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Register of Historic Places

The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum and the Benham School House Inn are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Benham Historic District. Following are descriptions of all buildings in the City of Benham in addition to historical information on the city s founding and growth through 1983. (Excerpts from the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1983)

The Benham Historic District is located in the center of Benham, Kentucky which is in eastern -Harlan County near the Virginia border. This rich coal mining region is characterized by ragged mountains and deep valleys. Benham (pop. 1,000) is situated in a valley along Looney Creek, a tributary of the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River. Benham lies at the foot of Big Black Mountain which is the highest point in Kentucky and two long spurs of this mountain create the valley in which Benham is located. Benham is the home of the Wisconsin Steel Coal Mines of the International Harvester Company which continues as the main employer for the community.

The Benham Historic District represents an important concentration of the town's architectural resources which are associated with the historical development of the community. It contains nine buildings centered around a public park which originally comprised the community's governmental, educational, health and entertainment facilities necessary for a self-sustaining coal town. They are the largest and most costly structures erected in the community with the majority of brick construction reflecting the vernacular styles of the early 1920s. Today the buildings within the historic district are substantially unchanged and represent the planning ideas behind the coal town concept.

Planners and architects of the Wisconsin Steel Company laid out the community of Benham in 1912. They designed a central park area which was to be surrounded by the company stores, schools and churches. Most of the company buildings were located facing both the main highway on one side with access to the railroad at the rear. Surrounding this central area were the residential areas which extended onto nearby hill Fades and valleys. These residential areas were initially composed of one-story frame structures situated on small lots.

Streets were named for trees such as spruce, pine and maple, sidewalks were built and sewers were constructed. Altogether the early planners sought to employ the most modern of planned community designs. The company buildings were originally one to two story frame structures but with an increase in coal production and population the Wisconsin Steel Company undertook a complete rebuilding of their structures in the early 1920s. These buildings were constructed at or near the original locations around the public park area. Between 1920 and 1925 seven major buildings were constructed which were to serve the needs of both the company and the community. These buildings were all interconnected by a coal fired steam heating system with underground piping. All of the buildings were constructed of steel and concrete with a brick exterior.

The design of the buildings in the historic district reflects the commercial building styles of the early 1920s. Common characteristics are inset decorative stone and brickwork, copper cornices and decorative metal panels. The interior of the buildings display decorative woodwork, plaster and metal also of Benham is a coal mining community located in eastern Harlan County near the Virginia border. Harlan County is a rich coal mining area of Kentucky and is characterized by small communities centered around mines in the rugged mountainous terrain. Benham (pop. 1,000) is an excellent example of the planned coal towns which were created during the early 20th century by large mining corporations. It remains largely intact and still exhibits its original town plan and architectural heritage.

The area encompassed by the Benham Historic District is located in the center of the community around a circular public park. Containing nine buildings this area served as the focal point of the community with the buildings providing the functions necessary for a self-sustaining community. Adjacent to one another were the town's company stores, company offices, post office, hospital, theatre and school. These buildings are distinctive because of their similarity of design and brick construction. The design and setting of these buildings within the overall concept of the community shows the planning concepts central to the development of the Eastern Kentucky coal towns. Benham is one of the best examples of the company coal town remaining in Eastern Kentucky.

This rich coal producing area became developed at the beginning of the 20th century by both large and small coal mining companies. Many of the larger firms constructed entire communities around the mines to provide for housing, shopping and entertainment for the miners and their families. The best of these communities were carefully designed and constructed utilizing the most sophisticated urban planning designs of their day. Today, Benham continues to possess its original characteristics and the community plan is intact. The site of Benham was originally a remote area occupied by the farms of several families. In the early 1900s purchasing agents .and engineers of the International Harvester Company of Chicago began buying tracts of this land after the discovery of rich coal seams in the area. Some initial mining was performed by the company but production was hindered until construction of a spur line up the valley in 1911 by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. After 1911 it became evident that the mines were to be a long lasting enterprise for the company and plans began for the construction of a complete community to serve the mining families employed by the company. Five major sub-surface mines were opened by Wisconsin Steel in Benham during these years. At the same time another coal
community known as Lynch was established by U.S. Steel adjacent to Benham up the valley and they still display their original characteristics. Buildings within the historic district are as follows:

