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)

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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

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