History of Highsplint

Published 2:32 pm Tuesday, June 20, 2023

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By Dustin Blackson

The community of Highsplint was first known as Seagraves Creek, named after the Seagraves Family, who first settled and were buried in the same cemetery until their bodies were exhumed and relocated when the railroad was built. The Highsplint name comes from one of the coal beds in the area that was around 3,000 feet in elevation and five feet thick. In 1892 and 1893, two sections of this coal bed were displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair. The Highsplint Camp started in 1913. Issac Creech was the first to own the land. He traveled to record his deed in Frankfort, Kentucky and returned to Harlan County. It took him seventeen days on horseback. The Creech Family built most of the houses.

On January 11, 1917, the Articles of Incorporation for Highsplint Coal Company were filed at the Whitley County Courthouse by Dr. Ancil Gatliff and his son J.B. Gatliff, both of Williamsburg, Kentucky. The business capital was $200,000, and the company’s main office was in Williamsburg, Kentucky. The Gatliffs and Dr. Samuel Bennett of Middlesboro, Kentucky, soon purchased 10,000 acres between Seagraves Creek and Kilday. The first post office opened on February 7, 1918, with John D. Casey as its first postmaster. The kids rode the train from the nearest starting point into Harlan for school until the Highsplint School was built in 1918. The school building was used for classes during the day and a theatre at night. The Creech Family soon built a theatre, restaurant, company store, church, and doctor’s office.

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The railroad started laying down tracks in 1919. The steel for the tracks was shipped to Kildav and brought via wagon to Highsplint. There being no boarding house, the crew for the railroad stayed in tents. On March 10, 1919, the L & N car number 81074 was the first loaded with coal. In the spring of 1920, the railroad started laying tracks to the mine. The L & N car number 71357 was the first car at the mine loaded with coal on May 25, 1920. A passenger train later started running once a day until it ended in 1936.

High Splint Coal Company miners made about $2.00 a day working from daylight until dark. Henry Thomas worked there for many years and loaded coal in 1922. Guy Delph started working at age 16. His job was wiring the mines and getting paid $3.20 a day. Tice Eastes started working in 1924 and retired in 1961 due to black lung. The company’s first superintendent was J.B. Gatliff, and Jack Taylor came from Williamsburg, Kentucky. The miners’ said Taylor was a hard man to work for and was a slave driver.

Highsplint was growing into a big camp with sections of it called, Gobbler’s Knob, Al Duff’s Hollow, Nine Spot, Four Spot, Depot Hill, and Eversole Hollow. The Highsplint Church was built in 1926. Everyone attended a company-owned Baptist church, and part of the miners’ deducted to pay for the pastor’s salary. Some pastors were Oscar Davis, J.C Watson, O.C. Anderson, and Wayne Markham. In the summer of 1933, Rev. Oscar Davis baptized 62 people at the railroad bridge in Highsplint. There were many other baptisms at the Granny Pond.

The Granny Pond was a popular recreational spot for everyone. My grandmother, Helen (Harp) Blackson, “I was afraid of it. Nobody went swimming, but the boys said there wasn’t any bottom that goes on and on. Then when they hadn’t put the baptistry in the church, I was baptized at the edge of the Granny Pond.” Many others I spoke to mentioned trying to reach the bottom but were unsuccessful. The Granny Pond was just about the only recreation for fun; anything else was creative. My grandfather, Bill Blackson, told me he would fill paper bags with rocks. Tie a string to the bag and the other end to a cat’s tail to watch the cat run scared.

The 1930s were a notorious time for Harlan County due to coal companies looking to cut costs and wages. The miners demand that the companies go union. In 1934, the (UMWA) United Mine Workers of America offered Jack Taylor a union contract deal for Highsplint Coal Company. His refusal started a considerable disagreement. The miners and the UMWA went ahead with a local union in Highsplint despite the company’s refusal. Highsplint got its union recognized as local union 6074 in UMWA District 19. But that didn’t stop the company from bringing some form of hardship on its miners.

In 1945, in a legal case between Highsplint Coal Company and United Mine Workers of America, District 19 filed a lawsuit to determine if the company could deduct miners’ wages for loading debris and impurities with coal. The company deducted miners’ wages from 1941 to 1942, totaling $12,654.40. The Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the company’s declaratory judgment because of an old contract that was enforceable at the time.

On April 15, 1961, Highsplint Coal Company ceased operations and leased the land to Seagraves Coal Company. The Gatliffs still owned the land until they sold it to Eastover Land Company on June 29, 1970. Highsplint was one of three mines Eastover owned in Harlan County. They tore down the church and most of the company houses. Earlier in January of that year, the company store had caught on fire and burnt down.

In 1974, during the Brookside Side, the UMWA worked with the miners to form picket lines. However, the rival Southern Labor Union represented the Highsplint mine and its employees. The SLU dismissed two Highsplint miners for honoring the UMWA. The pickets line soon started at Highsplint. The thirteen-month strike was successful for the miners. Eastover soon honored a UMWA contract. On August 4, 1983, Eastover sold the Highsplint mine to Manalapan Mining Company.

On July 31, 1995, three sisters, Evelyn Philpot, Florence Cohelia, and Vivian Moore, founded the Cloverfork Museum to display coal artifacts from Harlan County. The museum is in the house that belonged to Jack Taylor. Reunions are held each year on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. Though the sisters and many others have passed on, many still do enjoy coming to remember the days long gone by.