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A Bird's Eye Look At Beattyville, Capital Of Lee County, One Hundred Years Ago

Small Town At The Forks Of The Kentucky River Was Thriving In 1895

By William J. Lampton - 1895

Beattyville is the county seat of Lee County, which was erected in 1870 out of the counties of Owsley, Estill, Wolfe, and Breathitt, and named Lee after General Robert E. Lee.

Beattyville was Beattyville long before it was the county seat of Lee County, having been incorporated in 1845, and named in honor of Samuel Beatty, a pioneer who died there in 1889. It was originally called Beatty, but the feeling, which characterizes some localities that a town isn't a town until it has "ville" stuck on to its name, prevailed to such an extent that it became Beattyville. And nobody knows just when the change took place.

When the county was plucked out of the sides of its neighbors, Beattyville and its sister town of Proctor, on the opposite side of the river, forthwith entered into a scrapping match as to which should be the capital, and though the first court was held in Proctor, Beattyville hadn't much difficulty in the final capture of the coveted honor. She has retained it since, and Proctor sits silent on the hill beyond and weeps for the glory departed.

But let us not point the finger of scorn at Proctor. When the L & E railway completes its branch down that side of the river, Proctor is going to give a mighty leap into the air and kick its heels high over the hills of Lee in the exuberance of a new birth.

The population of the county is 7,000 and of the town 1,200. That is the claim for the town, and possibly it is slightly in excess though the town limits are copious and 1,200 people don't cover much ground when they are bunched.

Beattyville is located on the Kentucky River just where it becomes the Kentucky River, that is to say the North and South Forks connect there, and the Middle Fork puts in a couple or three miles above town. It is about eighty miles from Lexington, which puts it about equidistant from Cincinnati and Louisville, and Louisville has the bulk of the town's trade and her newspapers are the only ones taken to amount to anything, the Courier-Journal leading all competitors.

It is a town of the sixth class and is therefore not eligible to the high dignity of having a mayor and city council. It seems to worry along, however, very comfortably with a board of trustees and a police judge and town marshal, the judge and marshal only getting paid for it.

The courthouse, completed in 1873, is of brick and cost $12,000, which is a little high considering how handsome a building may be put up in these days for that amount of money. I was greatly pleased to note, however, one feature about it which distinguishes it from all the courthouses of all the towns I have yet written about, to wit, it hasn't a clock on its steeple. I thought possibly the clock had run down some night and jumped into the river, but I was reliably informed by Judge Breck Hill, a man of immaculate truthfulness, that there had never been a clock there.

The jail at the rear of the courthouse is of brick and cost $7,000. It is new and strong, with all the modern conveniences, but it wasn't strong enough to hold the man who killed Sheriff Simms at the fair last year, though the bridge trestle to which the crowd of indignant citizens hung him during the night seemed strong enough to hold him without any trouble at all.

In the matter of church buildings, the Christians, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians are provided with houses of worship, while the Methodist brethren have to take to the courthouse. The Episcopal church is the finest in the mountains. It is of stone, of chapel design, and was to have been built for $4,500, but the contractor left it unfinished. It has taken a new start now and may be done before a great while, but a church like that can't be built for $4,500 of anybody's money. It is located on a point of lookout, and is an attractive feature of the landscape. The Christian congregation set its house also on a hill, just across from the stone church, but the spirituality of the brethren was insufficient to lift them to such heights, so they sold the building for $1,200 and built quite a handsome shingle and frame church for $3,000 down in the bottom in a very poor location but without a climb to it. The Baptists are finishing a pretty frame church, and the Presbyterians have one a hundred or so feet higher up the hill. These cost about $1,500 each. The Episcopalians have a regular pastor stationed among them, while the others have to hustle around among their neighbors.

We come now to the next best thing to religion, to wit, the public schools, and you ought to see the Beattyville public school building! It is of the rococo, renaissance, Graeco-Roman, catch-as-catch-can order of architecture, one-story high, and never saw a paint brush in its life. In other words, it is something the people of Beattyville ought to be so heartily ashamed of that they would contribute their own money to remedy it if they couldn't get it another way. There are 380 scholars enrolled, with an attendance of 100, and the wonder is that 100 children can be found who would go to school in such a place. I presume the building must have cost as much as four dollars and thirty-seven cents in high times. The schools are in charge of Prof. W.H. Harris, with one assistant, and the pay for all is $900, which is little enough, the Lord knows.

There is no fire department, but the bucket brigade does noble service when a fire breaks out.

