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"Blackey has been kind of like a western ghost town. It booms and bursts, you know. Back in the early '20s, Blackey was a-sparkling." - Joe Begley

 

Where in the World is Blackey?
Where in the World is Blackey?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blackey's heyday occurred from 1913 until 1929, the eve of the Great Depression. Jim Brown petitioned for a new post office on Elk Creek in 1908 and named the station "Blackey," after his older brother, Joseph "Blackey" Brown. As the nation prepared for and then entered "The Great War," demand for coal was high.

The L&N Railroad pushed its line eastward, building a local depot in 1910; there, Presbyterians began the town's first Sunday school. In November 1912, the track from Jackson, Kentucky, to McRoberts was complete, and the L&N's first train arrived in Blackey. Over the next 15 years, Blackey was transformed from a sleepy village of subsistence farmers to a bustling and rowdy boomtown.

Rev. Dr. Edward Guerrant, a graduate of Centre College, arrived in Blackey in 1913 and began raising money for a school. The Stuart Robinson School (named for Guerrant's teacher, a Presbyterian minister in Louisville) opened in February of 1914 with 140 pupils. The original building stood on a hillside overlooking the town and, in time, included a medical clinic. Though the school moved once and suffered several fires, it remained open until 1956. During the 1920s, Gaynell Caudill was a student there.

The town of Blackey was chartered in 1915 and by 1919 was incorporated as a sixth class city with its own mayor, city council, police force, jailer and tax collector. The L&N railroad having opened up Letcher County for both passengers and freight, coal companies rushed in. One of the first, Blackey Coal Company, set up a camp of some 30 houses in 1917 on Willie Caudill's farm at the mouth of Elk Creek, employing nearly 80 miners.

The Blackey State Bank was established in 1920, and by 1921 there were seven coal camps within two miles of the town. Blackey's commercial district sprang to a crackling-hot life like never before -- nor since. These are the glory days the town's elders enjoy remembering, when Blackey boasted, among many other businesses, auto dealerships, two hotels -- one for whites, one for "colored" guests -- four restaurants, and a theater.

In 1927, the town's fortunes began to change. On May 27 a huge flood swept through the entire region. The North Fork of the Kentucky River rose 18 feet in one hour, and 26 people died in Letcher County alone. In December of that same year a fire broke out in Blackey. When the flames died away, 14 buildings -- most of Blackey's business district -- had been destroyed. Yet another fire, in February of 1928, took what had been left of the town. Soon the collapse of the Blackey State Bank and then the Depression ensured the end of this period of prosperity in Blackey.

Blackey's population and businesses continued to dwindle over the succeeding decades. Now only a few hundred people call Blackey home, and a handful of empty store buildings, mingled with houses, remain on its main street. But the town has also enjoyed successes, including the formation of a Head Start for local preschoolers, a public library and, most recently, a new city water system.

Follow this link for photos of people & scenes from scanning day at the C.B. Caudill Store.

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last update 01/08/01 sjr