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History of the Kentucky Coal Museum

Almost one hundred years ago, the company commissary was the bustling center of life in the Benham coal camp. Clerks measured fabric for homemakers, weighed sacks of sugar and coffee, and even sold caskets to grieving families. Friends met to chat, old men played checkers, and neighbors shared the latest gossip. The primary folding money taken here was scrip, credit against the wages of the miners.

Today, the renovated Benham Commissary is the Kentucky Coal Museum dedicated to preserving and exhibiting the artifacts and experiences that tell the story of coal mining in eastern Kentucky. The idea for a coal museum first developed during the 1970s but did not see action until 1990 when the Tri-City Chamber of Commerce purchased the Commissary. Several grants allowed for the overhaul of the property, and by 1993, a Board of Directors was installed and a Curator was hired.

The Kentucky Coal Museum has continued to develop and grow in many different areas:

  • 1997 Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner s Daughter exhibit
  • 2003 Mock Coal Mine exhibit
  • 2010 Coal history weekly radio program and podcast

Genesis of Harlan County Coal Camps

Coal mining is indelibly woven into the fabric of daily life in the mountains of southeast Kentucky. It is hard to imagine a time when this was not so. As recently as 80 years ago, however, the vast coal resources of this region lay largely undisturbed beneath the rugged mountains. The land was sparsely populated by farmers who used the mountain streams, the forests, and what tillable land was available to feed and clothe their families. This way of life was drastically changed in the early years of this century. At this time the large coal companies moved in to exploit the rich mineral deposits found beneath the mountains of Harlan County.

At the extreme eastern end of Harlan County, two companies, United States Steel and International Harvester, each developed captive mines to feed their large steel mills in Gary, Indiana and Chicago, Illinois. These companies literally created almost overnight, small industrial cities in the midst of a mountain wilderness that had, until that time, remained relatively isolated from the rest of the nation.

In 1910, the Wisconsin Steel Company, a subsidiary of International Harvester, purchased about 6000 acres on Looney Creek near the small trading center of Poor Fork (later called Cumberland). Here they began construction of the town of Benham and simultaneously drove mine entries into the sides of the mountains. By the end of the summer of 1911 the L & N Railroad had extended a spur from Pineville, Kentucky to Benham and the first train car of coal was shipped directly from Benham to Chicago on September 1, 1911.

In 1917 the U.S. Coal and Coke Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, purchased nearly 19,000 acres of land just upstream from Benham. Construction of the town of Lynch, which was in its day described as the largest coal camp in the world, was begun in August of that year. By January 1, 1918, there were nearly 1500 men on the payroll and 12,000 tons of coal had been shipped to U.S. Steel s mills in Gary, Indiana.

It is this rich history that the Kentucky Coal Museum and Portal 31 are striving to preserve and share with the world.