Benham Theatre, 1922. This two-story brick structure was constructed as a theatre by Wisconsin Steel to serve as an entertainment and meeting center for the miners and their families. The building is rectangular in shape with a flat roof. It has a central doorway opening with a Mudstone surround and fixed casement windows. The interior features an abundance of decorative egg and dart plaster molding on the balcony, main floor and stage areas. Alterations to the building include an added frame doorway at the main entrance and removal of the original copper cornice. Although the building has become somewhat deteriorated it remains structurally sound and there is a great deal of community interest in its restoration.

Benham Meat Market, 1922 Presently used as a carpet store, this one-story brick structure originally housed a meat market which served the community. The building is rectangular in shape with the main facade featuring plate glass windows and an altered entryway. The upper facade displays brick soldier coursing, inset stone panels and a triangular stepped parapet. The interior consists of open floor space with an added dropped ceiling. The building is in good condition and is utilized for commercial use.

Benham Commissary, 1923 The Commissary building is the largest structure in Benham and originally served as the main store for the community. It is a three story brick building with a flat roof and is rectangular in shape. The main facade has plate glass display windows with concrete sills and brick panels. There are two main entryways with double doors and inset glass panels. The second floor is four bays wide with plate glass divided by mud ions. The upper facade displays soldier coursing and inset stone panels. At the corners of the building are brick pilasters with stone capitals. The interior of the building consists of open floor space with a mezzanine level above the first floor. This mezzanine still retains its original office area and decorative oak railing. The building is presently used for storage space by the owner.

Benham City Hall, 1919 This building was originally used as the offices for Wisconsin Steel and was later turned over to the city of Benham for use as the city hall. The building is a one-and one-half story brick structure with a hipped roof and gable dormer windows. It features a double door entryway, one-over-one sash windows and a stairway and large windows on the west facade which served as the company-pay windows. The interior has been remodeled with dropped ceilings but most of the original office areas and woodwork remains intact.

Benham Post Office, 1923 The Post office is a two and one half story brick building and is the most decorative of the community structures. The building is three bays wide with an offset entryway and plate glass windows on the ground spandrels. The second story windows are one-over-one sash. Between the second and half story windows are copper spandrels with decorative banding. The half story windows are arched with radiating brick arching, stone keystones and concrete sills. Separating each bay on the facade is a Doric pilaster with a stone capital and at the roofline is a copper cornice. The interior has been remodeled somewhat but it still utilized for the community post office and meeting rooms.

Benham Fire Hall, 1922 Although no longer used this one story frame structure originally housed the fire truck for the community. This building has a gable roof, shiplap siding and three-over-one sash windows. Beneath the gable roof are exposed brackets. The main elevation has large double doors. The building is presently vacant.

Benham Hospital, 1922 The Benham Hospital is an irregular shaped Bungalow style structure with a hipped roof. The main facade features a gable roof porch with brick piers. The windows are three-over-one sash with concrete sills. The eaves of the roof display exposed brackets. The interior is divided into rooms for offices and patient wards and most original details are still intact. This building was first called the Benham Doctor's office and Wisconsin Steel would send doctors to the community on a regular basis to care for the health of the miners. The building was deeded to the community in 1962 and operated as a public health facility until 1981. It is presently vacant.

Benham United Methodist Church, 1928 Built in the Gothic style, this frame and stucco church has served the local Methodist congregation for over fifty years. The building is rectangular in shape with an ell addition. It has arched Tudor style windows with stained glass. The main elevation has a square bell tower with lancet windows and a conical roof. The main entryway has double doors with a rounded arch transom. The building continues to function as the Benham Methodist church.

Benham Grade School, 1928 The Benham School in an irregular shaped brick building with a gable roof. It has an offset tower with an octagonal steeple and which shelters the main entryway. The windows are six-over-nine casement with brick sills. Decorative features include stone belt coursing and inset brick banding. The interior is comprised of numerous classrooms and offices with a gymnasium at the rear of the building. Most of the original interior features are intact. The building was originally used for both grade school and high school students but it is presently used for only for grade school students.

