Editor’s Note: Information for this story was taken from three sources: one book called Perry County, Kentucky: A History by the Perry County Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) first published in 1953; a second book by Martha Quigley called 1911-1913: Years of Change published in 1991; and several accounts from early editions of The Hazard Herald. This story is not meant to represent a whole history of Hazard before the Great Depression, but touch on some of the important events from that time that shaped the city today.
HAZARD, Ky. – Hazard’s early days before the turn of the 20th century read like a frontier novel, complete with settlers, hard times and conflicts. But it was also those early years that paved the way for modern day society in Hazard, and today provides us with a rich history dating back nearly two centuries.
The county’s first settlers included familiar family names for today’s residents such as the Eversoles, Cornetts, Begleys, Penningtons and Combses. And it was the Combs family that would ultimately play the biggest role in the early history of Hazard.
John Combs and his brother Nicholas settled in the county in the 1790s, and John’s son, Elijah, eventually settled what is now Hazard. Elijah’s son, Jesse, was born in what was then Montgomery County in 1798, and was the first person born in what would become the city of Hazard.
Elijah Combs also built the first two houses in Hazard, the second after he traveled to Virginia and married Sarah Roark, and returned to Kentucky with Sarah and two slaves. It was in this house that the first court was held, and thereafter for several years, near where the triangle park is now located.
Perry County itself was formed from parts of Clay and Floyd counties in 1821 to create the Commonwealth’s 68th county. The county seat was chosen during a meeting of appointed commissioners at the house of Elijah Combs.
It was also during this time that the county and its seat were given their names. Oliver Hazard Perry, a naval hero during the War of 1812, a war that saw many Kentuckians take part in the fight against the British, died in 1819, and the people suggested the county be named for him, as was the seat.
Though Hazard officially had a name, it wasn’t until 1854 that it was regularly referred to as Hazard in the legislative record. Any mention of Hazard prior to that likely listed the town as Perry Court House. According to the DAR, in one of the early mentions of the town in the legislative acts, it was spelled “Hazzard.”
The land for the town was eventually deeded to the town trustees in July 1826 by Elijah Combs, and the first survey was completed in 1836, showing 10 acres on the north side of the Kentucky River, where a part of the city’s downtown area is located today.
Elijah Combs went on to serve in the Kentucky legislature in 1840, and later died in 1855. His marker, along with Sarah’s, can be found, with some looking, just off Broadway beside the Consolidated Baptist Church.
The city of Hazard was not incorporated until 1884, and by that time had grown to well beyond the original 10 acres surveyed 48 years earlier. By 1890, the town had boardwalks and dirt streets, though the growth was actually fairly slow up until the turn of the 20th century.
By the end of the Civil War, soldiers returned to the area and found their hometown as a shadow, as noted in the DAR’s history: “Robert Combs, a Confederate soldier and one time jailer of Perry County, often recalled the condition of Hazard when he returned from war. He described the neglected farms, the roads and paths overgrown with weeds and almost no business of any kind being carried on.”
A bloody and costly feud between the French and Eversole families between 1887 and 1894 slowed the growth of Hazard again. According to one report noted in the DAR’s history, by the end of the feud only 70 people remained in Hazard.
There was some economic life in Hazard at the time, as merchants were open for business, and in the 1890s J.L. Johnson brought to Hazard’s Main Street the first steam mill equipped with a circular saw, and was credited with helping to build much of the town in the years that followed.
Another industry, however, would eclipse lumber as the number one commodity in Perry County, which would greatly affect Hazard as well. The discovery of coal in Eastern Kentucky was largely credited to Christopher Gist, who explored the region, and likely Perry County, in 1751. But there was no industrialization of the resource until many years later.
According to the DAR, it appears that the Combs family dug some of the early coal and likely floated it downriver on flat bottom boats, and other early local mines were operated by Cornetts, Duffs and Johnsons. It was largely accepted that some coal owners at the time used slave labor to mine the coal by hand pick.
In 1885 a man named W.J. Horsely came to Hazard, and during the next two summers worked as an agent for a group headed by T.P. Trigg of Abingdon, Va. Horsley reportedly obtained 125 options and deeds for 50 cents per acre, and in 1887 Trigg himself arrived in Hazard and began executing those deeds. Some accounts say that this precipitated the French and Eversole feud.
