Geological and Prehistoric History
Bell County is located in the southeastern corner of Kentucky where the state meets Tennessee and Virginia. Its 361 square miles are dominated by two mountain ridges, Pine Mountain and Cumberland Mountain, and the fault which slices both of these, creating the Cumberland Gap and the Narrows. Much of its rugged terrain is thickly forested. Kentucky’s first state park, Pine Mountain State Resort Park, the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and the Kentucky Ridge State Forest are all located within the county and attest to its natural beauty and to its importance in our national history.
Bell County’s destiny has been dictated by geology and its geography. Approximately 250 million years ago, the continents collided, pushing up the second generation of the Appalachian Mountains. The extreme pressures caused a sheet of strata to break off and slide northwest along a fault line until it hit harder rock. The 125 mile long thrust sheet then ramped up, forming Pine Mountain; the trailing edge, still being thrust forward, also folded upward, forming Cumberland Mountain. The extreme pressures caused a major fault, or break, 13 miles long, between the two mountains. Water found its way through the weakened rock to the south, carving out what we now call the Cumberland Gap. However, the extreme pressures were pushing the mountain up faster than the water could erode it, and water found an alternate route out the weakened rock to north, thus forming what we now call the Narrows, the only break in the entire length of Pine Mountain. The result was the only pathway through the mountains—a gateway to the lands to the north and west, one that would be utilized by hordes of travelers beginning with prehistoric animals.
A second geological event was the impact of a huge meteorite which left a 10.9 square mile crater just north of the Cumberland Gap. A city was later built within the crater, making it one of the few in the world built totally within a meteorite crater.
A third geological occurrence led to tropical forests covering the area for a lengthy period of time. The decay and compression of this flora formed coal, the Black Gold of Bell County, which has influenced so much of the county’s recent history.
Prehistoric animals first trampled their way through the Cumberland Gap and the Narrows. They were followed by native peoples. The Indians referred to the trail as “the path of the Armed Ones” or the Warrior’s Path because it was so often used by war parties traveling between the Shawnee in Ohio and the Cherokee to the south.
Early History 1700’s – 1800’s
The first white men known to have traveled Bell County and leave a written record of their journey were Dr. Thomas Walker and his five companions who were employed by the Loyal Land Company in 1750 to explore the lands west of the Virginia settlements. They were followed by the Long Hunters, most notably Daniel Boone who was, in 1775, employed to blaze a trail from the settlements in the east to the land which would be Kentucky. Actually, they only needed to improve the pathway for since it was already a well-traveled Indian trail.
Hundreds of thousands of pioneers followed in Boone’s wake, bent on claiming the rich lands of Kentucky. Only a few choose to settle in what would become Bell County with its steep hillsides, marshes and bogs and often poor soil.
After passing through the Narrows, travelers still had to ford Cumberland River. This was actually the third key to the “Gateway” through the area. If the waters were too high to ford, travelers had to camp at the Ford until the water receded. The area around the Ford was first settled in 1781, making it one of the oldest settlements in Kentucky. Isaac Shelby, the first governor of Kentucky, is said to have built his first house there.
By the early 1800s, the trail, now known as the Wilderness Road or the Kentucky Road, was safe enough from Indians that it became a major conduit for goods and livestock bound for the eastern market as well as those heading for the new markets in Kentucky.
The Civil War
The Civil War had a profound effect on the area. Both sides saw the Cumberland Gap as the key to invasion of the other and so vied for it. Although there were no major battles fought in the area, the Gap changed hands several times in the course of the conflict. The long occupation by large forces, which often foraged for provisions in the nearby countryside, caused much deprivation.
Following the Civil War, eastern Kentucky was wracked by multiple bloody feuds. Bell County was not spared. In fact, the Turners-Sowders Feud was even more deadly than the widely publicized Hatfield-McCoy Feud.
Bell County was actually formed in 1867 from parts of Harlan and Knox County. Originally called Josh Bell County, it was named for a Kentucky politician who was the great-grandson of Dr. Thomas Walker. The only settlement in the area, that at the ford, was designated the county seat and given the name Pineville.
The Gilded Age
By the late 1880s, the nation was entering into the Gilded Age or the Age of Business and Industry, when there were many industrial developments with railroads being built to many heretofore isolated areas. Since at least the mid-1800s, there had been a general recognition of the vast mineral and timber resources of the county, but it was only when railroad began pushing eastward into the mountains that there was any way to exploit these resources.
In 1886 a charismatic Canadian of Scottish descent, Alexander Alan Arthur, visited the area around Cumberland Gap to assess the possibility of extending a rail line from Morristown westward. He was so impressed with the area and its potential that he immediately began organizing a group of investors to take options on hundreds of areas around and near the Gap.
