To the end that man might possess himself of another of the world’s waste places

Posted by | October 28, 2016

Now began the building of Middlesborough, the name which [my employer, Mr. Alexander A. Arthur] had proposed for the town having been adopted. Men of all trades and callings were entering Yellow Creek Valley, most of them having come by train as far as Pineville, ten miles away, whence they advanced by wagon, hack, horse, or mule.

Apparently every city and town in Kentucky, and almost every state, was represented in these various migrants. Although the constituent parts of a few portable houses had been brought in and set up, tents were employed almost altogether for both living and business purposes, and by mid-autumn of 1889 the Valley looked, at a distance, as if it were occupied by an army.

Tent city labor encampment of Middlesborough, KY; 1895.


The huge labor of straightening the meanders of Yellow Creek, which bisected the Valley, was initiated under the supervision of the late Colonel George E. Waring, of New York, engineering expert.

Ploughs and dirt-scoops without number were employed in preparing foundations for business buildings, breaking ground for mill and factory, opening streets, and leveling knolls. The rasping of saws and the continuous tattoo of innumerable hammers resounded far and wide. The spectacle was inspiring.

Common laborers by the hundreds were changing the face of a passive but nevertheless stubborn earth, and skilled workmen refining and artificializing it with structures, to the end that man might possess himself of another of the world’s waste places.

The conditions were of a pattern in many respects with those of an incipient frontier town or gold-rush settlement in the Far West. The fashion in dress was slouch hats, boots, and negligee shirts. Pistols were carried openly by large numbers, while the native, according to immemorial habit, seldom went abroad unaccompanied by his rifle.

Killings were common, and not infrequently several men would fall in a single fight. Not always were the victims feudists; sometimes they were other mountaineers or “Yellow Creekers;”sometimes from the ranks of the newcomers, among whom was the usual ratio of brawlers, criminals, and shady characters. The drinking-places were numerous, and more often than not the trouble occurred in or near one of them. Many were the hard drinkers among all classes, and almost everybody drank to some extent.

My tent-mate, a middle-aged real estate dealer from the central part of the State, regularly imbibed something like a pint of whiskey before breakfast. On frozen nights–with snow aground and the wind churlishly beating the flaps of the tent, humming through its cordage and sieving up between its cracks of the plank floor-we slept under four or five covers that were as thick as horse-blankets.

In such weather his “night-cap” became a busby–a tall one and straight. He would wake about daybreak, lean out from his cot, light the oil heater, and then reach under the cot for the “inner heater”–the quart bottle of Bourbon which he invariably placed there on going to bed.

There was a tart pop as he pulled the cork and a familiar gurgle as the fiery liquid surged to the neck of the vessel. The process was repeated at intervals until at length he got up and drew on his boots. He was now primed for breakfast.

The establishment where we ate and lodged was called the “Hotel encampment.” The messhouse, of pine timbers with the bark on, which stood between double rows of tents, was manned by darky cooks and waiters from Knoxville, the chief of the latter of whom was Laughing John, a jolly negro, who proudly wore in his shirt bosom a faceted glass “diamond” as big as a black walnut.

The meals in this rude victualing-place would not, ordinarily, have gladdened a gastronome, but now and then we sat down to some especially toothsome viand.

Once this was provided through the occurrence of an unusual incident: A deer wounded by hunters in the mountains had fled, baffled and desperate, into the Valley and was swimming Yellow Creek, then in flood, when a man plunged in to his armpits and dispatched it with a knife. We had venison for several days.

Because of the rigors and the inconveniences and general rough existence, no women or children had yet appeared. Finally, one day, a woman was observed walking along Cumberland Avenue. Her apparition was an event of the first order and made a flurry; men paused and gazed as at some curiosity. She had the distinction of being Middlesborough’s first female inhabitant.

A host of Englishmen, and some Scotch, had followed in Mr. Arthur’s wake–hostlers, artisans, clerks, merchants, and members of various professions.
There were also “remittance men”–idle and more or less irresponsible scions of prominent families in England who were probably content, and perhaps relieved, to have them at a distance. These, having no occupation, neither toiled nor spun, but passed the time in riding and in hunting wild deer, turkey, and fox, and in pretty heavy drinking.

In a different category were young chaps of wealthy upper middle-class derivation who were there solely for adventure and a fling of “roughing it.”

Twice yearly Mr. Arthur went to London to render in person his semi-annual formal report to the board of directors, and it was on one of these trips with him, as his secretary, that I first met the young men when they called at the Hotel Metropole.

There they were in silk hats, spats, and morning-coats, not to mention monocles and walking-sticks. They made known their intention of going out to his development in the States to engage in dairying for an uncertain period.

One brother arrived in Middlesborough some weeks ahead of the other and bought a farm about a mile from town, and for a time he and I shared quarters in a small, portable house.

When the other brother came, he repaired to the farm. They did their own milking, or assisted employees in doing so, and one drove the milk-wagon, making deliveries to customers.

The spectacle of these young fellows, fashionables at home in London, here milking cows, and one of them ringing his bell before houses, drawing the creamy liquid and pouring it into housewives’ pitchers, was amusing.

History Of Bell County Volume II, by Henry Harvey Fuson, New York: Hobson Book Press, 1947

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