Water, Workers, and Wealth: How “Mr. Peabody’s” Coal Barge Stripped Kentucky’s Green River Valley
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Water, Workers, and Wealth:
How “Mr. Peabody’s” Coal Barge Stripped Kentucky’s Green River Valley

On July 14, 1956, nearly seven thousand people converged along the banks of the Green River at Calhoun, Kentucky, to commemorate the completion of a two-year project to rebuild Lock and Dam Number Two and to welcome the arrival of the four largest barges ever to be towed on that portion of the river, collectively loaded with roughly six thousand tons of Green River Valley coal. The town, also the seat of McLean County, held a parade and a reception in honor of the event, the highlights of which included an antique car show, a religious invocation, a speech by the chief of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony performed by local beauty queens. Governor Albert B. Chandler, Senator Earle C. Clements, and Congressman William H. Natcher were also in attendance at what the local newspaper had boasted would be “the biggest river celebration in Kentucky history.” Many believed the event marked the beginning of a new era of progress for McLean County and the entire Green River Valley.1 However, the lock and [End Page 183] dam project at Calhoun was also rooted in a deeper history of resource depletion, income inequality, and labor strife that began in the nineteenth century and continued to influence decisions about the region’s environment and economy during the post–World War II era.

Lock and Dam Number Two was built by the commonwealth of Kentucky in the 1830s and 1840s, along with three other locks and dams on the Green River and one on the Barren River, a large tributary of the Green. It was turned over to the Green and Barren River Navigation Company after the Civil War and then purchased by the United States government in 1888. Shortly thereafter, the federal government rebuilt it and Lock and Dam Number One (located at Spottsville near the confluence of the Green and the Ohio in Henderson County) and added two new dams on the upper Green River in 1906 and 1934. In the 1950s, the Green River Valley Citizens League, a new regional organization, began working to secure funding and approval to once more rebuild the dam and to expand the lock at Calhoun as well as at several other sites along the lower portion of the river. Founded in 1951 by Muhlenberg County coal-mine owner Carl A. Reis and Bowling Green–based tow-boat operator James Hines, the League drew its membership from among western Kentucky merchants and businessmen who had strong connections to the coal industry through mining, mineral investment, highway construction, and real-estate development. Although the group’s leadership was concentrated in Central City, which lay upriver from Calhoun in Muhlenberg County, it had members in counties throughout western Kentucky.2 [End Page 184]

The organization’s primary goal was to attract new industry to the valley by enhancing the Green River’s navigability for modern barges, linking the region more thoroughly to the Ohio River. The League did this by appealing to local peoples’ concerns over flooding and unemployment, and it capitalized on the appetite for large-scale regional development projects among post–World War II federal planners interested in expanding and modernizing infrastructure for manufacturing, fuel production, and national defense. As a result, the League was able to build support for the lock and dam project, securing necessary easements and rights-of-way from local governments and networking with Kentucky legislators to obtain funding appropriations from Congress in 1953. Although the League was only five years old when the new lock and dam was completed, the project was the culmination of a decades-long effort by valley coal-mine operators and mineral investors to transform the Green River into a major industrial corridor capable of cheaply moving large quantities of non-union, strip-mined coal.3

Strip mining—also frequently referred to as surface or area mining—involves using heavy equipment to obtain coal from seams [End Page 185] lying near the earth’s surface as opposed to sending large numbers of workers underground to retrieve the coal...