LYNCH, Kentucky (AP) -- Three decades after the historic coal mine in this
played out and shut down, state officials are hoping to revive old Portal 31
as a Disney-like tourist attraction with animatronic miners and underground
"The trend in tourism is this experiential travel," said George Ward,
commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Parks. "We'll show tourists the
evolution of coal mining, from the picks and shovels and donkeys in early
mining to the high-tech equipment used today."
The nearby town of Benham already has a coal museum that attracts 30,000
people a year and an inn that was created from an old coal company school.
Under the new plan, the state would take ownership of the museum and inn
along with Portal 31; the sites would be managed and promoted as part of
Kingdom Come State Park in Cumberland.
If construction proceeds as planned, the coal mine attraction will open in
The plan is seen as a last economic hope for a central Appalachian town that
never recovered from the shutdown of a mine. At its peak, some 3,000 people
worked in Portal 31, and it was the linchpin of a bustling town of 10,000
people from 30 different countries. Today, it's home to a graying population
of about 1,000.
Bruce Ayers, president of Southeast Community College and head of a
committee that oversees the Portal 31 project, said the components of an
authentic tourist destination are already in place -- most of the houses,
stores, schools and churches built by coal companies in Lynch and nearby
Benham and Cumberland are still standing.
Ayers said animatronic exhibits in Portal 31 would allow a fictional miner,
the miner's son and grandson to tell tourists about the evolution of mining.
Ayers said the exhibits will be so realistic that visitors might think
they're seeing coal being mined.
"We felt for a long time that this was something the state needed to be
involved with," Ayers said. "We think the state has much of an obligation to
tell the story of mining as it does to tell the story of horse racing."
Old men who still live in the towns are happy to tell visitors stories about
what life was like when every able-bodied man in Lynch had a good-paying job
in Portal 31. Women share what it was like to stay at home worrying while
husbands and sons toiled so far underground.
Bob Lunsford, a retired miner who worked about 42 years in and around Portal
31, tells visitors how, in 1917, the U.S. Steel Coal and Coke Co. bought
40,000 acres and formed Lynch, which was named in honor of the company's
first president, Thomas Lynch. He tells them that over a 40-year span, more
than 1 million tons of coal per year passed through Portal 31, and that
Lynch's tipple -- the place coal is loaded onto rail cars -- was the largest
in the world when it was built in the early 1920s.
Bruce Ayers, president of Southeast Community College, stands outside the
School House Inn in Benham, Kentucky.
Lunsford expects the tourists who are already stopping at the coal museum to
plunk down $5 each to tour the coal mine after historical exhibits are built
Lexington mining engineer Steven Gardner said visitors will be able to view
the history of mining from the early 1900s when ponies were used to pull
coal out of the portals to the modern conveyors used today. The tour will
last about 30 minutes.
Gardner was responsible for ensuring that the mine poses no risk to
tourists. That meant limiting tours to only the sturdiest half-mile section
of the mine, installing a super-strength wire mesh across the ceilings to
keep rocks from falling and drilling double the number of 4-foot-long bolts
into the overhead rock to hold them in place. Tunnel walls have been covered
with a sealant to permanently bind the coal and rock in place. Contractors
also sealed off unused mine tunnels to keep methane gases out.
The final safety measure will be an enclosed rail car that tourists will
ride through the mine. The metal in the roof of that car, Gardner said, will
be strong enough to withstand any rock fall.
Southeast Education Foundation has spent $750,000 to strengthen the walls
inside the mine. An additional $1.2 million in federal and state funds have
been set aside to develop the underground exhibits. Gov. Ernie Fletcher is
recommending an additional $500,000 appropriation to spruce up the inn in
Ayers said the state has resources to market and preserve the tourist sites
that the local communities don't.
"We have something here that is well-preserved and is emblematic of the
mining camps that once existed throughout Appalachia," he said. "This is our
last best chance to preserve our history and to preserve our culture."