Traveling John’s Mountains
Bad John Wright
Bad John Wright lived life to its fullest in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Shouldering the responsibilities of adult life early on, he enlisting to serve in the “War Between The States” before his 17th birthday. Accordingly, he used many of the skills he had experienced as a soldier to carry out the office of Deputy Sheriff for eight years; to protect his friends and neighbors as he made the county secure. His responsibilities grew when he became Justice of the Peace for sixteen years, extending his territory to Virginia and West Virginia and beyond when he worked as a detective for another thirty years. There have been dramatic changes to John’s adored homeland since his death in 1931; progress moves on. Letcher County towns are now connected by four lane highways not mountain trails, but there are still traces of John’s time in the thickly forested mountains and crisp fast flowing creeks. Just look for them.
John's travels were made across the mountains at a time when there were forests of giant trees of every type; rock overhangs were covered thickly with laurel and rhododendron, with briars and brambles in the lowland. Trees were so tall and the foliage so dense that at times the sun and sky were completely hidden. Even wagon or sled roads were few, most were lightly trod paths, so there was no set route to get to a destination. Most trails followed the Kentucky River down Payne Gap from Jenkins and then over the hills to Kona to the North Fork of the Kentucky River and across Daniel's Hill to Seco, Millstone, Thornton and Mayking along Boone Creek to Whitesburg.
Another trip might have taken him to Dunham and through Potter Gap along Potters Fork of Boone Fork of the North Fork of Kentucky River, through the settlements of Potters Fork, Haymond, Tolliver Town and to Neon Junction where he could have headed up Wrights Fork of Boone Creek to McRoberts, passing across the mountain into the narrow valley where he could enter Neon, where the coal camp of Fleming would be built. John could have followed Yonts Fork north from Boone Fork to the little settlement where Hemphill coal camp would be built.
Mary Hughes Sanders had lived at Potters Fork past the age of 91 years old at the time, when Nadina Osborne and Irene Adkins went to visit her. Mary remembered John and Mattie Wright. She said "John was a good man - had a good heart." "Mattie was a real good woman - John was good to her."
Bad John's house at Dunham
From Hemphill you could cross the mountain into Pike County; the same being true coming from McRoberts and Dunham, to drop over the mountain into Beefhide and Pike County. There were numerous animal trails you could have followed. As John rode out of Jenkins heading for Long Fork, he could have followed Elkhorn Creek to Marshall’s Branch where he would cross the mountain to Beefhide and head through a gap to Long Fork or he could have followed Elkhorn Creek to Shelby Gap.
He would probably not have taken these long routes when he was headed to a battle or was on a raid into Knott or Floyd County. He would have made his own trail across the mountains, taking the quickest path through the laurel. The trails along the creeks and streams were more frequently used by the regular travelers since most of the trails and roads that were cut by that time usually followed a watercourse from one settlement to another.
Millstone, Letcher County, Kentucky
John rode the mountain trails and valley paths on beautiful sunlit mornings when taking care of his farms or seeing to his responsibilities with the coal company. Sometimes in the dead of night and in all types of weather, John Wright rode these hills and valleys taking care of his law enforcement duties and fighting the battles that evolved from the many feuds he was drawn into because of family members and friends. On those days when he was not in the saddle on the trail of some lawbreaker, off fighting in a raid or protecting his family from criminal aggressors, he would quietly sit on his porch and watch the sun climb over these mountains that he knew so well.
This is where John’s grandparents, Joel and Susannah Wright, settled in 1822. Back then it was known as Wright's Fork of Boone Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of the Kentucky River. Joel’s 50 acres of land was on Boone Creek, at the mouth of Chopping Branch, which was pretty well thecenter of what would become the town of McRoberts. .
The town itself was built for the express purpose of housing the families brought in to mine coal, and named for Samuel McRoberts, a New York City banker, who was a director of Consolidation Coal, and soon became a booming coal town. This was where John’s father, Joel Ellis Wright, was raised, 9 1/2 miles North East of the county seat of Whitesburg. There were only about ten families living between McRoberts and Neon; the Wrights, Yonts and Halls being the best known. John established households in several Letcher County towns; in Jenkins, near the Regular Baptist Church, in Dunham and on Yonts Fork. In addition he had homes on Cane Branch, between Jenkins and Burdine, one near Goodwater Dam and one in Pound. McRoberts residents picked up their mail at the post office about a mile down the road at Neon, then called “Chip”.