Benham Park, ca. 1915 The Benham Park is a circular recreation area in the center of the community building area. It was built as a playground center for the community children and has tennis courts and recreational equipment. It was designed as an open space and recreational feature in the community plan. These buildings and the park area served as the central shopping, governmental and meeting area of the community. Although several of the buildings are vacant this area is still the focal point of Benham and few alterations have occurred to either the buildings or the original plan. There are no intrusions in the district and it retains the integrity of its original design.

Benham Jail, c. 1922 This one-story, gable-oriented, brick structure was originally constructed as a jail by Wisconsin Steel. In later years it was used by Union organizers. Although a concrete block shed wing has been added to the building, it continues to contribute to the historic significance of the district. Like the jail the majority of the district's historic resources are brick structures which materially reflect the regional architecture of the early 1920s and all served community or governmental functions.

More History of the City of Benham
Between 1912 and 1914 several hundred structures were built in Benham by area carpenters under the supervision of company architects brought in from Chicago. Most of these structures were one-story dwellings built along planned streets and thoroughfares. Company buildings were initially constructed of frame and were centered around a park in the center of the community. By 1918 the mines were so successful that an expansion of the worker's housing was needed. During the next several years "new Benham" was constructed adjacent to "old Benham" and consisted of hundreds of homes many of which were substantial two-story duplexes.
The early 1920s witnessed Benham at its peak with the Benham coal mines employing approximately 1,200 workers. The mines operated at full capacity for several years with 408 ovens turning out tons of coke for shipment to the International Harvester Company's Wisconsin Steel Mill in Chicago. The success of the Benham mines resulted in a new wave of construction by the company which began to replace the frame company buildings with more substantial brick structures. Between 1920 and 1924 a new theatre, hospital, company office and two company stores were constructed of brick around the public park. This activity was followed in 1926 when the Benham public school was constructed.

The company also aided local congregations in building churches such as the Benham Methodist Church also located adjacent to the public park. This building boom transformed Benham into a modern community with substantial brick and frame structures. Many of the miners employed in Benham were immigrants from eastern and southern Europe and many of their descendants still work in the Benham mines.

The Benham mines also employed a large number of blacks who lived in a segregated area of Benham and attended a separate school. The miners were paid in scrip which was redeemable at the company stores or for uses at other company buildings. The company commissary sold not only food but also furniture, clothing, hardware equipment and other necessities. The theatre provided entertainment in the form of plays and movies. The hospital supplied health care to the miners with doctors and nurses on call for emergencies in the mines. Altogether the company buildings were intended to supply all of the miners needs during his employment with the company.
Employment in the mines began to decrease in the late 1920s and during the depression only four hundred workers operated the mines due to falling demand. During these years Benham and Lynch escaped the strikes and violence which characterized the Harlan County coal fields in the 1930s. An organizer for the United Mine Workers stated this was because "the working conditions at Benham and Lynch were better than the other part of Harlan County and it was, therefore, more difficult to organize the miners. They had already begun making good money and working shorter hours." Workers at Benham enjoyed a voice in community affairs through the Benham Employees Association and finally organized peacefully in 1939 when workers voted to join the Progressive Mine Workers of America. Employment in the Benham mines rose to over 900.

As the war ended mechanization began to gradually decrease the need for hand loading mining and the number of workers employed at Benham dropped significantly. In 1960 Wisconsin Steel began to sell off houses to the several hundred workers who remained at the mines. On July 18, 1961 Benham was incorporated and in later years many of the original company buildings such as the stores and offices were sold to the city or private individuals. The mining areas continue to be owned and operated by International Harvester which remains as the chief employer for the Benham community.

The Benham Historic District represents the period of peak development of the community in the 1920s. All of the original company buildings remain in good condition and few alterations have occurred to these buildings. The company office is now occupied by the city of Benham and serves as the city hall. The post office, Methodist Church and School continue to be utilized while the rest of the buildings are vacant or used for commercial businesses. Interest in restoring the Benham theatre has increased in recent years and a local committee is soliciting financing for its development. The buildings within the Benham Historic District area contains the largest and most significant grouping of buildings in the community and there is strong interest and commitment to their future use