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Eastern Kentucky Coalfield facts for kids

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Counties of the Eastern Mountain Coal Fields of Kentucky

The Eastern Kentucky Coalfield is part of the Central Appalachian bituminous coalfield, including all or parts of 30 Kentucky counties and adjoining areas in Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee. It covers an area from the Allegheny Mountains in the east across the Cumberland Plateau to the Pottsville Escarpment in the west. The region is known for its coal mining; most family farms in the region have disappeared since the introduction of surface mining in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Daniel Boone National Forest is located on rough but beautiful terrain along and east of the Pottsville Escarpment. There are many natural arches and sandstone cliffs that are excellent for rock climbing and rappeling. The Red River Gorge, part of the National Forest, is known worldwide in rock climbing circles.

The Sheltowee Trace Trail runs 260–270 mi (420–430 km) north and south, through the region.

During the American Civil War most of this region leaned toward the Union due to its makeup at the time of mostly small farmers, but more than 2,000 men from this area formed the 5th. Kentucky Vol. Inf., known as the Army of Eastern Kentucky, under Gen. Humphrey Marshall, C.S.A. During the Great Depression, New Deal programs and the organizing of the United Mine Workers of America made many of the eastern counties Democratic.

Eastern Kentucky has a rich musical heritage. Many nationally acclaimed country music singers and musicians are from the area. These include: Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle, The Judds, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, Tom T. Hall, Billy Ray Cyrus, Jean Ritchie, Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, Chris Stapleton, and George S. Davis.

As of the 1980s, the only counties in the United States where over half of the population cited "English" as their only ancestry group were in the hills of eastern Kentucky (and made up nearly every county in this region). In the 1980 census, 1,267,079 Kentuckians out of a total population of 2,554,359 cited that they were of English ancestry, making them 49 percent of the state at that time. Large numbers of people of Scottish and Irish ancestry settled the area as well.


The Eastern Kentucky Coalfield covers 31 counties with a combined land area of 13,370 sq mi (34,628 km²), or about 33.1 percent of the state's land area. Its 2000 census population was 734,194 inhabitants, or about 18.2 percent of the state's population. The largest city, Ashland, has a population of 21,981. Other cities of significance in the region include Pikeville, Corbin, and Middlesboro. The state's highest point, Black Mountain, is located in the southeastern part of the region in Harlan County.


