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Coal mining has a rich history in Kentucky, tracing back to early explorers. However, large-scale coal mining did not develop until railroad construction in the 1870s provided easier access into the Eastern and Western Coal Fields. This new shipment method encouraged production increases exceeding 600% in one decade, and the maturing of "King Coal."

Before the first coal boom in 1889, many Kentuckians lived above unutilized coal resources. Investors inexpensively purchased these minerals using broad form deeds; titles granting rights to extract coal by any chosen means, including destroying surface lands, which did not belong to them. This method continued as a common practice, and provoked legal, political, and environmental controversy by the mid-20th century. 

A famous investor, schoolteacher John C.C. Mayo, began purchasing broad form deeds during the 1880s. Mayo established many notable businesses, including the Northern Coal & Coke Company in 1897, which he sold to the Consolidation Coal Company in 1902. Companies have always been essential to King Coal’s boom and bust economy; they run mining operations, provide jobs, and even previously supplied homes for miners.

Companies built "coal camps" or "coal towns" for miners and their families. Rough shanties and dirt roads typified coal camps, as did the prominence of saloons and understaffed schools, if they even existed. Violence and poverty were commonplace. However, during two coal town booms, companies founded communities, including Middlesboro and Jenkins, that transcended these standards and still thrive today.

Coal companies owned the "company store," a fixture in any coal camp and town, and though companies could not legally require miners to shop there, they encouraged them with a form of credit called "scrip." Some companies even paid miners with scrip due to accrued debt! Such conditions fostered union membership and power.

Many unions came into the coal fields, including the most enduring and distinctive, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Unions began to regulate operator and miner relations and fight for improvements in working conditions, wages, and benefits by negotiating with companies and organizing strikes. A nationally-known strike occurred in 1930s Harlan County. Union efforts, health and safety laws, and government regulatory offices, such as the State Inspector of Mines (created in 1884), made mining a safer career. 

Death threatened miners with collapsing roofs and explosions, and life-long health problems, including black lung. Though deaths and health issues have significantly decreased due to training and safety laws and regulations required by the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act (1969), some dangers persist in the mining industry.

Mechanization has also been a consistent trend. Railroads encouraged coal field development and companies later utilized trucks, though shipment by water maintained its importance. Inside the mines, motorized cutting machinery gradually replaced hand and mule-operated tools. Mining evolved with technology, increasing production while decreasing the amount of necessary manpower.

New technology led to new mining methods, including strip mining, in which large machinery removes the earth above the coal rather than digging underground mines. Strip mining was nationally protested in the mid-20th century, and through the efforts of concerned citizens, including Kentucky author Harry Caudill, it is now federally regulated.

Technology also affected consumer use and the market value of coal. In 1972, Kentucky briefly became the leading state in US coal production. Alternative fuel and energy choices changed coal consumption, and companies experimented with environment-friendly processing and extracting other natural resources. Nevertheless, coal is still king in Kentucky.