It’s been nearly 50 years since the mines closed in Lynch, a lonely town neatly tucked in at the foot of Black Mountain in Harlan County. Lynch was built beginning in 1917 and became the world’s largest coal mining camp. Then the coal company left, taking with it a slew of jobs and what was thought to be the last measure of economic hope. But now, thanks to local vision and modern technology, coal is poised to boom once again in Lynch’s Portal 31 Mine.
Slated to open this year after a number of frustrating setbacks, the Portal 31 Underground Mine Tour will offer the public an up-close look at coal mining. Visitors will don traditional protective gear, board a rail car, and venture a mile underground. The car will stop at eight different points that feature interaction with animatronic miners. The 30-minute tour culminates with an IMAX-style film.
“It’s like Disney World,” says Ed Harris, project manager for the mine. “It’s that quality of work. You will go from 1918 until the last coal was mined out of this area in 1963, and you’ll experience all the changes that took place.”
One person who experienced those changes is Bob Lunsford. An 80-year-old retired deep miner, Lunsford helped spearhead the effort to restore Portal 31 in the late 1970s after the property was donated to the county.
“A bunch of us got together and wanted to do something for the people that had worked here,” he says. “We had donations from people in honor of their loved ones, and a lot of people volunteered their time.”
They were relieved when Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Cumberland began overseeing the project under the direction of Harris. Grant money began trickling in–the bulk from coal severance taxes–with most going toward updating safety conditions. “That took a couple of years and several hundred thousand dollars,” says Harris.
Since then, the project has been racked with delays. Harris blames these on the nature of the job itself, noting that there was a moisture issue that the contractors, Cost of Wisconsin, didn’t anticipate.
Those who have seen the project say it is well worth the wait. Hopes are high; many believe it will revitalize the local economy. In nearby Benham, the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum and School House Bed & Breakfast are thriving. The Lamphouse Museum, built in the 1920s to provide headlamps and other lighting for miners, currently showcases coal mining memorabilia and tools.
More than that, though, is the potential for increased appreciation for a vital part of Appalachian culture. “We want to make sure that people who come here from all over the country appreciate the sacrifices and the hard, hard work that was done by folks in the coal mines,” Harris says.
“We had 10,000 people living here at one point, with 38 nationalities and over 3,000 people working in the mines,” says Lunsford.
Harris says it’s personal for people in Lynch to ensure that visitors understand what occurred in the mines. “It’s an eye-opening experience for kids, but just as important is when you see the spouses and children and grandchildren of people that actually worked in Portal 31 come back and experience it. Some of them have never really understood what their loved ones did in the mine, and this lets them understand.”
Portal 31 Exhibition Mine
Main Street, Lynch
Plans are still under way for the opening in 2008. Stay tuned!
For more information on Portal 31, go to www.kingdomcome.org/portal or call Ed Harris, who is overseeing the project, at (606) 589-3164.
Directions to Lynch: From I-75, take Corbin Exit, turn left and go 25E through Corbin, Barbourville, and Pineville. Take a left at BP Station onto Highway 119. Follow until you reach Harlan, then take a left at the light onto Highway 119/US 421N, follow 119 N to Cumberland (about 30 miles). Take the KY 160 ramp, and turn left onto KY 160, turn right onto Conveyor Drive to Lynch. (Once in Cumberland, you can follow the signs to Benham/Lynch for Benham School House Inn and Kentucky Coal Museum.)
Kentucky Coal Mining Museum
The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in nearby Benham is a great companion stop to Portal 31. Built in 1923 by International Harvester, this historic building served as the company store until the mines closed. After being alternately used as lumber, hardware, antique, and variety stores, the building was purchased in the late 1980s by the Tri-City Chamber of Commerce and converted into the museum. Since then, its collection has exploded and is scattered over four floors. Displays explore the birth of coal mining in Kentucky, the history of Lynch and Benham, and family life in the coal camps.
More than 30,000 people visit the museum each year, says Phyllis Sizemore, assistant curator at the facility. Sizemore says the museum has hosted tourists from every state in the nation, as well as from countries and regions such as the United Kingdom, France, Scandinavia, Egypt, Australia, Japan, and the Pacific Islands. Most, however, come from throughout Appalachia.
“What a lot of people come for is to remember,” says Sizemore. “It’s a nostalgia trip. They come to see if they have roots or knew someone, maybe an uncle or a grandparent, who had ties in some way to the area or the industry. It’s almost as though they’re visiting family.”
One member of the Appalachian family in particular is on prominent display at the museum: Loretta Lynn, the Coal Miner’s Daughter. A favorite of visitors, the Lynn exhibit features an array of her stage clothes, memorabilia from the film Coal Miner’s Daughter, and a replica of the Butcher Holler cabin’s front porch.
The museum is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday 1-4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for senior citizens, and $2.50 for children and students. For more information, visit the museum online at www.kingdomcome.org/museum.
Benham School House Bed & Breakfast
On up the hill from the museum stands the Benham School House Bed & Breakfast, originally built in 1926 as an elementary and high school for children in the coal camp. After finally closing its doors in 1992, the schoolhouse was transformed into an inn, with many of its features being preserved. The dark green lockers remain, along with sections of the original wooden floor. Room numbers represent graduating classes. The gymnasium was converted into a Great Hall, allowing the inn to host banquets and conferences of up to 350 people.