FIPS code County seat Established Origin Etymology Population Area Map
Bell County 013 Pineville 1867 Harlan County and Knox County Joshua Fry Bell, Kentucky legislator (1862–1867) &&&&&&&&&&030060.&&&&&030,060 &&&&&&&&&&&&0361.&&&&&0361 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0935.&&&&&0935 km2)
State map highlighting Bell County
Boyd County 019 Catlettsburg 1860 Greenup County, Carter County and Lawrence County Linn Boyd, United States Congressman (1835–1837; 1839–1855) and Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky (1859) &&&&&&&&&&049752.&&&&&049,752 &&&&&&&&&&&&0160.&&&&&0160 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0414.&&&&&0414 km2)
State map highlighting Boyd County
Breathitt County 025 Jackson 1839 Clay County, Perry County and Estill County John Breathitt, Governor of Kentucky (1832–1834) &&&&&&&&&&016100.&&&&&016,100 &&&&&&&&&&&&0495.&&&&&0495 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&01282.&&&&&01,282 km2)
State map highlighting Breathitt County
Carter County 043 Grayson 1838 Greenup County and Lawrence County William Grayson Carter, Kentucky state senator (1834–1838) &&&&&&&&&&026889.&&&&&026,889 &&&&&&&&&&&&0411.&&&&&0411 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&01064.&&&&&01,064 km2)
State map highlighting Carter County
Clay County 051 Manchester 1807 Madison County, Floyd County, and Knox County Green Clay (1757–1828), military general and surveyor &&&&&&&&&&024556.&&&&&024,556 &&&&&&&&&&&&0471.&&&&&0471 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&01220.&&&&&01,220 km2)
State map highlighting Clay County
Elliott County 063 Sandy Hook 1869 Morgan County, Lawrence County, and Carter County John Lisle Elliott or John Milton Elliott (1820–1885), legislators &&&&&&&&&&&06748.&&&&&06,748 &&&&&&&&&&&&0234.&&&&&0234 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0606.&&&&&0606 km2)
State map highlighting Elliott County
Floyd County 071 Prestonsburg 1800 Fleming County, Montgomery County, and Mason County John Floyd (1750–1783), surveyor and pioneer &&&&&&&&&&042441.&&&&&042,441 &&&&&&&&&&&&0394.&&&&&0394 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&01020.&&&&&01,020 km2)
State map highlighting Floyd County
Greenup County 089 Greenup 1803 Mason County Christopher Greenup, Governor of Kentucky (1804–1808) &&&&&&&&&&036891.&&&&&036,891 &&&&&&&&&&&&0346.&&&&&0346 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0896.&&&&&0896 km2)
State map highlighting Greenup County
Harlan County 095 Harlan 1819 Knox County Silas Harlan (1753–1782), soldier in the Battle of Blue Licks &&&&&&&&&&033202.&&&&&033,202 &&&&&&&&&&&&0467.&&&&&0467 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&01210.&&&&&01,210 km2)
State map highlighting Harlan County
Jackson County 109 McKee 1858 Madison County, Estill County, Owsley County, Clay County, Laurel County, and Rockcastle County Andrew Jackson, President of the United States (1829–1837) &&&&&&&&&&013495.&&&&&013,495 &&&&&&&&&&&&0346.&&&&&0346 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0896.&&&&&0896 km2)
State map highlighting Jackson County
Johnson County 115 Paintsville 1843 Floyd County, Lawrence County, and Morgan County Richard Mentor Johnson, Vice President of the United States (1837–1841) &&&&&&&&&&023445.&&&&&023,445 &&&&&&&&&&&&0262.&&&&&0262 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0679.&&&&&0679 km2)
State map highlighting Johnson County
Knott County 119 Hindman 1884 Perry County, Letcher County, Floyd County, and Breathitt County James Proctor Knott, Governor of Kentucky (1883–1887) &&&&&&&&&&017649.&&&&&017,649 &&&&&&&&&&&&0352.&&&&&0352 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0912.&&&&&0912 km2)
State map highlighting Knott County
Knox County 121 Barbourville 1799 Lincoln County Henry Knox, United States Secretary of War (1785–1794) &&&&&&&&&&031795.&&&&&031,795 &&&&&&&&&&&&0388.&&&&&0388 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&01005.&&&&&01,005 km2)
State map highlighting Knox County
Laurel County 125 London 1825 Rockcastle County, Clay County, Knox County and Whitley County Mountain laurel trees that are prominent in the area &&&&&&&&&&052715.&&&&&052,715 &&&&&&&&&&&&0436.&&&&&0436 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&01129.&&&&&01,129 km2)
State map highlighting Laurel County
Lawrence County 127 Louisa 1821 Greenup County and Floyd County James Lawrence (1781–1813), naval commander during the War of 1812 &&&&&&&&&&015569.&&&&&015,569 &&&&&&&&&&&&0419.&&&&&0419 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&01085.&&&&&01,085 km2)
State map highlighting Lawrence County
