The history of western Kentucky’s rock-asphalt industry required substantial research of primary sources to correct the disjointed and often conflicting record published to date. Its history is checkered with characters from visionary entrepreneurs and ambitious businessmen to financial scoundrels. The earliest evidence of exploitation of bitumen resources at the surface in western Kentucky is in Native American artifacts recovered from several sites. Early settlers in the region used heavy oil and bitumen found in seeps as lubricants and wood preservatives, among other uses. The commercial value of the widespread western Kentucky rock-asphalt deposits was first recognized in the 1880’s, leading to the development of a 70-year industry with a product used to pave roads in much of the midwestern and eastern United States, and in Canada, Cuba, and Brazil. From the industry’s inception in 1889 to its closure in 1957, 19 companies developed rock-asphalt deposits in the Big Clifty Sandstone and Caseyville Formation in Grayson, Edmonson, Logan, Breckinridge, and Hardin Counties, although only about half of these companies were in business more than 6 years. The longest active was the Kentucky Rock Asphalt Co., in business from 1917 to 1957. Peak annual production was reached in 1927 when eight operators produced 344,220 tons, and an estimated total of 6.04 million tons from all Kentucky rock asphalt, containing an estimated 2.33 million barrels of bitumen, produced throughout the industry’s entire history. Considering, however, the enormous volume of heavy oil and bitumen resources estimated to be in surface and shallow subsurface deposits in the rock-asphalt–producing counties, only about 0.1 percent of these resources have been produced to date.
Information Circular 33
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Bowersox, J. Richard, "Rocks to Roads to Ruin: A Brief History of Western Kentucky’s Rock-Asphalt Industry, 1888–1957" (2016). Kentucky Geological Survey Information Circular. 23.