PORTAL 31 Mine to become theme park
The park will have animatronics and will teach the history of mining.
LYNCH, Ky. (AP) -- Three decades after the historic coal mine in this Appalachian town 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 tours.
"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 2006.
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 as 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.
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 inside.
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 Benham.
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."