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Letcher County, Kentucky

Coordinates: 37°07′N 82°51′W / 37.12°N 82.85°W / 37.12; -82.85
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Letcher County
Letcher County courthouse in Whitesburg
Letcher County courthouse in Whitesburg
Map of Kentucky highlighting Letcher County
Location within the U.S. state of Kentucky
Map of the United States highlighting Kentucky
Kentucky's location within the U.S.
Coordinates: 37°07′N 82°51′W / 37.12°N 82.85°W / 37.12; -82.85
Country United States
State Kentucky
Named forRobert P. Letcher
Largest cityJenkins
 • Total339 sq mi (880 km2)
 • Land338 sq mi (880 km2)
 • Water1.1 sq mi (3 km2)  0.3%
 • Total21,548
 • Estimate 
20,423 Decrease
 • Density64/sq mi (25/km2)
Time zoneUTC−5 (Eastern)
 • Summer (DST)UTC−4 (EDT)
Congressional district5th

Letcher County is a county located in the U.S. state of Kentucky. As of the 2020 census, the population was 21,548.[1] Its county seat is Whitesburg.[2][3] It was created in 1842 from Harlan and Perry counties,[4] and named for Robert P. Letcher, Governor of Kentucky from 1840 to 1844.[5][6][7]



Settlement and early history


The area now known as Letcher County was first settled in the early–1800s by the Caudill, Dixon, Stamper, Collier, Lewis, Whitaker, Wright, Craft, Brown, Halcomb, Holbrook, and Bentley families. These early families were later joined by the Maggard, Banks, Day, Fields, Morgan, Blair, Breeding, Frazier, Baker, Hogg, Combs, and Mullins families. The first permanent settlement in the county was settled in 1803, at the mouth of Pert Creek, in modern-day Whitesburg. In 1804, George Ison II and his family settled in the area of Linefork. Later, Benjamin Webb brought a group of settlers from Maryland, and settled at the mouth of Boone Fork in modern-day Kona, but later moved down towards the mouth of Bottom Fork in modern-day Mayking. Most communities and geographic features in the area were named after these early pioneer families. Most of these early communities were economically supported by timber logging.[8]


Map of Letcher County in 1911

In 1842, the residents of modern-day Letcher County petitioned the state legislature for a new county, as at that time they belonged to Harlan, Perry, and Pike counties. The legislature met in January 1842, and decided to form the new county.[9] The county was formed, as Kentucky's 95th county, from portions of Harlan, Perry, and Pike counties, and named for Robert P. Letcher, who was the governor of Kentucky at that time. Its county seat, Whitesburg, was called Summit City before becoming the county seat. The city was renamed from Summit City to Whitesburg in 1842, in honor of John D. White, who introduced the county's enactment bill in the Kentucky General Assembly.[10][4] The state government commissioned members of the general assembly to draw the boundaries for the new county. These men were Nathaniel Collins, Stephen Hiram Hogg, Benjamin Adams, and Benjamin Webb.[9] In 1858, 60 square miles from Perry County were added to the county's original 340 square miles. In April 1884, a ten-mile section from Pike County was added, and a month later, Letcher County contributed 80 square miles toward the creation of Knott County.[8]

History of the courthouse

Mose Adams log cabin, where the first court session was held in 1842

At first, residents could not agree where the county seat would be located. Some residents wanted the seat to be in Mayking, others wanted the seat to be in Camp Branch or Indian Bottom. The debate was settled when Stephen Hiram Hogg donated his land in Whitesburg for the building of the courthouse. The first court session was held in a log cabin owned by Mose Adams at the Adams settlement, which was located two-miles up the North Fork Kentucky River from Whitesburg. John A. Caudill was hired to build the new courthouse and completed it in 1844.[9][11]

The third courthouse built by Lemuel R. Perry in 1898 and existed until the 1960s

The first courthouse built by Caudill was built of logs, and had plank trimming. It was demolished in 1897, due to its failing condition. Lemuel R. Perry was commissioned to construct the new courthouse. The new courthouse was built of bricks, and had a large cupola, with a bell inside to call the jury into session. This new courthouse was heated by stoves and fireplaces until an addition was built in the late–1930s, by the Works Progress Administration. By the 1960s, the courthouse was deemed too small, and prisoners in the jails at the top floor would often escape by pushing apart the bars, climbing out the window, and sliding down a rope of bedsheets. The Area Redevelopment Administration provided funding to build a new one.[9][11]