Neither are there any electric lights on the streets. There are street lamps, however, but they are never lighted and when a Beattyville citizen wants to go anywhere after dark he depends on the moon or a lantern. I have wondered sometimes where the manufacturers of lanterns sold their goods, but I know now. Everybody in Beattyville has one, and they bob around at night like a lot of lightning bugs.

Beattyville is the City of Bridges, having in her midst six of these useful structures for passenger and railroad purposes.

There are no banks, though in the boom days she had a couple.

Neither has she any saloons. Still, for a very temperate town, more men seem to have hit the pledge a lick and busted it than any place I have visited in a long time. I fear the wild and wooly blind tiger lashes his tail and tears up the ground in the neighborhood. I am glad to testify that the drug stores don't sell liquor as they do in some local option towns.

There are thirteen stores in town, three sawmills, a stream grist mill, and the Avent, the Beattyville, and the Crystal Creek coal companies and several individuals who dig and ship coal. The principal business is coal and timber, and about three hundred carloads of coal are shipped each month. The coal is of good quality and is shipped all over the state. Between two and three hundred men are employed about the mines, and labor troubles are not unknown. Coal sells in town at six cents a bushel, delivered.

There are four doctors, and the Riverside Cemetery of five acres is a thriving institution.

Fourteen lawyers make an average of from $100 to $2,000 a year, the latter sum being the exception rather than the rule.

There has never been a legal hanging, though one man received a death sentence which was afterward commuted to life imprisonment. The one lynching took place last year, when Oscar Morton was hanged on the trestle within a few hours after he killed Sheriff Simms. It was the quickest on record.

Feuds do not prevail, but six men have been killed on the streets at one time or another, all of them in personal difficulties, except one, the first man killed in Lee County, Abe Wilson, who was assassinated at night by unknown parties.

The postmaster is F.A. Lyon, and he relieved Uncle Sam of responsibility by owning the building the office occupies. He is also a good fellow and looks as if post-officing agreed with him.

There is no library nor is there a copy of any of the reading magazines taken in town. Not one, which is more of a reflection on the town than it is on the magazines. The town is also short on Y.M.C.A., and there isn't a club of any kind. It is just as well, perhaps, that there isn't.

There are about 300 Negroes and twenty-five foreigners, principally Welsh and Irish miners.

The water works are yet to be built and there is no laundry. Lexington and Winchester act in the capacity of washer-women to those residents of Beattyville who affect the hard-boiled shirt and the ironed collar and cuff.

Beattyville is at the head of navigation on the Kentucky River, and something like $250,000 has been spent by the government on a dam and lock here, which are now more in the way than anything else. Just why the engineers should begin at the head of a river to lock and dam it instead of at the other end does not appear, though some distinguished politician who worked the appropriation might explain.

Socially, Beattyville is the Paris (France) of the mountains, and the youth and beauty love to dance and hold church suppers and boat rides and have a good time generally. The girls are pretty and dress in the latest styles, and are quite fin de siecle in all the little details that go to make up society with a big S. The men wear dress suits on swell occasions, and the stranger in those parts would scarcely realize that he was in a mountain town.

There are three hotels in town, one, the Ninaweb Inn, cost $25,000; and as a hotel is the attractive point to visitors in town. I want to say that Beattyville owes more of its attractiveness to the outside world to this hotel than to anything else within its gates. It is modern and well kept, with a commanding location and Charlie Dorman and his handsome wife to see that every visitor goes away with a good impression of the entire surroundings. Of all the towns I have talked about in the Courier-Journal only Beattyville and Richmond are properly equipped with hotels.

This is bringing Beattyville to the front as a summer resort. Many visitors came during the past summer to enjoy the good air, the pretty hill and valley scenery, the fishing and boating, and all the other good things nature has given, and they went away to tell the story to others, and come again next year. Kentucky just now is short on home summer resorts, and these Eastern Kentucky mountains are full of charming sites only awaiting development. Beatty-ville stands at the head of the list, owing to her possession of three rivers, and in these the visitor's interest never lessens.