Lee County 129 Beattyville 1870 Breathitt County, Estill County, Owsley County, and Wolfe County Robert E. Lee (1807–1870), Confederate general or Lee County, Virginia &&&&&&&&&&&07916.&&&&&07,916 &&&&&&&&&&&&0210.&&&&&0210 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0544.&&&&&0544 km2)
State map highlighting Lee County
Leslie County 131 Hyden 1878 Clay County, Harlan County and Perry County Preston Leslie, Governor of Kentucky (1871–1875) &&&&&&&&&&012401.&&&&&012,401 &&&&&&&&&&&&0404.&&&&&0404 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&01046.&&&&&01,046 km2)
State map highlighting Leslie County
Letcher County 133 Whitesburg 1842 Perry County and Harlan County Robert P. Letcher, Governor of Kentucky (1840–1844) &&&&&&&&&&025277.&&&&&025,277 &&&&&&&&&&&&0339.&&&&&0339 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0878.&&&&&0878 km2)
State map highlighting Letcher County
Magoffin County 153 Salyersville 1860 Floyd County, Johnson County and Morgan County Beriah Magoffin, Governor of Kentucky (1859–1862) &&&&&&&&&&013332.&&&&&013,332 &&&&&&&&&&&&0310.&&&&&0310 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0803.&&&&&0803 km2)
State map highlighting Magoffin County
Martin County 159 Inez 1870 Floyd County, Johnson County, Pike County, and Lawrence County John P. Martin, United States Congressman (1845–1847) &&&&&&&&&&012578.&&&&&012,578 &&&&&&&&&&&&0231.&&&&&0231 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0598.&&&&&0598 km2)
State map highlighting Martin County
McCreary County 147 Whitley City 1912 Pulaski County, Wayne County and Whitley County James McCreary, Governor of Kentucky (1912–1916) &&&&&&&&&&017080.&&&&&017,080 &&&&&&&&&&&&0428.&&&&&0428 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&01109.&&&&&01,109 km2)
State map highlighting McCreary County
Menifee County 165 Frenchburg 1869 Bath County, Montgomery County, Morgan County, Powell County and Wolfe County Richard H. Menefee, United States Congressman (1837–1839) &&&&&&&&&&&06556.&&&&&06,556 &&&&&&&&&&&&0204.&&&&&0204 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0528.&&&&&0528 km2)
State map highlighting Menifee County
Montgomery County 173 Mount Sterling 1796 Clark County Richard Montgomery (1736–1775), military general killed at the Battle of Quebec &&&&&&&&&&022554.&&&&&022,554 &&&&&&&&&&&&0199.&&&&&0199 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0515.&&&&&0515 km2)
State map highlighting Montgomery County
Morgan County 175 West Liberty 1822 Bath County and Floyd County Daniel Morgan (1736–1802), Revolutionary War general &&&&&&&&&&013948.&&&&&013,948 &&&&&&&&&&&&0381.&&&&&0381 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0987.&&&&&0987 km2)
State map highlighting Morgan County
Owsley County 189 Booneville 1843 Breathitt County, Clay County, and Estill County William Owsley, Governor of Kentucky (1844–1848) &&&&&&&&&&&04858.&&&&&04,858 &&&&&&&&&&&&0198.&&&&&0198 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0513.&&&&&0513 km2)
State map highlighting Owsley County
Perry County 193 Hazard 1820 Floyd County and Clay County Oliver Hazard Perry (1785–1819), Admiral in the War of 1812 &&&&&&&&&&029390.&&&&&029,390 &&&&&&&&&&&&0342.&&&&&0342 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0886.&&&&&0886 km2)
State map highlighting Perry County
Pike County 195 Pikeville 1821 Floyd County Zebulon Pike (1779–1813), discoverer of Pike's Peak &&&&&&&&&&068736.&&&&&068,736 &&&&&&&&&&&&0788.&&&&&0788 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&02041.&&&&&02,041 km2)
State map highlighting Pike County
Powell County 197 Stanton 1852 Clark County, Estill County, and Montgomery County Lazarus Whitehead Powell, Governor of Kentucky (1851–1855) &&&&&&&&&&013237.&&&&&013,237 &&&&&&&&&&&&0180.&&&&&0180 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0466.&&&&&0466 km2)
State map highlighting Powell County
Rowan County 205 Morehead 1856 Fleming County and Morgan County John Rowan, Congressman from Kentucky (1809–1811; 1825–1831)) &&&&&&&&&&022094.&&&&&022,094 &&&&&&&&&&&&0281.&&&&&0281 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0728.&&&&&0728 km2)
State map highlighting Rowan County
Whitley County 235 Williamsburg 1818 Knox County William Whitley (1749–1813), Kentucky pioneer &&&&&&&&&&035865.&&&&&035,865 &&&&&&&&&&&&0440.&&&&&0440 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&01140.&&&&&01,140 km2)
State map highlighting Whitley County
Wolfe County 237 Campton 1860 Breathitt County, Owsley County, and Powell County Nathaniel Wolfe (1808–1865), member of the Kentucky General Assembly &&&&&&&&&&&07065.&&&&&07,065 &&&&&&&&&&&&0223.&&&&&0223 sq mi
(&&&&&&&&&&&&0578.&&&&&0578 km2)
State map highlighting Wolfe County

