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, London, 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)||30,060||361 sq mi
|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)||49,752||160 sq mi
|Breathitt County||025||Jackson||1839||Clay County, Perry County and Estill County||John Breathitt, Governor of Kentucky (1832–1834)||16,100||495 sq mi
|Carter County||043||Grayson||1838||Greenup County and Lawrence County||William Grayson Carter, Kentucky state senator (1834–1838)||26,889||411 sq mi
|Clay County||051||Manchester||1807||Madison County, Floyd County, and Knox County||Green Clay (1757–1828), military general and surveyor||24,556||471 sq mi
|Elliott County||063||Sandy Hook||1869||Morgan County, Lawrence County, and Carter County||John Lisle Elliott or John Milton Elliott (1820–1885), legislators||6,748||234 sq mi
|Floyd County||071||Prestonsburg||1800||Fleming County, Montgomery County, and Mason County||John Floyd (1750–1783), surveyor and pioneer||42,441||394 sq mi
|Greenup County||089||Greenup||1803||Mason County||Christopher Greenup, Governor of Kentucky (1804–1808)||36,891||346 sq mi
|Harlan County||095||Harlan||1819||Knox County||Silas Harlan (1753–1782), soldier in the Battle of Blue Licks||33,202||467 sq mi
|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)||13,495||346 sq mi
|Johnson County||115||Paintsville||1843||Floyd County, Lawrence County, and Morgan County||Richard Mentor Johnson, Vice President of the United States (1837–1841)||23,445||262 sq mi
|Knott County||119||Hindman||1884||Perry County, Letcher County, Floyd County, and Breathitt County||James Proctor Knott, Governor of Kentucky (1883–1887)||17,649||352 sq mi
|Knox County||121||Barbourville||1799||Lincoln County||Henry Knox, United States Secretary of War (1785–1794)||31,795||388 sq mi
|Laurel County||125||London||1825||Rockcastle County, Clay County, Knox County and Whitley County||Mountain laurel trees that are prominent in the area||52,715||436 sq mi
|Lawrence County||127||Louisa||1821||Greenup County and Floyd County||James Lawrence (1781–1813), naval commander during the War of 1812||15,569||419 sq mi
|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||7,916||210 sq mi
|Leslie County||131||Hyden||1878||Clay County, Harlan County and Perry County||Preston Leslie, Governor of Kentucky (1871–1875)||12,401||404 sq mi
|Letcher County||133||Whitesburg||1842||Perry County and Harlan County||Robert P. Letcher, Governor of Kentucky (1840–1844)||25,277||339 sq mi
|Magoffin County||153||Salyersville||1860||Floyd County, Johnson County and Morgan County||Beriah Magoffin, Governor of Kentucky (1859–1862)||13,332||310 sq mi
|Martin County||159||Inez||1870||Floyd County, Johnson County, Pike County, and Lawrence County||John P. Martin, United States Congressman (1845–1847)||12,578||231 sq mi
|McCreary County||147||Whitley City||1912||Pulaski County, Wayne County and Whitley County||James McCreary, Governor of Kentucky (1912–1916)||17,080||428 sq mi
|Morgan County||175||West Liberty||1822||Bath County and Floyd County||Daniel Morgan (1736–1802), Revolutionary War general||13,948||381 sq mi
|Owsley County||189||Booneville||1843||Breathitt County, Clay County, and Estill County||William Owsley, Governor of Kentucky (1844–1848)||4,858||198 sq mi
|Perry County||193||Hazard||1820||Floyd County and Clay County||Oliver Hazard Perry (1785–1819), Admiral in the War of 1812||29,390||342 sq mi
|Pike County||195||Pikeville||1821||Floyd County||Zebulon Pike (1779–1813), discoverer of Pike's Peak||68,736||788 sq mi
|Whitley County||235||Williamsburg||1818||Knox County||William Whitley (1749–1813), Kentucky pioneer||35,865||440 sq mi
|Wolfe County||237||Campton||1860||Breathitt County, Owsley County, and Powell County||Nathaniel Wolfe (1808–1865), member of the Kentucky General Assembly||7,065||223 sq mi
The following list consists of Eastern Kentucky cities with populations over 4,000 according to the 2020 United States Census:
|Rank||City||Population in 2020||County|
|3||Corbin||7,856||Whitley and Knox|
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.
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.
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)|
Most of the counties in the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield rank in the lowest ten percent of U.S. counties in average life expectancy. Both men and women have average life spans that are several years less than the average life span in the United States. Moreover, many counties have seen a decline in the life expectancy of men and/or women since 1985. Factors influencing the health of residents include a high prevalence of smoking and obesity and a low level of physical activity.
As a whole, East Kentucky was long a Democratic stronghold. The only two counties in the state to vote against Mitch McConnell in each of his six senatorial campaigns through 2020 have been Wolfe and Elliott Counties, both in East Kentucky. However, the region has swung dramatically to the right recently. In 2004, eleven counties in East Kentucky supported Democratic candidate John F. Kerry, and in 2008, even as the nation as a whole shifted Democratic, the number of East Kentucky counties supporting Democratic candidate Barack Obama fell to just four, and in 2012 fell to just one. Every county in East Kentucky supported Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020 with at least 50% of the vote. In fact, each of the three most Republican counties in Kentucky (in terms of vote proportion) were all in East Kentucky (namely Leslie, Jackson and Martin Counties). Each gave less than a tenth of their vote to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate.
Elliott County, Kentucky, serves as a good representation of the political transformation throughout the region. It had the longest streak in the nation of any county to vote Democratic. It has in recent years, however, shifted hard to the right, just like the rest of East Kentucky. In 2008 Elliott County was the most Democratic county in the state, giving over 60% of the vote to Barack Obama. In 2012, however, it supported him by a margin of just three percentage points (the lowest percentage for a Democrat in county history) and lost the title of most Democratic in the state to Jefferson County, home to Louisville, the most populous city in the state. And by 2016, it supported Donald Trump with over 70% of the county vote, and 75% four years later. In local elections (like East Kentucky), though it has trended more Republican, it still remains a Democratic stronghold. In the State Senate election, it gave Democrat Rocky Adkins 86% of the vote. As of November 2012, just 4.2% of registered voters were Republicans, the lowest proportion for any county in the state. By October 2016, this proportion had more than doubled (to 8.2%), and by April 2019 it stood at 10.6%. Indeed, Elliott County voters, just like most East Kentucky voters, are socially conservative and economically more liberal.
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