William Banton Moore, an architect from Louisville, was hired to design the new courthouse. Ramsey and Clubb, a construction company from Shelbyville, Kentucky, was hired to build it. It was completed in 1965, and a dedication ceremony was held with governor Bert Combs in attendance. The new courthouse had a contemporary design with blue and beige panels. It also had a jail located on the top floor and a public library at the bottom. The construction of the new courthouse costed about US$650,000. Many locals were dissatisfied with the look of the new courthouse, believing it looked too much like a gas station.[9][11]

The current Letcher County Courthouse, remodeled in 1998. The bell at the front was the same one that was used to call the court into session in the old courthouse

By the 1990s, the courthouse was in disrepair, and state officials were threatening to close the top floor. Local government officials were able to obtain federal funding, and the building was remodeled in 1998. The jail, which was located at the top floor of the building, was moved to the bottom floor, and a statue honoring veterans was moved to the front of the building. This is the current version of the Letcher County courthouse.[11]



Due to its rugged terrain, Letcher County was one of the most remote counties in Kentucky, and until the arrival of coal, its population never peaked above 10,000.[8][12] In the early–1900s, coal mining began in the county. This caused an economic boom as many small communities grew to large coal towns supported by coal companies.[8] By 1940, the county's population had grown to over 40,000.[12] Between 1990 and 2014, Letcher County produced over 600,000,000 short tons (540,000,000 t) of coal.[13]

Modern period


Harry M. Caudill's 1963 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, brought the county to national attention. The CBS documentary Christmas in Appalachia (1964) hosted by Charles Kuralt also brought the nation's attention to Letcher County as citizens sent clothes and gifts in response to the conditions of those featured.[14]

Scotia mine disaster historical sign

On March 9, 1976, in the community of Oven Fork, an explosion caused by coal dust and gasses occurred at the Scotia Mine, resulting in the deaths of 15 miners. Two days later another explosion occurred, killing 11 more miners. Investigators concluded that the explosions were caused by methane gases that were ignited by a spark caused by a battery-powered device. The accidents are often considered two of the worst mining disasters in U.S. history. The two explosions led to the passage of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.[15][16]

In July–August 2022, floods came through Eastern Kentucky. A total of 45 people died,[17] three of those deaths occurred in Letcher County. As a result of the floods, many people were left homeless.[18]



Letcher County is located in the far southeast of Kentucky. Most of its border is defined by mountains. The 125-mile long Pine Mountain divides the county, and defines part of the county's border with Harlan County and Virginia. To the south, Black Mountain marks its border with Virginia.[19][20]

The county's terrain is defined by rugged mountains and blanketed by forests. Jefferson National Forest covers a significant portion of the county. The county's highest point is Black Mountain, located in the southeastern corner of the county, with an elevation of 3,700 feet.[20][21]

North Fork of the Kentucky River flowing through Whitesburg, Kentucky

The northern part of the county is drained by Rockhouse Creek, which empty's into the North Fork Kentucky River near Blackey, Kentucky. The central portion of the county is drained by the North Fork Kentucky River, which flows from its start at the Kentucky–Virginia border, to where it meets the South Fork Kentucky River in Lee County, Kentucky, to form the Kentucky River. The southern part of the county is drained by the Poor Fork, which flows from its start on Pine Mountain, to Baxter in Harlan County, Kentucky, where it meets Martin's Fork to form the Cumberland River. The western portion of the county is drained by Elkhorn Creek, which flows from its start near Jenkins, Kentucky, to its confluence with Russell Fork in Pike County, Kentucky.[20]

According to the United States Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 339 square miles (880 km2), of which 338 square miles (880 km2) is land and 1.1 square miles (2.8 km2) (0.3%) is water.[22]

Fishpond Lake


Fishpond Lake is a 28.8 acres (11.7 ha)[23] man-made body of water near Jenkins, in Payne Gap, Kentucky.[20] It was formed in 1961 by the impoundment of Fishpond Branch.[24] At its deepest it is 79 feet and averages around 33 feet.[25] The lake is home to several species of fish including rainbow trout, channel catfish, and flathead catfish. It is the only large body of water (other than rivers) in Letcher County.[23]

Pioneer Horse Trail controversy


In an effort to bring tourists to Letcher County and to revitalize the local economy, the Pioneer Horse Trail was constructed on Pine Mountain.[26] The trail, part of an "adventure tourism" initiative spearheaded by then Governor Steve Beshear, Beshear's wife Jane, and Lieutenant Governor Daniel Mongiardo, was completed in 2009.[26]

View from Pine Mountain near Whitesburg, Kentucky.

