camp they separated from one another. There was Italians, there was Hungarians, there was Polish — everybody had their own bunch. You could walk from one street to another, and they’d be a different language. See, when you go in that district where the Italians is, and when you go t’another place, they’s all Hungarians come together. And then the Polish come together.
“This part of the country reminded me that where I come from – was born – because north Italy now they have all factories, and after World War II all the people moved north. They just like the southern people were here. They left the south and went to north because the south is just ‘bout like the slavery. And that’s what it is over there where a lot of people come from because the government don’t put no factory down there. And that’s what’s happening in the Appalachia mountains.”
Lynch KY miner
At its peak 10,000 people called Lynch home. All coal mined in Lynch by U.S. Coal and Coke (a subsidiary of U.S. Steel) was shipped to U.S. Steel’s coke ovens in Gary, Indiana. Though the preparation of U.S. Steel’s coal was transferred to a newer plant at Corbin in 1955, the Lynch plant continued to serve as a loadout until 1991.
Nearby Benham, KY was a coal company town built by Wisconsin Steel Company, a subsidiary of International Harvester, between 1911 and 1919. The Benham mines were still owned and operated by International Harvester in the 1970s, but by the time the mines closed in the 1980s, they were run by Arch of Kentucky. Today the mines in Benham and Lynch no longer produce coal. Benham’s coal camp commissary is today the Kentucky Coal Museum.
Editor’s Note: Joe Scopa’s daughter Caterina Caterina Scopacasa writes us (April 22, 2011) to say:
“As I read the interview with Joe Scopa (my father) I could hear his voice. Thank you , he is so missed. My papa was a most beloved father, husband and friend to anyone.
“What you might not know was that he was the third generation of his family to come to Virginia/Kentucky and work in the coke/coal mines. Unlike their father, uncle, and grandfather; he, his brother, and cousin remained in this country instead of returning to Southern Italy. They all worked in this country to send money back to Italy so that they could increase the size of the family farm. He dearly loved the mountains of Harlan County (very similar to the
mountains of Southern Italy) and the mountain people.
“My papa spent his whole life fighting for social justice–for miners/the UWA and the last year of his life in the establishment of a dialysis clinic in Harlan Co. (which opened after his death) and was dedicated in his name. I learned so much about his years in WWll, the UMWA, and how he helped others while assisting him as he tried to get the dialysis clinic established, and at his wake/funeral. People wanted to tell their stories of how he had helped them and made a difference in their lives.
“If you wonder about the difference in our names, I took the full family name when I divorced. Our name was shortened by immigration when my great-grandfather came to this country. I am so proud to be this coal miner’s daughter.
“Again, thank you. Caterina”