The dual-carriageway A92 heads for 10 miles north-east across Fife from the M90 near Dunfermline to give fast access to Kirkcaldy, Glenrothes and eastern Fife. This means that today the closest that most people come to Cowdenbeath is as they skirt along its southern edge, barely glimpsing it from the main road.
Cowdenbeath is otherwise best known more widely as the home of a football club - Cowdenbeath FC or "The Blue Brazil" - whose name used to pop up each Saturday afternoon in the list of TV classified football results: though in a variety of different Scottish league divisions as their fortunes have fluctuated over the years.
Cowdenbeath is one of a series of settlements that lie along the north side of the same stretch of the A92, including, from west to east, Beath, Cowdenbeath itself, Lumphinnans, Lochgelly, Dundonald, Cardenden and Bowhill. Each lies on the line of the B981, the old main road from North Queensferry to north-east Fife, and few were of any great significance until the mid 1800s.
Cowdenbeath first came into being from around 1820, at the junction of roads from North Queensferry, Perth, Dunfermline and Burntisland. At the core of the village was a coaching inn, the Old Inn, which today survives as the Bruce Hotel. The first coal was discovered (while searching for iron ore) in the immediate area in 1844, and the railway arrived in 1849. It was the coincidence of the discovery of coal and the arrival of a means of transport able to move it economically that led to the boom in the growth of mining right across this part of Fife. In the late 1800s, as many as 50 pits were in operation in the Fife coalfield.
Other industries like ironworks and brickworks were also attracted to Cowdenbeath, and electric trams started running to the town from Dunfermline in 1909. At around the same time the town became home to a mine rescue team, a reflection of the perils associated with the industry, especially in the days of many small pit operators whose concern for health and safety too often came second to their concern for their profits.
Cowdenbeath also became the home of the Fife School of Mining. This had been established in 1895, but in 1910 it moved to a purpose-built site in the town, which was then discovered to be suffering from severe mining subsidence. It was with good reason that Cowdenbeath was described by one visitor as "the town where the buildings sink and lean".
Over the years from 1850 to 1914, the population of Cowdenbeath grew from 1,000 to 25,000, earning it the nickname of "the Chicago of Fife". This was probably the high point in the town's fortunes. World War One, the flu epidemic that followed it and emigration all had the effect of reducing the population over the following decades: and then the mines closed. Most went out of production over a prolonged period between the 1930s and 1960s. By 1970 only two pits in the Fife coalfield as a whole survived.
As a result, Cowdenbeath (and other towns and villages in the area like Kelty) suffered from severe economic depression. One of the reasons for the route chosen for the 1970s "East Fife Regional Road", as the A92 was called, was to give the coalfield settlements better links with the outside world (while also actually bypassing the settlements themselves). In more recent years some regeneration has taken place, and since the 1980s a site at Mossmorran, just under two miles south of Cowdenbeath, has become the location of a vast petrochemical works. This has steadily grown over the years, but its focus remains on the processing of North Sea Gas piped here from Aberdeenshire. Products are piped to Braefoot Bay near Aberdour for shipment and to the Grangemouth oil refinery for further processing.