However, controversy arose about whether the environment would be harmed during construction. In the summer of 2008, the Letcher County Fiscal Court had signed an agreement with state officials stating that the county would do an environmental impact study before construction would begin.[26] Documents obtained by the Lexington Herald-Leader under Kentucky's Open Records Act showed that construction actually began before the study was to take place. County-owned bulldozers started clearing trees in part of a wildlife management area in which heavy equipment was not permitted.[26] Environmental groups asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if any species on the threatened or endangered list were harmed.[26]

Adjacent counties


National protected area

Bad Branch Falls

State protected area


State Parks



Historical population
2023 (est.)20,423[27]−5.2%
U.S. Decennial Census[28]
1790–1960[29] 1900–1990[30]
1990–2000[31] 2010–2020[1]

As of the census of 2000, there were 25,277 people, 10,085 households, and 7,462 families residing in the county. The population density was 75 per square mile (29/km2). There were 11,405 housing units at an average density of 34 per square mile (13/km2). The racial makeup of the county was 98.71% White, 0.51% Black or African American, 0.10% Native American, 0.28% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 0.03% from other races, and 0.35% from two or more races. 0.44% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.

There were 10,085 households, out of which 32.30% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 58.40% were married couples living together, 11.50% had a female householder with no husband present, and 26.00% were non-families. 24.10% of all households were made up of individuals, and 10.10% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.48 and the average family size was 2.94.

The age distribution was 23.70% under the age of 18, 9.20% from 18 to 24, 28.70% from 25 to 44, 25.80% from 45 to 64, and 12.60% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 38 years. For every 100 females there were 95.80 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 92.10 males.

The median income for a household in the county was $21,110, and the median income for a family was $24,869. Males had a median income of $30,488 versus $17,902 for females. The per capita income for the county was $11,984. About 23.70% of families and 27.10% of the population were below the poverty line, including 35.90% of those under age 18 and 21.20% of those age 65 or over.



Letcher County Public Schools


Most K-12 students in the county, with the exception of those living in the far eastern part of the county surrounding Jenkins, are served by the Letcher County Public Schools. The district operates six elementary/middle schools, one high school, one vocational school, and an alternative education center.[32] The current superintendent of Letcher County Schools is Denise Yonts.[33] The schools located in the district are:

  • Arlie Boggs Elementary School – Eolia[34]
  • Cowan Elementary School – Whitesburg[35]
  • Fleming-Neon Middle School – Fleming-Neon[36]
  • Letcher County Central High School – Whitesburg[37]
  • Letcher Elementary and Middle School – Blackey[38]
  • Martha Jane Potter Elementary – Whitesburg[39]
  • West Whitesburg Elementary – Whitesburg[40]
  • Whitesburg Middle School – Whitesburg[41]
  • Letcher County Alternative Education Center – Whitesburg[42]
  • Letcher County Area Technology Center – Whitesburg[43]

Jenkins Independent Schools


Students in the Jenkins area are served by the Jenkins Independent Schools, which operates one elementary school and a combined middle and high school with grades 7–12. The current superintendent of Jenkins Independent Schools is Damian Johnson.[44] The schools located in the district are:

  • Burdine Elementary School – Burdine[45]
  • Jenkins Middle and High School – Jenkins[46]

