New Visions for Kentucky's Coal Country

Posted on: August 25th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation


The Kentucky side of Black Mountain showing all mountaintops intact. (Photo: Flickr user iLoveMountains.org)

Written by Karen Nickless

In an earlier post I discussed the National Windows Preservation Standards Summit (sponsored by the Preservation Trades Network) that was held from July 22-July 29 at Pine Mountain Settlement School in the mountains of Kentucky. The goal of the Summit was to provide unbiased energy testing data for historic windows and to develop industry guidelines for the treatment of historic windows. The Summit garnered national press from The New York Times  to the trade publication Window and Door

The Summit focused on conserving our built environment, which of course benefits the natural environment. It was fitting that the Summit was held at Pine Mountain Settlement School. Founded in 1913 to serve the isolated Southeast Kentucky mountain community, the school's mission shifted in the 1970s to become a center for environmental education. Ironically, Pine Mountain’s 625 pristine acres sit in Harlan County, the heart of coal country. Coal is omnipresent, from the coal trucks on the mountain roads to bumper stickers that declare, “If You Don’t Like Coal, Don’t Use Electricity.”

While I was at the Summit I took an afternoon to visit the towns of Benham and Lynch. Benham and Lynch sit at the foot of Black Mountain, which was on the Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2010. Benham and Lynch were once model company towns with thriving local businesses and a hospital and schools provided by the coal company. Now Benham and Lynch are economically depressed and many old and historic buildings stand empty. The towns are developing heritage tourism, with attractions such as the Portal 31 exhibition mine and the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum.

Both illustrate that coal mining is an industry with a proud history, but mining coal has changed. Where deep shaft miners once brought the coal to the surface, now the coal is accessed by surface mining, often with an extraction method known as mountaintop removal, which literally removes the summit of a mountain to access coal. Mountaintop removal decimates flora and fauna and deposits debris into nearby creeks. The removal of mountaintops can cause dangerous flooding and rock slides. In 2005, on the Virginia side of Black Mountain, a three-year-old boy died when a boulder dislodged at a mountaintop removal site struck his house.

The natural resource that made the towns now threatens to be their undoing, as mine companies plan to mine on Black Mountain, Kentucky’s highest peak. As important as the current heritage tourism initiatives are, they will count for nothing if the mountain is gone and the water polluted. Residents realize that they must go beyond the heritage tourism model to create new industries and new jobs. Their vision is simple, but challenging. If realized it will be an inspiration to others.

They visualize mining towns without mining, yet providing needed energy and other resources. Using ideas from two documents produced by MIT - as well as locally grown ideas - they plan to invest in renewable energy resources. A combination of hydro power generated by the creeks that run through the valley, a solar power plant using small photovoltaic cells and wind turbines could provide enough power for local consumption and would create clean, well-paying jobs. In addition, the water supply in Benham and Lynch comes from an underground reservoir and is pure enough to bottle.

Of course, power and water bottling plants would need buildings in which to operate, but Benham and Lynch have an abundant supply of buildings. They have large buildings, like the white high school, Office and Bathhouse, and small buildings such as Lamphouse #1 and the firehouse.

If these green initiatives come to fruition in Harlan County, Kentucky, they will serve as a shining example of local solutions to global problems. And, as with the restoration of historic windows, they will be a part of conserving our way out of our climate crisis, rather than trying to build our way out.

To read more about the vision for Benham and Lynch at  The Solutions Journal.

Karen Nickless is a Southern Office Field Representative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The National Windows Preservation Standards Summit was partially funded by a $3,000 grant from the Kentucky Preservation Fund, through the Southern Office.

Due to scheduling delays, we anticipate the Barbara Campagna’s blog on LEED-2012 will run next week.

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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