Ghost Town

Sep 30, 2019 2:10 PM

Revising the History – and Future – of a Coal Company Ghost Town

by Robert Spahr '13

Pictures might be worth a thousand words, but photographers choose those images to tell specific stories. Many of the most iconic pictures of Appalachian life were taken long ago by photographers chronicling American poverty. Their work forged America’s lasting image of Appalachia’s coal towns: exploited miners breaking their backs to eke out a living, disheveled children left to play in the dirt.

“We have photographs of Appalachia that are usually designed to exploit a narrative of poverty,” explained Dr. Jonathan Flood, assistant professor of geography at Frostburg. “They are looking for indigent people in scenes and not so much what a regular person would have in their house.”

Flood and his students are re-examining that version of everyday Appalachian life through the Kempton Historical Archaeology Project (KHAP), which began in Flood’s Surveying and Field Techniques class.

“I thought we’d excavate and see what kinds of goods they actually had in their houses, and let their material culture tell the story of their domestic life to give voice to a group of people who were definitely overlooked by history,” said Flood.

Kempton was built as a coal company town in 1913 at the southwestern-most corner of Garrett County, Maryland, bordering West Virginia. It grew to nearly 900 people in the 1930s, the mine operator calling Kempton its “model company town.” When the mine closed unexpectedly in 1950, Kempton’s residents moved on. Today, just a handful of households remain.

The remnants of the miners’ homes in Kempton are mostly now overgrown, leaving a site ideal for archaeological exploration. The students mapped out the foundations hiding just beneath the surface using the remote sensing method of LIDAR, and the archaeological excavation began last fall. After exploring just one home site, the project’s findings are already challenging conventional wisdom about life in towns like Kempton.

Continue reading.