Politics and government


Presidential elections

United States presidential election results for Letcher County, Kentucky[47]
Year Republican Democratic Third party
No.  % No.  % No.  %
2020 7,226 79.10% 1,799 19.69% 110 1.20%
2016 7,293 79.84% 1,542 16.88% 299 3.27%
2012 6,811 77.77% 1,702 19.43% 245 2.80%
2008 5,367 65.17% 2,623 31.85% 245 2.98%
2004 4,801 52.96% 4,192 46.24% 72 0.79%
2000 4,092 45.54% 4,698 52.29% 195 2.17%
1996 2,222 30.75% 4,160 57.57% 844 11.68%
1992 3,011 29.84% 5,817 57.65% 1,262 12.51%
1988 3,601 43.16% 4,697 56.29% 46 0.55%
1984 4,073 46.13% 4,707 53.31% 50 0.57%
1980 3,426 43.82% 4,280 54.75% 112 1.43%
1976 3,122 40.29% 4,590 59.24% 36 0.46%
1972 4,213 58.54% 2,908 40.41% 76 1.06%
1968 3,243 42.30% 3,499 45.64% 925 12.06%
1964 2,632 32.64% 5,420 67.22% 11 0.14%
1960 4,408 50.87% 4,258 49.13% 0 0.00%
1956 5,741 57.97% 4,133 41.73% 30 0.30%
1952 4,689 47.92% 5,097 52.08% 0 0.00%
1948 3,560 42.65% 4,741 56.80% 46 0.55%
1944 4,055 46.77% 4,599 53.04% 16 0.18%
1940 4,433 41.90% 6,127 57.92% 19 0.18%
1936 3,871 38.24% 6,240 61.65% 11 0.11%
1932 4,732 47.44% 5,190 52.03% 53 0.53%
1928 5,400 60.55% 3,502 39.27% 16 0.18%
1924 3,172 54.96% 1,912 33.13% 687 11.90%
1920 4,317 68.51% 1,960 31.11% 24 0.38%
1916 2,220 65.99% 1,121 33.32% 23 0.68%
1912 978 49.67% 611 31.03% 380 19.30%

Letcher County has a somewhat similar political history to West Virginia. Under the Fourth Party System it was a reliable Republican county, voting Republican in every election from 1884[48] to 1928.[49] However, with increasing unionization under the New Deal it turned for the next sixty to seventy years into a fairly solid Democratic county, apart from the 1956 and 1972 landslides and the candidacy of John F. Kennedy. However, since 2004 as the Democratic Party has become opposed to coal production due to global warming issues, it has now become a solidly Republican county.[50]



In the 2023 Kentucky Gubernatorial Election, popular incumbent Governor Andy Beshear won Letcher County by a margin of 4 points, marking the first instance since 2011[51] that a Democrat clinched victory in the county in any statewide race.



Letcher County is a solid Republican county in Senate elections, having re-elected Republican incumbent Rand Paul in 2022 with 67.6% (3,873 votes) of the vote over Democrat Charles Booker.[52] In 2020, the county re-elected Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell with 71% (6,441 votes) of the vote over Democrat Amy McGrath.[53]



Letcher County is a part of Kentucky's 5th congressional district, which is represented by 22-term Republican Hal Rogers. It re-elected Rogers in 2022, with 79% (4,538 votes) of the vote over Democrat Conor Halbleib.[54]

State senate


Letcher County is a part of Kentucky's 29th state Senate district, which is represented by Republican Johnnie L. Turner. It voted to elect Turner in 2020, who won the election with 54.8% (4,900 votes) of the vote over 20-year Democratic incumbent Johnny Ray Turner.[55]

State house


Letcher County is a part of Kentucky's 94th house district, which is represented by Republican Jacob Justice of Elkhorn City. In 2022, it voted to re-elect Democratic incumbent Angie Hatton, who won the county with 60.7% of the vote.[56][57]

Local government




The Judge/Executive is responsible for executing legislation, executing laws passed by the state, informing the fiscal court with the operations of the county departments, boards, and commissions, demanding all offices, departments, boards, commissions, to make an annual financial report to the fiscal court, submitting an annual budget to the fiscal court, administering budget plans passed by the fiscal court, informing the fiscal court with the financial state and needs of the county, and supervising, appointing, removing, or suspending county officials. The current judge/executive is Republican Terry Adams.[58][59]

County attorney


The County Attorney is the legal counsel for the county government. The county attorney's role is to give legal advice to the fiscal court and county officials, and act as a legal representative to county departments, board, or commissions. The current county attorney is Democrat Jamie Hatton.[60]

Commonwealth attorney


The Commonwealth Attorney is responsible for attending each circuit court held in their judicial circuit. The Commonwealth attorney has the ability to prosecute violations, and present evidence to a grand jury. The current Commonwealth attorney is Edison G. Banks II.[60]

