Peach Orchard - The Pioneer Mine
Just as Daniel Boone stands out in the mind of the average individual as the great Kentucky pioneer, so do the old settlers consider Peach orchard the pioneer mone in the Big Sandy Valley. Certainly, it was the first coal mine in the valley to be operated successfully on a commercial scale. It was in 1847 that George Carlisle, R. B. Bowler, and other capitalists of Cincinnati formed a company which they named the "Peach Orchard Coal Company." They purchased 2,000 acres of land from Judge Archibald Borders, the first judge of Lawrence County. This tract was located on the east side of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River, approximately forty miles above the mouth and about fifteen miles above Louisa. It was in the southeastern part of Lawrence County near the Martin County line.
It is true that a number of mining companies had been organized before that time. As early as 1845 an Ohio Company had sent Captain Milton Freeze, Robert Crutcher and a man named Mills to open a mine a few miles above Prestonsburg. Another company openend up a mine still farther up the river. Even earlier than that Richard Deering had begun operations at Abbott.
A fourth enterprise was at the mouth of Hurricane, eighteen miles above the mouth of the river. All of these ventures were unsuccessful. In addition to them numerous neighborhood coal banks worked to supply the local trade and to furnish fuel for the many boats plying the river. Among these were McHenry's bank and about six miles above Louisa, Wheeler's operations, just below Paintsville, and Layne's opening near Betsy Layne.
The operations at Peach Orchard were on a much more extensive scale than any of these. William H. Mellon, a man of wide experience and exceptional ability, was employed to develop the project. The company imported its own sawmill; and while one group of men felled the forest, others sawed the lumber. Soon a row of neat, white, frame cottages had been reared along the river bank while others extended up the hollow. These houses were described as being of superior quality. The residence constructed a short time later for William B. Mellon, the superintendent, was said to have been equal to the suburban mansions of Cincinnati. His spacious lawns and gardens were full of flowers and shrubs imported from distant lands. A park, stocked with native deer, provided vensison for the table.
A general store building about thirty-six by eighty feet was erected. A church and a school were also constructed. The school building was a white-frame structure like the miners' homes and was equipped with good seats and ventilation. Meanwhile, additional workers had opened the mine while still others had been equally busy preparing barges in which the coal was to be shipped to market. An excellent grist mill was erected to grind wheat and corn in order to provide not only bread for the people but also food for the work animals. This mill was the best of its kind in the lower Big Sandy Valley; and, as a result, practically all of the farmers within a radius of twenty miles brought their grain here to be ground. It also had a first class carding machine attached which was extensivley patronized. The town was at first called Mellenburg in honor of the superintendent, but this was later changed to Peach Orchard in honor of the Peach Orchard vein of coal in which the miners were working. When all was in readiness, the coal was tipped into the barges to await a rise in the river sufficient to carry it to market.
At that time nothing had been done to improve the navigation of the Big Sandy. While it was possible for small steamboats to make their way to Pikeville and return for approximately five or six months of the year, it was very difficult to float heavily loaded barges down the river. In spite of this drawback, however, the company seemed to prosper.
In 1859, the company invited John Floyd, who owned coal land on Tug Fork, to join them in an effort to slackwater both rivers. Floyd was a former governor of Virginia. The Tug River and Big Sandy River form the boundary line between what was then the western part of Virginia and Kentucky. Meetings were held at Peach Orchard and at Catlettsburg. An engineer named Ledbetter, who had been engaged in a similar project on the Muskingum River in Ohio, reported the practicability of such an undertaking. The outbreak of the Civil War interrupted not only the plans for improvements in transportation but also put an end to all operations at Peach Orchard.
The last barge of coal was shipped early in the spring of 1861. Mellen soon moved his family off to Cincinnati. He and several of the other officials joined the Union Army and never returned to Peach Orchard. Henry Denby served as superintendent during the war period. The mill and the store were kept in operation for some time, but coal mining was not resumed on a large scale because of the great loss of boats on snags and rocks and because there was insufficient amount of water to float the barges during several months of each summer.
Denby was succeeded by George S. Richardson, a business man from Massachussetts. During his superintendency, the company store was operated on a large scale; the mills were kept busy grinding grain for the farmers;
Source: The Influence of Coal in the Big Sandy Valley; Dissertation by Mary Chapman, Ashland, KY/Lexington, KY, 1945. Transcribed for LCHS into electronic form by Marlitta H. Perkins.