Coal has been a vital economic engine in the Appalachians for well over 200 years. First discovered in Kentucky by Dr. Thomas Walker in 1750, the vital role that coal would play as an energy resource quickly took hold, changing both the economic landscapes of Eastern Kentucky and the country as a whole. With the first official large-scale Kentucky coal mine underway by 1820, the centers of commerce and trade began to shift, and mining towns and villages soon began sprouting up across the coal-rich mountainsides around the booming mining industry. Families continued to arrive with the prospect of guaranteed work, and soon mining villages and towns grew into cities, many of which still exist and thrive across The Kentucky Wildlands today.
Coal’s legacy in America’ story runs as deep as the coal mines themselves. Supplying a majority of American energy needs from electricity production, iron & steel production, locomotive transportation and residential heating, as well as powering American war efforts, including heating the shelters of soldiers abroad, coal has become a cornerstone in the country’s energy supply over many years.
Today, The Kentucky Wildlands offers a number of opportunities to observe, learn and experience coal’s energy and nation-building legacy firsthand. Discover how iconic Americans played major, but little-known roles in Kentucky coal mining, such as industrialist giant Henry Ford ran a 1500-employee coal mining operation near Pikeville. Tours and exhibits are available there at the on-site Stone Heritage Museum. Explore award-winning historic exhibits and exciting hands-on activities at several dedicated coal mining museums, such as the nationally acclaimed Kentucky Coal Mine Museum in Benham, featuring four stories of preserved American artifacts, interactive displays and a real coal mine. Take a ride on a genuine rail car and experience life in a coal miner’s shoes at the family-fun Portal No. 31 Underground Mine Tour near Harlan, complete with authentic mine outfits for all ages. You’ll also not want to miss the one-of-its-kind, Coal House in Middlesboro, a home built entirely from bituminous coal, along with its coal mining exhibit next door.
Learn about the influence the coal industry has had and impressed upon the culture and traditions of Appalachian Kentucky through places such as the Appalshop Roadside Theater, a professional ensemble of storytellers based in Whitesburg that uses contemporary performance art to tell the stories of the people whose families worked in the mines or take a ride on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway to learn about the Blue Heron Coal Mining Community.
And see how former surface-mined land is being reclaimed and transformed today into natural preserves and a haven for elk, black bear and other wildlife at elk viewing sites and tours available at three Kentucky State Resort Parks in the area: Jenny Wiley, Buckhorn and Pine Mountain. Saddle Back Elk Tours provides guided tours on horseback, as well, to reclaimed mine lands now populated by large herds of elk.