The traveler reaches Beattyville over the Lexington and Eastern Railroad, formerly the Kentucky Union, from Lexington, connecting there with Cincinnati and Louisville over the L&N and the C&O, and with all points east over the C&O at Winchester, and with points south over the L&N at the same place as also at Lexington, so that her railroad connections may be said to be ample. I ought to say that Beattyville is seven miles from the L&E over the Beattyville and Cumberland Gap road, a short road opened in 1892, two years after the K.U. gave the town egress other than a mountain road or a trip down the Kentucky River on a sawlog steamboat to Ford, seventy-five miles. The L&E is now surveying a road down the other side of the river through Proctor and on to the great Sturgeon coal fields, which will probably be opened next year. It is twelve miles in length and can be built for less money than the B. and C. G. people want for their road, which by the way, is a paying piece of property just now.

When the railroad came within reach of Beattyville in 1890, it precipitated a boom, and the population jumped up from 300 to 1,000 in about fifteen minutes, while the prices of real estate jumped clean over the population. One firm bought 1,600 acres of land for $60,000, another took 1,300 acres for $35,000, and individuals took what they could get at any prices people chose to ask. Fifty dollars a front foot for suburban lots that a short time before could have been bought for $5 or $10 an acre was not thought exorbitant while property in town sold right along at $100 a front foot. Subdivisions with fancy names sprouted up everywhere on the hills and the people went wild. Plain old Main and River and Center Streets were forgotten in Grand Avenue, Pryse Boulevard, Carlisle Avenue, and Lexington Avenue, and Crystal Park glinted like a gem in their midst. But like many others, it failed to hold up and now the dream is over, and the people are standing together to give Beattyville such a foundation that when she rises again, she will stay there. And it looks as if she will get there in good shape, for only recently as much as $780 was paid for an acre of ground in one of the boom subdivisions which cost originally $50.

The boom did some good, however, for the population of the town was only 165 in 1887, and now it is seven times as big.

The Beattyville Enterprise is the leading newspaper. It leads all competitors, and Brother Pollard claims with consistency the largest circulation in the city. P.S. - There is no other paper.

There is no opera house and shows are scarce.

There is one bicycle somewhat out of repair and no bloomers. Six typewriters show progress in that direction. Carriages and buggies do not flourish owing to the lack of good roads. The young ladies and some of the married ones are very graceful and daring equestriennes, and they ride good horses.

Millionaires are scarce, fortunes ranging from $50,000 down, but everybody has all he can eat and drink and plenty of clothes to wear.

The Beattyville fair is the great autumn attraction. I went there to take it in, and I did, making my appearance five minutes after I got inside the gate, as a judge in the pretty baby ring. Fortunately for me only one entered, and I got off easy. The fair grounds are located on a high hill with a winding mountain road leading up to them, and when they have reached a higher state of cultivation they will be large and elegant. Judge Mann was the general-in-chief of the fair, and I'm willing to pit him against any man in the state as a field talker and an adept at saying the right thing at the right time. A committee of ladies awarded him the blue ribbon as being the handsomest man on the grounds, but the committee evidently didn't see Breck Hill or Secretary Phillips or Postmaster Lyon or me, though we kept ourselves in plain view all the time.

Caleb Breckinridge Hill is the county judge, and he can tell a story and then tell four dozen more, equal to anybody in the state.

Sam Spicer is another distinguished citizen, and Preston Sloan was in the army for "three years, four months, and ten days" and was shot eleven times. Preston gets a pension for being on the winning side.

Beattyville has not yet contributed a national character to the list. One man in the county never wore a boiled shirt, never owned an overcoat, nor wore gloves, never had on a collar but once, and wheat bread makes him "sick to the stomach." Another says he never smoked a pistol nor shot a cigar in his life. Samuel Brandenburg was the first white child born in the county.

The only brick buildings in town are the courthouse, the jail, the bank building, and the Ninaweb. The Episcopal church is of stone and wood makes up the remainder, including a number of very pleasant home-like residences with pretty shaded door yards. Now and then a bit of brick or flag sidewalk appears, but there is not as much of it as there will be in future.

I omitted to state in my remarks on the educational facilities of Beattyville that the Episcopal rector conducts a school in connection with the church. The building is a substantial one of frame and overlooks all the valley. It is a good thing for Beattyville besides.

I may also say that nearly every church has a bell, and the Beattyvillian can't offer as an excuse for staying away from church that he didn't know it was time to go.

By the way, I attended a church supper one night, and I found in the soup the beautiful young ladies served us, what is unusual in the ordinary oyster soup of church suppers, to wit, oysters. In this regard Beattyville sets a grand example to all the churches of this country of ours.

The location of Beattyville is picturesque in the extreme, and when she has grown to greatness, she will equal Rome in the number of hills she sits upon. At present her scatteredness, so to speak, detracts somewhat from her compactibility.

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