BLACK STAR, THE EARLY YEARS 1921-1923
The voices are still now. They have all gone away. Even the thousands of whispers held by each house are silent. The memories linger, but it is as though it never was and we know that it can never be again.
“It was a terrible looking place.” Aunt Mary said, describing her first impression of Black Star. Being a narrow strip between two high ridges, it was dark and isolated “compared to the Wilton Camp near Corbin”. There were a few log cabins scattered about, with mostly woods and some open fields where crops were once grown. The only practical transportation into the area was by railroad, which had recently been built up the narrow valley, with the necessity to divert Pucketts Creek in many places.
At Blackmont, automobiles were towed across Cumberland River by teams of horses. But soon a Ferry was established. The road to Black Star followed the edge of the hills and the creek bed was practically impassable, and was little improved by 1931. Sometime in 1922 a Tram Car (sometimes called a “Jitney”, Little Red Car, etc.) was in operation between Blackmont and Black Star.
The same group that owned the Wilton, Kentucky mine were involved in the opening of the Black Star mine. Alex Frost, Sr., who was in charge of the Wilton Mine, sent men from that mine to work at Black Star. One of these was Alex Knuckles who brought two wagons and two teams of horses, hired a crew and began (in the Fall of 1921) the task of building Dwelling Houses in the Hollows above the future Tipple. By winter many of the houses had been built there. Soon, Mr. Knuckles rented a “boxed” house in the area across the creek, opposite the location of the future High School, and then sent for his family.
“There was nothing there. There was no Commissary. The closest store was in a house a Lambert. The first few months there was nothing to do. The Post Office was located at Pathfork, in a small store operated by a Mrs. Daniels”. My Aunt, Mary Phelps Saylor, arrived at Black Star on her 14th Birthday – February 4, 1922. Her family traveled from Wilton to Blackmont by Railroad, then to Black Star by Hand Car. (The Tram Car came a few months later). Her Stepfather, Alex Knuckles, had preceded the family several months before. The essential part of this article is from her memories of Black Star in the time period between February 1922 and the Fall of 1923, when the family returned to Wilton, Kentucky.
By February 1922 the Railroad had reached the Commissary Site and was soon completed up the Hollow to the mine. There were no houses below the Tipple, no Commissary or Clubhouse. Work was just beginning on the Tipple and the opening of the Mine.
In early 1922 the construction of Dwelling Houses continued. A large lumber warehouse (later torn down) was constructed half-way between the Commissary site and the future High School site. A loading Dock was constructed to off-load lumber from Railroad Freight Cars into the wagons. (Trucks could not be used because of the mud.) and taken to building sites. The workers were divided into two crews, each supplied by one wagon, and each crew worked in a different direction.
These were good substantial houses with clapboard siding. Inside the walls and ceiling were covered by tongue and groove ceiling panels. The floors were hardwood tongue and groove two and one half inch boards. Each room had two doors, which permitted the house to be divided into two rooms each and would serve two families or one room could be rented to Boarders. These houses had one convenience not found elsewhere on Pucketts Creek – each building was wired for electricity.
The construction of Dwelling Houses continued into the Fall of 1923. Still later a few houses were built up the Hollows and in the area of the High School. The total number nearing 400. Almost as soon as the houses were finished they were filled with workers, with families. Many were from Wilton, where that mine was closing.
In late 1922 or 1923 a store was opened in one of the houses at Black Star. When the Commissary was completed (after 1923) that house became the Doctor’s Office. Earlier a Doctor’s Office was located near the lumber warehouse.
School was held in one of the Dwelling Houses for grades one through eight. A school term was six months and the first year the term was from June through December.
For recreation, some youngsters would ride the Tram Car to Blackmont and back. There was a large building, once used to store lumber, near the Tipple, where Silent Movies were shown. “We were amazed by it. We thought it was the greatest thing that ever was”, Mary said. (The Theater later became the Supply House).
It was an ambitious project and no doubt took considerable planning and outlay of capital.. The railroad would bring necessary supplies (including groceries) and take the coal to market. The houses which were built would serve hundreds of workers. Educational needs were beginning to be met and soon there would be a permanent school. A Doctor was brought in to meet medical needs. Soon there would be a Commissary, which would sell everything from food to clothes to washtubs. All these came together to turn this semi-wilderness into a thriving community called Black Star.
It would last for less than forty years, but it would change the lives of tens of thousands, bring a degree of prosperity to everyone, and affect the lives of generations to come. It was a place to be fondly remembered for generations as home. But if my Aunt could see Black Star as it is now (1995), I believe she would say, “It’s a terrible looking place.”