Shea's Fork, McRoberts, Kentucky
His first cousin James Wright married Polly Ingle and set up house keeping on Shea’s Fork. There were three mines in that hollow, Mines # 10, 11, and 12. John later owned a house in McRoberts. The coal town of Jenkins, strung out along the upper reaches of Wrights Fork of Boone, a tributary of the North Fork of the Kentucky River, was also named by Consolidation Coal. The terrain is rugged and mountainous with narrow fertile valleys and meandering streams. John had a house in Jenkins at the time the town was being built. This was the house he turned over to the managers of the coal company for their use while the town was under construction, which was maintained as coal company offices. The development of Jenkins is unusual in that it was planned and built solely for men to mine coal.
Bad John standing to the left of his house in Jenkins
Though each section was built separately, Jenkins was made up of four smaller towns, Dunham, Burdine, Jenkins and McRoberts, incorporated into one township. The town of Burdine is located between Jenkins and Dorton and was named for the mail carrier Burdine Webb.
Town of Burdine 1912
Jenkins is located in the south eastern section of Kentucky, at the foot of Pine Mountain in Letcher County. With its winding streams surrounded by towering hills, it is one of the loveliest mountain regions to be found.
From one of the highest points, such as Raven Rock or Murdered Man Cemetery, you look down over the Appalachian ridgelines rolling away in the distance, row after row, like waves in an ocean. It is an experience to drive these mountain highways and watch the cool morning mist escape up from the creeks sending tendrils through the tree tops to be burned away by the noon day sun. It becomes easy to allow your mind to slip back to a time long ago as you pass through these mountains.
Assuredly, John Wright passed this way, riding these mountain trails to spend many a night in the small coal town of Jenkins. One mile from the border of Virginia, this mountain valley town was home to Bad John Wright and tales of his legendary life still abound in this area.
John & Mattie Wright
John and Ellen with family, taken about 1903
Many of John's family and friends have written that John would sit as close to his campfire or fireplace as possible without getting burned and could easily tolerate the extreme heat. He also could travel in the worst possible weather, snow, sleet or rain and the cold did not affect him. He never wore a lot of heavy clothing, always rode straight and tall astride his horse. He also did not drink excessively. It is said that he only took a drink or two before heading out on a raid to fortify him against nature's elements.
John became closely connected to the economic development of Eastern Kentucky in the last years of his life. He had traveled over the hills and streams as a young boy playing and hunting for food for the family. He probably had very little formal education, but his skills of shooting, riding, scouting, hunting and living off the land were exceptional. He developed the natural instincts of a true mountain man. The hills and streams were no challenge to John as he crisscrossed Letcher County and neighboring counties trying to settle the many feuds and reconciling family differences.
John served as Justice of the Peace for sixteen years, then extended his territory to Virginia, then West Virginia and beyond, when he worked as a detective for another thirty years. He rode his hills as comfortably as we drive to our local grocery store and it was nothing for him to be absent from his home for several days or even a week at a time.
His loyalty to his closest friends and to his family drew him into many battles all through the little mountain settlements in Letcher County and spilled over the hills and valleys into bordering counties, such as Floyd and Knott. John’s reprimand to offenders of the law was one and the same, even when it was family. Had a reputation for wanting his neighbors to do the right thing, which often caused him problems with those who wanted to settle problems and disputes one way - with a gun.
Joe Mize, great nephew of Bad John, at the home in 1971.
Crime scene forensics is a way of life in our day and time. When an offense occurs, forensic teams gather evidence to determine how and when it happened. John was ahead of his time in that he was clever enough to use a form of forensics when solving the murders of several close relatives who were shot and killed from ambush. He could tell from the bullet wounds on the victims from which direction the shots were fired, what type of gun was used and where the killers laid in wait for the victims. These natural abilities served him well in his work as a bounty hunter, horse trader, lawman and business man.
Accordingly, it was a strong-willed John Wright who reconciled many a brawl that rose between coal operators and the citizens in Eastern Kentucky. When Bad John assumed the office of Sheriff for eight years he made every effort to see the county safer to travel, protecting his friends and neighbors. John’s code of justice was to see the right thing done even if it required guns. After the Civil War when feuds were abundant in Eastern Kentucky, it was Bad John Wright who calmed the court rooms on more than a few occasions. It was difficult to find a judge courageous enough to hold court in the troubled mountain area’s for fear he would meet the threatening glare of the accused or the quick hand on a gun. In the May Court Session in 1885, Judge H. F. Finley refused travel to Letcher County to hold court unless he was afforded military protection. He asked Governor Knott to furnish troops, saying that if they were not forthcoming he would not venture into that county. True to his word, court was not held in either Letcher or Knott. However, John’s presence as he slipped into the courtroom, took his seat and said, “Go ahead with your court, I'll be hanging around,” allowed procedure to take a different course.