Major cities

The following list consists of Eastern Kentucky cities with populations over 4,000 according to the U.S. Census estimates released in 2014:

Downtown Ashland Kentucky
Ashland, the region's largest city.
Rank City Population 2014 County
1 Ashland 21,335 Boyd
2 Middlesboro 9,872 Bell
3 London 8,126 Laurel
4 Flatwoods 7,405 Greenup
5 Pikeville 7,327 Pike
6 Corbin 7,308 Whitley and Knox
7 Mount Sterling 7,178 Montgomery
8 Morehead 6,978 Rowan
9 Hazard 5,346 Perry
10 Williamsburg 5,274 Whitley
11 Paintsville 4,258 Johnson
12 Grayson 4,105 Carter

Protected areas

Natural Bridge (Kentucky)
Natural Bridge State Resort Park

Historical parks

State resort parks

State recreational parks

McHargue’s Mill
Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park


Post-secondary education

University of Pikeville pedestrian entrance
The Coal Building, University of Pikeville Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine
Morehead State University

Public universities

Private colleges and universities

  • Alice Lloyd College
  • Clear Creek Baptist Bible College
  • Frontier Nursing University
  • Kentucky Christian University
  • Kentucky Mountain Bible College
  • University of Pikeville
  • Union College
  • University of the Cumberlands

Community and technical colleges

  • Ashland Community and Technical College
  • Big Sandy Community and Technical College
  • Hazard Community and Technical College
  • Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College


The region's economy is centered around the natural resources available, which includes coal, timber, natural gas, and oil. Recently, tourism has become a leading industry in the region, due to the region's cultural history and the creation of state parks.

Calgon Carbon constructed the Big Sandy Plant near Ashland in 1961 and it has since become the world's largest producer of granular activated carbon. The facility produces over 100 million pounds of granular activated carbon annually.

Persistent poverty

Most of the counties in the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield are classified as "persistent poverty counties". The definition of a persistent poverty county by the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture is that 20 percent or more of the total county population has been living in poverty since the 1980 census.

A June 2014 article in The New York Times identified six counties in the Kentucky Coal Field as among the "hardest places to live in the United States." The lowest-ranking counties were Breathitt, Clay, Jackson, Lee, Leslie, and Magoffin. They ranked among the bottom ten counties nationwide. The factors which accounted for the low ranking of those six counties were unemployment, prevalence of disabilities, obesity, income, and education. The Times declared Clay County the hardest place to live in the U.S.

Appalachian Regional Commission

The Appalachian Regional Commission was formed in 1965 to aid economic development in the Appalachian region, which was lagging far behind the rest of the nation on most economic indicators. The Appalachian region currently defined by the Commission includes 420 counties in 13 states, including all counties in Kentucky's Eastern Coalfield. The Commission gives each county one of five possible economic designations—distressed, at-risk, transitional, competitive, or attainment—with "distressed" counties being the most economically endangered and "attainment" counties being the most economically prosperous. These designations are based primarily on three indicators—three-year average unemployment rate, market income per capita, and poverty rate.

From 2012 to 2014, "Appalachian" Kentucky—which includes all of the Eastern Coalfield and several counties in South Central Kentucky and a few in the eastern part of the Bluegrass region—had a three-year average unemployment rate of 9.8%, compared with 7.6% statewide and 7.2% nationwide. In 2014, Appalachian Kentucky had a per capita market income of $18,889, compared with $28,332 statewide and $38,117 nationwide. From 2010 to 2014, Appalachian Kentucky had an average poverty rate of 25.4%—the highest of any of the ARC regions—, compared to 18.9% statewide and 15.6% nationwide. Twenty-five Eastern Mountain Coal Field counties—Bell, Breathitt, Carter, Clay, Elliott, Floyd, Harlan, Jackson, Johnson, Knott, Knox, Lawrence, Lee, Leslie, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin, McCreary, Menifee, Morgan, Owsley, Powell, Rowan, Whitley, and Wolfe—were designated "distressed," while four – Laurel, Montgomery, Perry, and Pike – were designated "at-risk." Two Eastern Coalfield counties were designated "transitional" — Boyd and Greenup. No counties in the Eastern Coalfields region were given the "attainment" designation or were designated "competitive."

The following table illustrates the economic status of each county.

