Harlan County officials seek to preserve two tourist attractions

The School House Inn in Benham, in Harlan County, is in the building that was the historic coal town’s high school for decades beginning in the 1920s. Classrooms were converted to lodging.
The School House Inn in Benham, in Harlan County, is in the building that was the historic coal town’s high school for decades beginning in the 1920s. Classrooms were converted to lodging.

Officials in Harlan County are scrambling to preserve two unique attractions that many residents see as vital to efforts to increase tourism as the coal industry dwindles.

One is Portal 31, an exhibition underground coal mine in Lynch. Visitors tour part of a mine where workers produced more than 100 million tons of coal from 1917 to the early 1960s.

The other is School House Inn in neighboring Benham, where guests may stay in converted classrooms. The building was a high school for decades beginning in the 1920s.

Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College has subsidized the attractions in the two historic coal towns for years, providing staffing, management and money.

However, college President Lynn Moore notified county Judge-Executive Dan Mosley in early February that the college no longer can afford to underwrite the attractions, citing flat enrollment and a cut in state funding to the institution.

Moore said the college would stop operating the inn and mine exhibit June 30, creating concern about their future.

“It looked really dismal for a while,” said Bobbie Gothard, director of Tri-Cities Heritage Development, which promotes historic preservation and revitalization in Cumberland, Benham and Lynch.

However, Gothard said she thinks Mosley will figure out a way to keep the inn and mine exhibit open.

The judge-executive said he’s committed to doing that but hasn’t settled on a solution.

He is analyzing information on finances at the attractions, which the county owns, and has asked the legislature for $250,000 over two years to finance them.

Mosley is considering other options in case that money doesn’t come through.

He said one requirement is that taxpayers not foot the bill. The attractions have to turn a profit or at least break even on their own, Mosley said.

He said he thinks he and other officials will find a way to accomplish that.

Local officials and business people have worked for years to boost tourism in hopes of creating other types of jobs in a place long dependent on coal.

Coal jobs in the region have plunged by more than half in recent years, adding urgency to the need to diversify the economy.

Other local attractions include Martins Fork Lake, Kingdom Come State Park and Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve.

The county offers hunting and fishing, camping, hiking, horse trails, historic sites, 150 miles of trails for off-road vehicles on reclaimed surface mines and a zip line that boasts speeds as high as 60 mph. Bicycle riders can tackle the state’s highest peak, Black Mountain.

Cumberland, Benham and Lynch have been designated Trail Towns and are working to expand hiking trails.

The county fiscal court set up a Harlan County Tourist and Convention Commission last year to better market the county as a tourism destination, and it levied a tax on lodging to create money for those efforts.

Mosley is interested in setting up packages to bring in visitors for longer stays, pricing together attractions including lodging, meals, a tour of Portal 31 and a trip down the zip line.

The School House Inn and Portal 31 need to be part of that overall development effort, he said.

“We’ve got to figure a way to keep them going,” Mosley said. “They’re both crucial parts of our county tourism package.”

At the inn, developers left the old lockers in the halls when they converted the building for lodging.

There are photos on the walls of mining, the school and the town, which International Harvester built beginning in 1909 in what was then a remote valley.

“Love the inn! So charming & nostalgic!” Dawn Samuels of Indiana wrote in November in the guest book. “And the beauty of the mountains is awesome.”

Like other companies in Eastern Kentucky during the early 1900s, International Harvester created a wholly owned town from scratch, building stores, churches, a theater, a hospital and hundreds of houses for the workers it needed to get coal for its manufacturing operations.

Employment at the International Harvester mines dwindled after World War II as machines replaced men, markets changed and mines played out.

The company sold the houses to residents and stopped owning the town in about 1960.

As people moved away for work, the high school graduated its last class in 1961.

The School House Inn overlooks downtown Benham, where several buildings remain from the early days of the town. They include the old commissary, which houses the Kentucky Coal Museum and its mining artifacts and displays.

Drenda Crider has been overseeing the inn, Portal 31 and the museum as director of external education for the college.

The inn is important to tourism efforts, she said.

“You can’t have tourism if you don’t have rooms,” she said.

Crider said changes are needed to improve the sustainability of the inn and Portal 31, including improved marketing, updated websites and, at the mine exhibit, an expanded schedule.

The exhibit isn’t open Sundays or holidays, missing some potential visitors, Crider said.

Guides at Portal 31 take visitors underground on a rail car into a restored section of the mine.

Recordings and animatronic displays tell the story of mining and the town over decades, covering technology, safety concerns, union organizing, and the boom and decline of Lynch, which is a short distance up Looney Creek from Benham.

The exhibition mine is open from about mid-March until about Thanksgiving.

“It does a nice job of telling the history of the community and of the coal industry,” said Eric Rutherford, who with his wife, Sissy, manages Lamp House Coffee Shop just across the street.

Participants in an effort to diversify Eastern Kentucky’s economy cited the portal in discussing how the region could attempt to capitalize on its unique history and heritage to increase tourism.

The region needs more coordinated, strategic marketing to make tourism a bigger piece of the economy, said Phil Osborne, a marketing professional who heads the tourism, arts and heritage committee of that initiative, called SOAR, for Shaping Our Appalachian Heritage.

“We’ve got great attractions to showcase but not a coordinated effort to do that right now,” Osborne said. “It’s a multi-step process, and we’re taking baby steps to get there.”

U.S. Steel started Lynch in 1917. Many of the public buildings and mine structures were made of sandstone quarried from the surrounding mountains, and are still standing.

Lynch was the largest coal camp in the world at one time and in the early 1920s had the largest tipple to load coal on rail cars. In February 1923, its miners produced more than 12,000 tons of coal in a nine-hour shift, a world record at the time, according to Kentucky Encyclopedia.

As at Benham, the coal company ultimately divested itself of the town. The mine at Portal 31 closed in the 1960s.

Rutherford said the exhibition mine boosts business at the coffee shop, which is in a restored 1920s brick building that was a popular downtown restaurant in the heydey of Lynch.

Meridzo Center Ministries operates the coffee shop as a mission to provide jobs and training opportunities.

The exhibition mine plays an important role in preserving the area’s heritage and developing tourism — a nod to the past and the future, Rutherford said.

“You lose a big destination” without it, he said. “You need something to do if you’re going to come here.”