You have read of John’s legendary rein as a Lawman but he was also known as a business man with holdings in the Jenkins area. When Consolidation began operations in Eastern Kentucky, John entered yet another phrase of his life.
In the mid 1880’s coal speculators discovered the huge coal reserves in Eastern Kentucky and families began deeding their mineral rights to Consolidation, Elkhorn and South-East Coal Companies. John assisted his neighbors and friends, acting as the middle man in negotiating these contracts from 1903 to 1905. These were the companies that established the towns Of Jenkins, Fleming, McRoberts, and Seco. John was as comfortable talking with politicians and the New York and Pennsylvania coal financiers as he was with his family and neighbors. He entertained many of these people in his homes. No one was ever turned away.
Seco, Kentucky Southeast Coal Company Operation No. 1
The famous Caravan in June of 1910 was a story of notice in the coal industry. John C. C. Mayo arranged for a group of engineers, railroad presidents, and large investors to visit the South Eastern Kentucky "Elkhorn seam".
The social event of an overland excursion through the mountains into the Eastern Kentucky coal fields from Paintsville to the area to be known as Jenkins sounded exciting to those invited. It was to be "the biggest caravan of buckboards, wagons, mules and horses that ever traveled any similar section." Camp Crawford is the site where the caravan stopped and where coal men and financiers met to decide upon the Consolidation Company's Kentucky enterprise. This outing which appeared to be above suspicion was intended to accomplish his personal goals. It was at this meeting that the town of Jenkins began, under a sycamore tree, just outside of present-day Jenkins in the area known as Camp Crawford. At this meeting it was agreed that the C & O Railroad would build a line up Left Beaver and Shelby Creeks.
In the fall of 1911, the Consolidation Coal Company purchased one hundred thousand acres of coal land in Pike, Letcher and Floyd Counties, part of the holdings of the Northern Coal and Coke Company. This was part of the assets of the Northern Coal and Coke Company who had built up land holdings over the previous ten years through influence and money spending. The railroad eventually reached Jenkins about 1912 and then, with Consolidation’s 14 tipples, Letcher County became the largest producer in Kentucky by 1916.
At it’s beginning, Consolidation’s Trademark was the name Cavalier. Consolidation Coal Company was the name of the company and Cavalier was the name of the coal.
"As a protection for its customers against imitation and substitution, and to insure them the many benefits from the exceptional nature and quality of true Elkhorn coal and the extraordinary precautions taken to preserve its natural advantages, Consolidation trade-named this coal "Cavalier."
All of its production in this Division is now sold under the protection of this trade name, and all coal sold by Consolidation under that name is guaranteed to be from the true Elkhorn seam."
In those days, Jenkins extended to the upper reaches of Wrights Fork of Boone Creek, a tributary of the Kentucky River. The best route into Jenkins from the north was from Elkhorn City, passing through Dorton and then on to Shelby Creek. Coming from the south or Norton, Virginia, you traveled into Jenkins going over the mountain by way of Pound Gap. The organization of this coal town, located about 9 ½ miles from its county seat of Whitesburg and named for promoter and Baltimore banker George Jenkins. This land was purchased by John C. C. Mayo and sold to Consolidation Coal Company to establish a town built exclusively for the coal miners. Streets were laid out, houses, stores, hospitals and schools were built. Row houses, individual living houses for each miner and his family sprang up, built closely in a line and nearly exactly the same style in appearance as the one before it.
These houses were built exclusively for the miners. Though some of the Row Houses were one-story buildings with 3 to 6 rooms, most were two-story with 8 to 10 rooms which sheltered two families. Some of the two family dwelling houses would have no more than four rooms. The coal company would supply them with a bed, table, chairs and cook stove. Wells with water pumps were situated at the end of each row since there were few houses with running water. The houses with running water and toilets were mainly given to the mine bosses. The houses were quickly filled since the coal company paid the cost for a family to travel to the area. To distinguish the rows of houses, one from another, each row of houses was given its own name according to who might live there or a custom of the inhabitants. For example, ‘Smokey Row’ gained its name from the fact that at 4:00 each afternoon the miners' wives started the wood & coal cook stoves to make supper for the men coming home from the mines. Another row was named ‘Hunky Row’ and was named for the Hungarians who lived there; later to be called Pine Street. Slick Rock was named because a steady stream of water ran over the road which was dug from rock.
The miners were paid 35 cents and hour which was adequate since they were not charged for electric or water, were supplied fuel for a small fee and given a house rent-free. Part of the wages were paid in scrip. Scrip was a type of money printed by the company and could only be spent in company-owned businesses.