County Population (2010) Unemployment Rate (2012–14) Per Capita
Market Income (2014)
Poverty Rate (2010–14) Status (2017)
Bell 28,691 11.9% $14,644 32.7% Distressed
Boyd 49,542 8.6% $24,337 19.1% Transitional
Breathitt 13,878 13.7% $14,386 31.5% Distressed
Carter 27,720 12.0% $18,014 18.7% Distressed
Clay 21,730 13.3% $11,531 35.7% Distressed
Elliott 7,852 13.5% $10,529 39.6% Distressed
Floyd 39,451 11.7% $18,473 29.5% Distressed
Greenup 36,910 9.3% $23,879 18.0% Transitional
Harlan 29,278 15.4% $13,620 32.1% Distressed
Jackson 13,494 15.4% $13,496 31.7% Distressed
Johnson 23,356 10.1% $19,008 25.3% Distressed
Knott 16,346 13.5% $14,271 26.5% Distressed
Knox 31,883 11.9% $15,549 33.8% Distressed
Laurel 58,849 9.2% $21,051 23.3% At-Risk
Lawrence 15,860 10.5% $15,399 23.5% Distressed
Lee 7,887 11.7% $11,750 33.4% Distressed
Leslie 11,310 15.0% $15,357 23.9% Distressed
Letcher 24,519 14.2% $15,955 24.5% Distressed
Magoffin 13,333 16.3% $11,139 26.8% Distressed
Martin 12,929 9.4% $14,826 33.9% Distressed
McCreary 18,306 12.4% $9,763 37.7% Distressed
Menifee 6,306 11.2% $15,656 28.8% Distressed
Montgomery 26,499 8.2% $23,093 25.2% At-Risk
Morgan 13,923 10.3% $13,451 29.7% Distressed
Owsley 4,755 11.9% $10,528 39.2% Distressed
Perry 28,712 12.3% $20,131 26.6% Distressed
Pike 68,736 10.6% $21,285 24.1% At-Risk
Powell 12,613 10.1% $18,403 27.5% Distressed
Rowan 23,333 7.8% $18,642 26.0% At-Risk
Whitley 35,637 10.0% $17,321 24.1% Distressed
Wolfe 7,355 13.3% $10,532 44.3% Distressed

Notable residents

  • Hylo Brown, bluegrass and country music singer, born in River.
  • June Buchanan (1887–1988), educator who worked with Alice Spencer Geddes Lloyd (see below). Co-founder of Caney Junior College, now Alice Lloyd College. Lived in Knott County from 1919 until her death.
  • Tyler Childers, a country, bluegrass, and folk musician from Paintsville, Kentucky.
  • Earle Combs (1899–1976), Hall of Fame MLB center fielder for the New York Yankees. Born in Pebworth, a community in Owsley County.
  • Tim Couch, former NFL quarterback. Born and raised in Hyden.
  • Billy Ray Cyrus (born 1961), American country music singer, songwriter and actor. Born in Flatwoods.
  • Richie Farmer (born 1969), basketball standout for the University of Kentucky and politician (Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture, 2003–2011). Born and raised in Manchester.
  • Jim Ford, singer-songwriter, born in Johnson County.
  • Mary Elliott Flanery, first woman elected to a state legislature south of the Mason–Dixon line.
  • Crystal Gayle, country singer and younger sister of Loretta Lynn; both raised in Van Lear.
  • Eula Hall, Founder of the Mud Creek Clinic.
  • Roscoe Holcomb, American musician who lived the majority of his life in Daisy.
  • Silas House (born 1971), author. Born and raised in Laurel County; also lived in Leslie County during his childhood.
  • The Judds, a country music duo of mother Naomi (born 1946) and daughter Wynonna (born 1964). Born in Ashland.
  • Ashley Judd (born 1968), actress; daughter of Naomi Judd and half-sister of Wynonna Judd. Born in Ashland.
  • Alice Spencer Geddes Lloyd (1876–1962), social reformer who founded 100 elementary schools in the region as well as co-founding the college that now bears her name. Lived in Knott County from 1915 until her death.
  • Patty Loveless, country music singer. Born in Pikeville.
  • Loretta Lynn, country singer, raised in Van Lear.
  • John Pelphrey (born 1968), basketball standout for the University of Kentucky (and teammate of Farmer); former head basketball coach at the University of Arkansas, and current assistant at the University of Florida. Born in Paintsville.
  • Francis Gary Powers (August 17, 1929 – August 1, 1977) was an American pilot whose CIA U-2 spy plane was shot down while over the Soviet Union, causing the 1960 U-2 incident. Born in Jenkins.
  • Venus Ramey, Miss America, 1944. Born in Ashland.
  • Jeff Sheppard (born 1974), University of Kentucky basketball star (1998 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player) and former player in the NBA and several European leagues. Has lived in London since he retired from play.
  • Benjamin F. Stapleton, Mayor of Denver, Colorado between (1923–1931) and (1935–1947). Born in Paintsville.
  • Gary Stewart, Country music singer and musician, 1944–2003, born in Jenkins.
  • Jesse Stuart, author and former poet laureate of Kentucky
  • Dwight Yoakam (born 1956), singer-songwriter, actor and film director. Born in Pikeville.
  • Sturgill Simpson, outlaw country music singer-songwriter born in Jackson in 1978
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