It was during the 1890s that several progressive-minded people arrived in Hazard. Rev. A.S. Petrey was one of them, and in 1989 he arrived and organized a movement to form the Hazard Baptist Institute. The first church in Hazard was organized in 1892. Prior to that services would be held in the courthouse.
It was also during this time that Bailey P. Wootton came to Hazard as a teacher, but it only took a few years before he became a leader in Hazard, opening a law firm in 1900 with Jesse Morgan. Wootton also helped establish the first telephone system, and later served as Kentucky’s attorney general. But perhaps his most lasting legacy has been this publication.
The first newspaper printed in Hazard was likely the Perry County News, followed by The Mountaineer. Wootton purchased controlling interest of The Mountaineer, and on June 22, 1911 published the first edition of The Hazard Herald.
Other men arrived in Hazard during the early 20th century to prospect and negotiate leases, including John Gorman and Walter Hall, the latter of whom represented the Virginia Iron Coal and Coke Company, which would later leave its own legacy in the city of Vicco near the Knott County line.
Coal was taking off as an industry, but the rugged Appalachian foothills were serving to isolate Hazard. Supplies were being floated upriver on boats, and it wasn’t until June 17, 1912, when the first train arrived in Hazard, that the city really began to realize its potential.
The Speaks Coal Company was credited with loading the first railroad car of coal out of Hazard, and it would be the first of many thereafter for an emerging industry. In the years that followed, Hazard’s population would boom, and the city would become a staging ground for the formation of the Kentucky River Mining Institute in 1925. The Institute was made up of coal officials to promote safe mining practices.
Hazard was also known for something else in those years, namely its mud streets. As Martha Quigley noted in her book, 1911-1913: Years of Change, mud on Main Street, which was not paved, was the subject of many local editorials.
“Louis Pilcher, a visiting chronicler of Hazard’s civic improvement, remarked on mud as the only ‘retarding demon,’” Quigley wrote. “While he generally praised the progressiveness of Hazard, he related how his spirit was dampened by his experience one Sunday with foot-deep mud. While navigating the stepping stones on Main Street, he missed a step, fell down and was baptized in ‘Mudlavia.’”
By 1913, Hazard boasted concrete sidewalks, but was still having to deal with its dirt streets.
By 1914, the first automobile arrived in town, as was reported in the Herald on August 17 of that year: “Last Thursday, Hazard and Perry county (sic) were honored by the first automobile ever inside the county limits. We have had the railroad trains upward of two years, and that has ceased to be a wonder; we have had one autocycle, which remained for a few days and departed from whence it came. But the crowning glory of all was the advent of the Ford touring car which passed through our city last Thursday. Now we are on the qui vive for the first aeroplane.”
Other notable events during those first two decades included the beginning of what is today’s oldest surviving business in Hazard, Engle-Bowling Funeral Home, which at the time in 1907 was called Engle Undertaking and Hardware. In 1912 the first Boy Scout troupe was formed, and in 1918 the first Red Cross chapter was granted in Perry County. Home Lumber Company was incorporated in 1914.
During the 1920s, Hazard continued to grow, when businesses like the Mine Service Company was formed, as was the forebearer of Peoples Bank and Trust, then called the First State Bank of Vicco, which eventually moved to Hazard.
Flooding has also played a role in Hazard’s history, likely since its beginning, but the biggest flood prior to the Great Depression swept through the town in 1927, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage in Lothair, which at the time was not a part of Hazard.
“The combined loss of the four camps and the business section of Lothair from the flood has been estimated as being in the neighborhood of $200,000,” the Herald reported.
Fires also helped shape Hazard. In 1911 the courthouse burned, and five months later the entire block of business houses opposite the court square were burned to the ground. It would be one of many fires in Hazard’s downtown history.
In March 1932 Hazard High School won its first state basketball title with a “thrilling” victory over Louisville Male, according to the Herald.
The thrill of that win would be short lived, however, as the Great Depression left its mark during the decade and times were hard for nearly everyone. But a worldwide military conflict would unfold that would affect Hazard and the entire nation only a few years later, eventually ushering in an entirely new era.