This was at the height of the British Empire when there was a great amount of capital looking for a place to invest and industrial cities like Birmingham were springing up in the New South. Arthur was able to convince his original investors to send him to England where he was able to garner more than adequate investment for a new company, the American Association, Ltd., which would invest in the rich lands he had optioned.
The American Association, Ltd. bought additional lands until it owned over 90,000 acres in and around Bell County. Railroads raced to connect the county with the outside world. Investors plowed millions into a planned city, Middlesborough, which was built within the meteorite crater. Multiple industries announced plans to build in the “new Pittsburg,” as business men, workers, would-be investors and con men flocked to the new city. In three years Middlesborough went from a tent city of a few hundred persons to a city with a population of over 7000 and many fine buildings, including an opera house and several large and well-appointed hotels. The English businessmen brought their own culture to the city, building a golf course, a library and exhibition hall, a gentlemen’s club and race track as well as the expected churches and schools. Innovations like electric street lights and running water, non-existent in most Appalachia, were a part of their plans. So amazing was the sudden growth of this modern city in the midst of what was then considered wilderness that it was christened “The Magic City” throughout this country and in Europe.
The town had another side: with so many unattached men and over 40 taverns and saloons, it took on some aspects of the Wild West or a Gold Rush town. Shootings were frequent and there was even one lynching. It was also a melting pot of cultures out of which was born ragtime music, the precursor of jazz.
Then disaster struck in the spring of 1890, only months after the new city received its charter, in the form of three fires that left much of the town in ashes. Though it was rebuilt, this siphoned off capital that should have gone into development. Then Baring Brothers Bank in England, a source of much of the city’s backing, went bankrupt. As financial problems spread from Europe, the United States suffered the severe Panic of 1893, and Middlesborough went “bust.” Over half of the residents left and many others were reduced to barter as plans for industries and businesses were withdrawn.
Meanwhile, Pineville had also experienced a growth spurt due to the coming of the railroad and the opening of numerous coal mines in and around the city. It, too, suffered during the Panic as did the small mining camps that had opened nearby.
The county gradually rebounded, primarily by exploiting its vast coal resources. Many more mining camps sprung up, some more like small cities with their own school, churches, commissary and even a movie house or other recreational facilities. For the next fifty years, King Coal would reign and the county’s fortunes waxed and waned with coal’s cycle of good and bad times. The 1920s and 30s saw violent union strikes and several contractions in the coal industry, followed by a period of prosperity during the war years.
The county was also an island of iniquity in the midst of the Bible Belt due to its many bars and the easy availability of liquor, its slot machines and other gambling and its open prostitution. From the late 1920s through the mid-1950s, two brothers, Alvey and Floyd Ball, were at the helm of these operations and all but ran the county.
The historic Carnegie Library, home to The Historical Society Museum.
By 1950 the county population was 44,000. However, the coal industry then went in to a steep decline with only a few short upturns, and there was a large outmigration to the industrial centers of the north so that by 2000, the county’s population stood at 31,000.
There had been a movement since the 1920s to establish a park at the Cumberland Gap to highlight the significant role this gateway played in western expansion. The park was finally begun in 1940, but it was 1955 before the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was finally established. Vice-President Richard Nixon led the dedication ceremonies in July of 1959.
The sixties brought nationwide attention to the problems of Appalachia. The War on Poverty with its Operation Head Start, Job corps, Appalachian Regional Commission and other government programs tried to address some of the problems faced by the area in the wake of the “bust” in the coal industry. Local residents also pulled together to try and bring in new industry.
But Mother Nature had some unpleasant surprises for Bell County. In April of 1977, Pineville suffered a devastating flood when most of the town was under two or more feet of water. The Corps of Engineers stepped in and built a floodwall which, it is hoped, will prevent any recurrence. Then, in May of 1988, a tornado plowed through Middlesboro, causing immense destruction, especially in the downtown area where several buildings were destroyed. But just as in earlier times, the residents immediately began to clean up and regroup.
By this time, much of Middlesboro’s business district had relocated to Highway 25 on the eastern edge of the city. Both Middlesboro and Pineville underwent various downtown revitalization efforts, as they continue to do today.
In 1996 twin tunnels were completed under the Cumberland Gap, making this gateway much more accessible to modern travelers, important in the county’s efforts to attract an ever larger share of the tourist industry. Mining is still important to the economic life of the county, but industry employment has greatly contracted. A meat packing plant is now one of the larger industries in Bell County. The largest employers are probably the school systems and the government, and large percentage of the population exists on transfer payments.
For further information, see all the various books on Bell county in an on-line book store.