Timber and the logging industry was the first real financial boon to the upper Big Sandy valley. Cutting the virgin timber began in earnest before the Civil War, but boomed in the 1870's. The Big Sandy Heritage Museum holds one of the larger antique tool displays in Eastern Kentucky. Among those tools are a set of tree calipers used to measure the diameter of uncut trees and lettering tools to stamp owners’ initials and/or brands into the ends of timber ready for shipment downriver.
In order to transport the logs they would bind them together and float them down river to saw mills in far away cities. By the decade of the 1870s the Big Sandy was a veritable log jam of timber rafts during high tides. Smaller streams such as Johns Creek, Elkhorn, and Shelby contained numerous splash dams which held the water until the time was right for floating the logs into Levisa River.
The first train off the Big Sandy Railroad came in 1872. After years of unsuccessfully transporting the coal on the rivers using small wooden barges, the railroads finally came to provide a more efficient way to get the coal to other states. Railroads continues to expand deeper up the valley for the next forty years, opening the vast coal reserves of the region. (This exhibit includes many original photographs and train artifacts of that time.)
The first major coal boom happened around the turn of the nineteenth century. There was an increase in demand for coal due to the industrialization of our nation. Simultaneously, vast amounts of money was invested into the development of numerous new coal towns throughout the region. Today's equivalent of billions of dollars rushed in to completely transform the valley.
( Numerous coal mining artifacts are on exhibit at our museum.)
Along with the rail roads came the coal mining towns in which people would work for either cash or script. Script was currency that could only be used to pay for food and other amenities exclusively sold at the store owned by the coal company. These company towns featured brand new movie theaters, public pools, schools, and other modern amenities for the miners and their families to enjoy.
The Big Sandy Valley was hit hard as coal demands dropped and many mines were completely shut down. A large number of coal miners left for other states to find jobs. Others went back to the land to scratch out a living as best they could. As conditions allowed, many people returned to the Big Sandy Valley because they loved the mountains and the mountain way of life.
The second coal boom came in 1941 with the start of World War II as the country called upon the mines to power the defense plants and provide the coal necessary to make steel . After the war the region saw another sharp drop in demand and the people of the Valley endured hardships.