Harlan Coal Museum – Appalachian Travel Guide

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Harlan Coal Museum






This latest installment of the Appalachian Travel Guide comes from Brad Finn, Fahe’s Collections Manager. Harlan County is steeped in Appalachian History and is home to Fahe Member COAP.

The counties in Eastern Kentucky are rich with history and tradition, perhaps none more so than Harlan County, tucked away in the most Southeastern part of the state. Owing perhaps to the historical significance of the miners strikes and the Coal Wars that were waged throughout most of the 1930’s, Harlan County’s history has been romanticized and mythologized in popular culture, such as in the 1976 Academy Award winning documentary “Harlan County, USA,” the 2000 made for TV movie “Harlan County War,” and the current FX series “Justified. ”In addition, many popular songs have been written about Harlan including Dave Alvin’s “Harlan County Line,” Steve Earle’s “Harlan Man,” and the often covered “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” (my favorite version is the one done by Patty Loveless).

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My work takes me to Harlan County once or twice a year. On a recent visit, I resolved to take a little time and smell the roses. Or the coal, as it were. Harlan County loves its coal miners and is proud of its coal mining history, perhaps even more so since the industry has fallen on very hard times. Several years ago, while traveling RT 119, I would easily see a couple of dozen coal trucks on the road throughout the day. On this last visit I only saw one. The coal industry is dying, and Harlan County is having a hard time adjusting.

So on this visit, I decided that there was no better place to visit than the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum, located in Benham, on the far east end of the county. Benham itself was originally a coal camp. The museum is located right in the center of town on Highway 160, on the site of the old International Harvester employee commissary. To enter the four story building is to be transported to an earlier time and place, when coal mining was a boon industry, bringing relative prosperity to the region.


Hundreds of artifacts have been collected and are displayed in such a way to give you an idea what a local business, such as a blacksmith or carpenter shop would look like. You can see what a typical miner’s home looked like back in the 1930’s, or what you could expect to find if you had to go to the doctor or dentist. I found myself wishing I had allotted more time to fully explore all the exhibits on each floor.

On my next visit I am definitely going to take the time to travel through the mock mine, the entrance of which can be found in the basement. Be forewarned, it’s dark, between four and five feet high, and if you are prone to claustrophobia, you may want to give this part of the museum experience a pass.

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Also, for country music fans, on the third floor of the museum there are several displays dedicated to Kentucky’s own Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta Lynn, including many items donated from her personal collection.

At the museum, you can also purchase a ticket to Portal 31, located in nearby Lynch, where you can tour an actual coal mine by rail car and enjoy all the animated exhibits that are on display during the tour.

Coal mining has increasingly become a divisive issue in this country, with each side waging passionate arguments either pro or con. But there can be no debate about the rich tapestry of coal mining history that is woven throughout the fabric of such counties as Harlan, a history to be both celebrated and cherished.


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