LYNCH — After 32 years of development and stops and starts, the Portal 31 exhibition mine of Harlan County is set to open Saturday.
"It's the best exhibition mine in the country, maybe the world," said Bruce Ayers, president of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, whose Southeast Education Foundation will oversee the operation of the tourism attraction.
The 30-minute tour takes visitors on a rail car into the dark. Recordings and life-size animatronic displays follow a fictional Italian immigrant coal miner, his son and grandson through several decades of mining — from picks and shovels in 1919 to conventional mining machines in 1947 to continuous mining in the 1960s.
As the car rolls along the tracks, visitors get a glimpse of technology, safety concerns, union organizing and the boom and decline of the company town that have been part of coal mining's history in the state.
Between 1917 and 1963, the U.S. Coal & Coke Co. pulled 120 million tons of coal out of Portal 31, the recordings say. In the 1920s, the company towns of Lynch and Benham "were two of the best developed communities in all of Kentucky," Ayers said.
They're also two of the hardest to get to and were almost entirely self-sufficient in their day, leading to a sense of home and solidarity of rare proportions among former residents. Local tourism developers have long hoped to capitalize on that cachet.
Harlan County has been a recent focus of tourism development in the state, most notably with ATV trails in Evarts. Lynch and Benham are within driving distance of Cumberland Gap National Park and several state parks.
"We're trying to use the remoteness as part of the attraction," Ayers said.
The Southeast Education Foundation operates the School House Inn, a 30-room hotel built in an elementary school, and the Kentucky Coal Museum, built in the old International Harvester commissary. Numerous buildings in Lynch, including the railroad depot, schoolhouses, the commissary and the clinic, are still standing, and some are in need of renovation.
The city, which is struggling financially, owns some of the buildings but has not been financially able to develop them, city councilman Carl Collins said. Local tourism boards are making an effort to help, he said.
"Right now we're looking at several options for buildings we have that we can develop later on," Collins said.
Lynch and Benham don't receive any money from Portal 31 or museum ticket sales, or from the inn, Ayers said. The facilities are nearly self-supporting, and income goes into the foundation for their operation. Ayers' organization has suggested that the cities consider a recreation tax.
"We're trying to promote the region," he said.
Work to develop mining tourism in the area started in 1977, Ayers said.
In the mid-1980s, U.S. Steel sold some of its mines to a subsidiary of Arch Mineral Co. and handed some of its historic property over to Harlan County.
The schoolhouse became an inn shortly after it closed in 1992, and the museum opened in 1994.
The Portal 31 exhibit has cost about $2.3 million in grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Economic Development Administration, the Appalachian Regional Commission, state coal severance taxes and state parks.
"I thought I would have gone to glory before I saw this finished," said Bobbie Gothard, director of the Tri City Main Street program in Cumberland, near Benham and Lynch. She said tourism is a big economic draw for the three cities, with golf tournaments, state parks and reunions of the descendants of Lynch and Benham miners.
The annual Lynch High School Bulldog reunion will coincide with the opening of the mine exhibit this weekend, Gothard said. Motel rooms are a challenge: One of the three area motels recently closed, she said.
Ayers said he hopes the state will come to recognize that Lynch and Benham have potential to be attractions on par with the state-run Kentucky Horse Park in Central Kentucky. The state put $1 million into operating the mine, inn and museum under a lease agreement from 2006 to 2008, but budget woes under Gov. Steve Beshear's administration forced operations back to the foundation, said Gil Lawson, communications director for Kentucky's state parks.
"I think if we play our cards right, I think we can stress that we've got something special here, and it's going to be worth your while," Ayers said.