Since its refurbishing, the inn has become a favorite destination of people throughout the region who wish to explore coal mining history or just get away for the weekend. Patrons can relax in one of the 30 comfortable guest rooms, all tastefully decorated with rustic furnishings and plush beds; some also come equipped with a gas fireplace.
When hunger calls, the Apple Room Restaurant, located downstairs, offers a wide range of dining options, from the local favorite Big Man Davis steak sandwich to more upscale regional fare.
Open year-round, rates for the inn range from $65 per night for a single to $89 for the honeymoon suite–hot tub included–with discounts given to AAA and AARP members.
Summer hours for the restaurant are Wednesday 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Thursday and Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m.-9 p.m. for dinner, Saturday 12 p.m.-9 p.m., and Sunday buffet from 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Call (800) 231-0627 or go online to www.kingdomcome.org/inn for more information.
It just seems to pop up out of nowhere. For those traveling Highway 68/80 between Hopkinsville in Christian County and Elkton in Todd County, the sudden sighting of the 351-foot-tall Jefferson Davis Monument in the tiny community of Fairview is an unexpected surprise.
The normally tranquil park grounds will be transformed into a hub of activity when the Jefferson Davis Bicentennial celebration takes place June 6-8.
“There’s been some sort of birthday celebration since the park and monument opened in 1924,” says Mark Doss, park manager for the last 22 years. “We’ll have a living-history encampment, Saxton Cornett Band, and a live fire artillery demonstration put on by the Byrnes Kentucky Battery. There will also be several area authors doing book signings.”
Travelers not familiar with Kentucky history, or even U.S. history for that matter, may not realize that this engineering feat is a memorial to Jefferson Davis, who served as president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. It was on this land that he was born June 3, 1808. History is quick to reveal that just eight months later, less than 100 miles away in Hodgenville, another great Kentuckian was born, Abraham Lincoln.
The park-like setting is very inviting for school groups and families to picnic under one of the several shade trees, and a visitor’s center adjacent to the monument is full of information about Davis and the construction of the monument.
A video presentation and numerous exhibits detail Davis’ political life. Although most well-known for leading the Confederacy, his many other accomplishments played important roles in the development of the nation. Early on he envisioned a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which later became the Panama Canal. As Secretary of War during the Franklin Pierce administration, he established the pension system for the army. He is credited with founding the Army Medical Corps, introducing the light infantry, and helping in the development of the rifle musket.
Davis was a graduate of West Point, a Mexican War hero, and a Mississippi congressman and senator.
Doss says most of the park’s visitors come from just driving by. “Some see our sign on I-24 and wonder what we are and stop in.”
As expected, the most often asked question is, “How tall is it?” But the second most asked is, “Who was Jefferson Davis?”
“Quite a few don’t have a clue who he was,” Doss adds. “And even Civil War enthusiasts are surprised to learn Jefferson Davis was actually born in Kentucky. They assumed he was from Mississippi.”
An elevator ride to the monument’s top provides visitors with a picturesque view for several miles. The electric elevator was added in 1929, but over the years the monument has undergone several renovations, with the latest completed in 2001 at a cost of $3 million.
The structure is the fourth tallest monument in the United States, and lays claim to being the tallest un-reinforced concrete structure in the world. No steel was used to reinforce, and as one pour was completed, chunks of limestone were left projecting upward to connect with the next pour.
Jefferson Davis State Historic Site
258 Pembroke-Fairview Road, Fairview, KY 42221, (270) 889-6100, www.parks.ky.gov/findparks/histparks/jd. Gift shop offers Kentucky handcrafts, souvenirs, books, and Civil War memorabilia. Open May 1 through October 31, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Monument tours, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Admission: Adults $4, children 12 and under $2.50
Jefferson Davis Symposium
A day-long symposium, The Contested Legacy of Jefferson Davis, will be held on Friday, June 27, at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort, from 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Keynote speaker is nationally known Civil War scholar and author William J. Cooper Jr.
Deadline for registration is Friday, June 20, and seating is limited to the first 200 people. The registration fee includes lunch. Cost is: $25 general public; $20 Kentucky Historical Society members; $10 students (photocopy of student ID must accompany registration form). To register or for a full schedule, go online to http://kylincoln.org/events/jefferson.htm or contact Julia Curry, (502) 564-1792, ext 4414.
Pennyroyal Area Museum
217 E. 9th Street, Hopkinsville, KY 42240, (270) 887-4270, www.visithopkinsville.com, click on “Attractions & Sites of Interest.” Open Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., closed Sunday. History of the divided loyalties of Civil War, Cherokee Trail of Tears, and the Night Riders of the 1904 Tobacco War. Artifacts of native son and world-renowned clairvoyant Edgar Cayce. Admission: $2 per person, seniors $1, children under 3 free.
Woody Winfree Fire-Transportation Museum
(Annex to Pennyroyal Area Museum), 310 E. 9th Street. Open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Admission to Pennyroyal Area Museum and Woody Winfree: $5 adults; $3 seniors; 16 and under free.
Gary P. West is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.