By Tom and Patti Burkett
The first time we pulled into the Blue Heron Visitor Center the place was buzzing. Food tents were up, children were chasing big metal and wooden hoops down the road, women were walking around in dresses from the early 1900s, and a bluegrass band was picking away to accompany it all. It turned out that this was Haunting In The Hills, an annual event celebrating the mining culture of the eastern coal belt, especially here in southern Kentucky.
Cut into the coal seams from a valley where Kentucky and Tennessee come together, Mine 18 was home to hundreds of families during its heyday. It operated until 1962. Everyone moved away when the mine shut down, and the town just disappeared into the woods. A dozen years later the Park Service purchased it and began work to make it a living history museum. Today, with autumn’s foliage marching down the steep mountainsides, it’s a town again, running along the narrow valley beside the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River.
Many of the mine buildings have been reconstructed on their original sites, but as skeletons. A roof and floor and open walls enclose displays that chronicle life in a miner’s home, the company store, the washhouse, the office, the train station, and the church. In each location are artifacts and first-person recordings from Blue Heron residents about life in the camp. The coal tipple, used to load the trains that ran through almost constantly, dominates the community, and you can climb to the upper floors for great views and more interpretive exhibits.
The visitor center hosts several events each year, all focused on life in these remote valleys. They often feature live music and storytelling. The Big South Fork Scenic Railway runs into the town, and you can take a ride either one way or round trip to the nearby town of Stearns. Mine history isn’t the only thing to see here. The park contains one of the largest concentrations of natural rock arches in the eastern USA. One of our favorites is the Twin Arches, at the bottom of another valley. Near an abandoned homestead and a creek, you find the Charit Creek Lodge and, if you’re lucky, some lunch to break up the hike.
The park itself, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, abuts interstate 75 at the Kentucky-Tennessee border, and includes several modern campgrounds. It’s also a favorite of equestrians, with several horse camping areas, an extensive network of trails, and stables. If you like, you can rent a horse for an hour or two or even a whole day and travel the area as the early settlers did. There’s great river access, too, if you like to have a paddle or a float. Maybe you’ll find us there, in some little eddy, just out of the beaten current.
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