Property valuation administrator


The property valuation administrator has the ability to assess property within the county and prepare property records. The current property valuation administrator is Democrat Ricky Rose.[60]



The sheriff has the responsibility to collect taxes, election duties, provide service to courts, and enforce laws. The sheriff has the ability to make arrests within their county, and collect taxes from properties, the county, and school districts. The current sheriff is Democrat Mickey Stines.[60]

Court clerk


The court clerk has the ability to issue and register and record legal records, register voter polls, and conduct election and tax duties. The current county clerk is Democrat Winston Meade.[60]

Circuit court clerk


The circuit court clerk is responsible for managing records of the circuit court. The current circuit court clerk is Mike Watts.[60]



The jailer manages the county jail, and all prisoners in the jail. The jailer has the ability to transport prisoners, manage the jail budget, prepare bail, work and education release for prisoners, do community service, and manage all the deputies. The current jailer is Democrat Bert Slone.[60]



The main responsibility of the coroner is to decide and certify the cause of death. The current coroner is Democrat Perry M. Fowler.[60]

Circuit court


Letcher County is a part of the 47th Judicial District. The circuit court deals with civil issues, capital offenses, felonies, land disputes, and probate cases. The circuit court can also supply injunctions, writs of prohibition, and writs of mandamus. The circuit court has the ability to dissolve marriages, hear cases of child custody, visitation, distribution of property, adoption, and parental rights. The circuit judge serves an eight-year term. The current circuit judge is James W. Craft II.[61]

District judge

The district judge manages juvenile issues, city and county laws, misdemeanors, violations, traffic offenses, probate of wills, arraignments, domestic violence and abuse, and small civil issues. The current district judge is Kevin R. Mullins.[61]



Letcher County is divided into five magisterial districts. The magistrates are representatives of the fiscal court, and works with the Judge/Executive in managing the county government. Magistrates also serve as Justice of the peace and, if permitted by the Judge/Executive, can perform marriages.[62] The current magistrates are:

  • District 1 – Jack Banks[62]
  • District 2 – Sherry Sexton[62]
  • District 3 – Maverick Cook[62]
  • District 4 – William "Cheddy" Smith[62]
  • District 5 – Bennie McCall[62]

School board


Letcher County is divided into five school board districts. Members of the school board serve staggered four year terms and are not subject to term limits.[63] The current members of the school board are:

  • District 1 – Lena Parsons[63]
  • District 2 – Robert Kiser[63]
  • District 3 – William Smith[63]
  • District 4 – Mendy Boggs[63]
  • District 5 – Shawn Gilley[63]

Voter registration


As of April 2024, Letcher County has 8,677 Democratic voters, 5,906 Republican voters, 351 third party voters, 368 Independent voters, 37 Libertarian voters, 2 Green voters, and 2 Constitution voters.[64]



Coal companies in Letcher County






Two Public-access television cable TV channels serve Letcher County. The Letcher County Government Channel is Government-access television (GATV), operated by the Letcher County Fiscal Court and airs government meetings, local events, and emergency information.[69] LCPS-TV is operated by the Letcher County Public Schools and airs school announcements, events, and Educational access television programs.[70]





Two newspapers serve Letcher County. The Mountain Eagle is a weekly newspaper located in Whitesburg. It has been in operation since 1907 and is currently owned, edited, and published by the Gish family.[71][72] The Letcher County Community News-Press is a weekly newspaper located in Cromona, near Fleming-Neon, that has been in operation since 1988.[73]



Public transportation is provided by LKLP Community Action Partnership with demand-response service and scheduled service from Whitesburg to Hazard.[74]


  • U.S. Highway 23 – Crosses the eastern part of the county and runs west of Jenkins.[19]
  • U.S. Highway 119 – Diverges off from U.S. 23, connects Jenkins to Whitesburg, crosses Pine Mountain, runs across the southern part of the county, and crosses into Harlan County.[19]
  • Kentucky Route 15 – Diverges off from U.S. 119, connects Whitesburg to Isom, and runs somewhat northwest into Knott County.[19]





Census-designated places


Other unincorporated places


Notable people




See also

  • Caudill, Harry M., Author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands (1963). ISBN 0-316-13212-8
  • National Register of Historic Places listings in Letcher County, Kentucky


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Further reading


37°07′N 82°51′W / 37.12°N 82.85°W / 37.12; -82.85