The company supplied all needful things, so there was no enticement to go elsewhere. It was necessary to plan and build a water system, power plant, offices, tipples, houses, roads, schools, churches and any other necessary needs of the thousands of people who were to come later. Skilled Italians were brought in for the construction of stone bridges and houses. In 1914 there were 1600 men working at the McRoberts mine.
There was a huge need to house the miners and their families. John Wright had assembled a saw mill in earlier years near the edge of the city at East Jenkins and quickly saw the advantage of expanding. The mill was located on what was then called Wright’s Hill, now known as Wright’s Hollow, and is about the 3rd or 4th street from where the Coal Museum now stands. His mill furnished lumber for the houses in Wright’s Hollow and many of those in the town.
By November of 1912 coal companies had completed the Lexington & Eastern Railroad (now CSX Transportation) from Breathitt County to McRoberts. Eastern European immigrants and Afro-Americans from the Deep South worked the mines and built the railroads.
When the coal company arrived in eastern Kentucky they decided the best field of action was to hire representatives from the area to work with them, or as their agents; men the community knew and respected. They needed influential men with an understanding of business and some knowledge of law in reference to title deeds and grants. John Wright was one of the most charismatic and attention-grabbing individuals of the time. He was a substantial land owner who had established a reputation as a stand-fast lawman well known throughout Eastern Kentucky.
He had traveled all over the United States and even lived in the bluegrass area of Kentucky, but he was never truly happy until he was back among his family and his beloved hills and valleys of eastern Kentucky. John had even traveled abroad with the John Robinson Circus in company of his uncle Martin VanBuren Bates, billed as a sharp shooter and trick rider. John Wright of Letcher County definitely fit their requirements.
Bad John’s son, William Troy ‘Chid’ Wright, remembered that his father sold his own land to Northern Coal and Coke for a meager amount. John wanted to see the area grow and didn’t feel he should persuade others to sell their land unless he was agreeable do the same. It was this same sense of fairness that forced John to allow the hanging of his best friend, Talt Hall, even though he could have prevented it.
Hemphill is located about a mile north of Neon of Quillen Fork of Yonts Fork. Officially it known as Jackhorn but is locally called Hemphill. The Elk Horn Coal Company built a camp there named in honor of Alexander Julian Hemphill (1856-1920) of Hemphill and Associates, the Wall Street firm that financed the Elk Horn operations. Dunham, established for Consolidation Coal and named for its auditor, A. S. Dunham, is located at the head of Elkhorn Creek about two miles from Jenkins. This small town contained a church, a recreation center, barbershop, restaurant and store. John also had a home near the mouth of Dunham and the house of his beloved wife, Mattie, was near the head of the camp. This house was known locally as “Mattie’s house”.
John and Mattie Wright
Another man chosen by the coal company as a land agent was Benjamin F. Johnson, also a large land owner with a knowledge of business. Ben was a son of William Varner Johnson and Matilda Mullins and had married Elizabeth Wright, who was born about 1856, the daughter of Samuel W. and Elizabeth Adams Wright. Johnson owned a store on Long Fork in Pike County and everyone in this section of the county knew Johnson with many of the McRoberts families trading there. Ben’s wife Elizabeth was a first cousin to Bad John, so the store was generally a stopping place Bad John used when he was heading out on a raid.
Elizabeth Wright Johnson
John's beloved mountains first heard the blast of the musket loader when hunter's like Boone found their way through Cumberland Gap. Later Sharps rifles reverberated through the valleys along with the battle cries of the Civil War. Later the report of pistols rang from hill top to valley floor when disagreements as a result of the war exploded. John had experienced all this in his lifetime. He had hunted with his father, fought the war with his brothers and felt the pains of the bitterness afterward.
John was wounded several times but survived and lost two of his sons, shot and killed in family disputes. His adored wife Mattie died and was buried in these mountains. He stayed to see the completion of the coal camps but after Mattie's death, John sold his land in Kentucky and moved across the mountain to Wise County, Virginia, a little over five miles from his Kentucky home. John continued in law enforcement activities for some time after moving to Virginia. Life continues. John married for a second time to Ellen Sanders and built a new home and it was here that John put away his guns. He was baptized into the Old Regular Baptist Church with possibly as many as three thousand friends and neighbors coming to witness his baptism.
Mattie and John
John's life ended in 1931 maybe not in the Kentucky mountains of his birth, but in the Virginia mountains of his ancestors. John Wright led a life of danger and challenge, which he met with the strong heart and soul of a man of the mountains. He met death with the same spirit. To the last, John was “The Tall Sycamore”, leaving his legacy to his children and grandchildren.
Life continues, progress moves on.
Wright Roots-Bates Branches