Life After Coal in Harlan County, U.S.A.

Kentucky’s lifeblood is drying up.

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

58-year-old Robert Simpson mined for 12 years before the economy forced him to take up carpentry. (All photography by Jon Lowenstein)

For nearly a century, Harlan County, Ky., has occupied an outsized place in the American consciousness. Coal is the lifeblood of Harlan, where miners’ fierce battles against deadly working conditions remain a symbol of union grit and militance. But Harlan is also an emblem of the hard times that have fallen on coal country.

Coal mining once provided a middle-class living. Mine workers in Harlan won living wages and benefits following a series of strikes and violent clashes with scabs and mine owners in the 1930s that earned the county the nickname Bloody Harlan.”

Miners charted a risky path to economic security. Collapses, explosions and other accidents killed tens of thousands during the 20th century. Many who survived were still killed by coal, albeit more slowly

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is a writer and investigative reporter who has been traveling to Cranks Creek, Ky., since 1989.
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