top of page

Big Shoal, Coal Town on the Big Sandy (1918-1949) / G.C. Compton


Let us not forget how the rails came to Big Shoal

on the strong back of the Negro, the Italian and Hungarian,

on the sunbaked shoulders of the mountain men 

of Kentucky and West Virginia;

When chimneys smoked with breakfast fires

and a town woke to the rumble of the C&O Mallet

in a dawn that rose swift as fog from the river.


Once blood ran quick in the vein

and Big Shoal lived,

burning in the power lines pole to pole

from the train depot to the boarding house,

from the brass’s plumbed and shingled court

to Snake-eye Williams’ whitewashed shack.

Once men walked in steel-toed boots

from Coal Run to Big Shoal,

from camp house to lamp house

and life squirmed in the cool belly of the mountain,

in the copper wires, motors and shuttle cars,

in the breasts of young men and old,

working the thin seams in lamplight and glittering dark.


Once women kneeled bedside in the long nights,

prayed over the bean kettle and wash tub 

in the long days. 

Once mothers rocked babies on a screened porch,

breastfeeding in the dappled shade.   


Name’s Pegleg—Pegleg Younce,

all I been called since ’41.

I was braking on a Jeffrey for Arnie Bates.

It was twenty minutes till quit time,

boss wanted one more car.

We heard the top a-working

and seen the rats a-running.

There was no time to pray.

I got off light compared to Arnie—

Death hung in the mine for the next six months.

You could feel it—and smell it,

my hand to God.


Mother’s hair is warm,

but Father shakes me awake,

smiling with black face and white teeth.

His rough and tender hands

holds a bag of steel marbles

and a cake saved from his dinner pail.

Mother’s hair is warm, and I sleep.


We was coal miners, and river rats, too.

Big Shoal, Kentucky, was named for the river

the way Aladdin Coal was named for a lamp.

Some say a magic lamp—

damned carbide lamp if you ask me.

The Big Sandy was our highway in and highway out.

We boated it, fished it, swum it, cussed it—

and baptized the saved in its muddy waters.

Company and the river thought they owned us—

our money spent nowhere but the company store.

What we had was one another—

always somebody staying all night,

bringing a pie or a mess of greens,

tending to the sick or settin’ up with the dead.

Some things money can’t buy.


Night comes down the mountain.

Rawhead and Bloody Bones

lurks in the tipple’s long shadow.

I feel safe,

riding the hip of my young mother,

mocking the hoot owls in the dark oaks.


Uncle John

plays the boarding house square dance,

singing like Bill Monroe.

A merry swain in company store clothes,

sharp creased khakis and starched shirt,

he walks his girl to Coal Run hill

in the June night heavy with honeysuckle.


Turned home on the river

my father’s a good mariner with an eye to the sky, 

holding a new Crosley radio 

tender as a lover.

Windows rattle and toes beat time

to “The Wabash Cannonball.”

John dances barefoot on the rough pine floor

and Acuff’s happy hoboes squall 

until above the merry din is heard

a distant clarion call.


I ride my red tricycle on the long porch

until the train comes.

Father and Grandpa Gus help carry the cot.

Mother’s blue hands are raised against the sun.

My new brother is red as a rat,

the life cord curled on his belly like a cabbage worm.


Show fare is 30 cents at the New Drive-In.

We walk the tracks to Little Shoal,

grown men and women, boys and girls

perched like pigeons along the rails,

scanning the dark newsreels of the Great War

for the face of Uncle John.

We laugh at a bouncing Mickey Mouse,

pretend we hear the muted six guns

of Gene Autry and Randolph Scott

in the moon-white plain of a summer night. 


When Elmer Hicks got into the 440

old Doc Wheeler rode from Pikeville on a handcar.

Elmer was already gone when he got to him.

The power had done broke his neck.

He was a big healthy young man

with a wife and two little boys.

He’d just bummed me for a chew of tobaccer

five minutes before it happened.

Some things a man just can’t forget.


Christmas Morning.

Mother shows me reindeer tracks

on the rooftop’s melting snow.

Daddy’s gray work sock hangs from the mantle,

heavy with candy and nuts from the North Pole.

Old Santa has brought an electric train,

a smoking C&O Mallet with a red caboose.

I shoot my Gene Autry cap pistol and Daddy “falls dead.”

Three men carry Grandpa Archie

from the boarding house frolic to the head of Big Shoal.

The Patilla’s, red-cheeked and bundled,

sing the carols of their new country.


I was there when they pulled the last man trip,

I helped them take the equipment to the outside

and load it on a rail car going north;

seen the men come out the drift mouth for the last time,

heads hanging, carrying their dinner buckets.

Some of the camp houses was already empty.

We all shook hands, turned out our lights 

and went our separate ways.


Aunt Mag and Cousin Jo

were wearing grass skirts when the tipple burned,

souvenirs from the soldier boys.

Make-believe Hula’s with a cheap Kodak,

They caught the day, the hour, the blazing sky,

the stone faces and folded hands,

the unwilling bowing timbers

that farewell summer of ’49.


Forever stilled in black and white,

an old picture framed and forgot

awaits the stranger’s chance remark:

“I knew this place of smoke and flame;

I knew this time of darkness and burning light.” 


G.C. COMPTON is a three-time winner of the Appalachian Heritage Plattner Award for Writing Excellence, winner of the George Scarbrough Poetry Prize, the Kudzu Poetry Prize, and the New Southerner prize for both fiction and poetry. He is the uncle of Appalachian author Sheldon Lee Compton and lives in Pike County, Kentucky with his wife Sharon.

Recent Posts

See All

It Could Have Been / Anthony Gedell

Ballgame Decided by a collection of losses And foul play Walk off homes These are not your father’s cigarettes or his funerals His travesties or his tragedies Born to run got left behind A fool by des


bottom of page