Today this old mining camp has been restored as an historical tribute to the people who lived and worked there…kind of a museum to Old King Coal. No. 18 Mine Blue Heron is located in the hills of Kentucky near Stearns in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Carved in the side of a mountain, it overlooks the Big South Fork of the beautiful Cumberland River.
Since this stop was in the winter time, the museum was not open, but still could enjoy the atmosphere of the mining camp. There wasn’t another living person around that day so had the freedom to move at a leisurely pace along the paved walkways in this re-created mining town.
…”I owe my soul to the Company’s Store.” That was the life of the coal miners in this small town of Blue Heron from 1939-1962. From this isolated location, everything they purchased had to come through the Company Store. Instead of cash, miners would “draw scrip”, unexchangeable credit vouchers which could only be used at the company’s store. Coal companies had their own scrip coins with their personal emblem , thus indeed miners did end up owing their soul to the Company’s Store. They had no way to establish cash savings to find another workplace. Luckily, some coal mines gave their miners a choice of cash or scrip for payment, and eventually the United Mine Workers Union forced them to discontinue the use of scrip completely.
Stops along the way contained recordings of the miners’ stories and provided a resting place as well. The voices heard were those of long ago residents of Blue Heron as they shared their stories and memories of life at the mining camp.
Just looking into the entrance of the Blue Heron Coal Mine gave an understanding of what these miners faced each day. Inside there were figures of miners picking, drilling, and loading. One of the recordings there described the mine as “dark as a dungeon, camp as the dew,” as singer Merle Travis portrayed the mines in his 1946 recording. Outside this entrance the coal cars and locomotives were originals from the mining camp.
Sometimes over 200 men worked in this camp. When they got off work, most headed to the big bath house so they could shower and change their clothes before heading home for the day. That saved a lot of coal dust in the houses! Workers actually went on a two day strike to get a bigger bath house, but of course didn’t get paid while on strike. Imagine their families really appreciated the cleaner workers coming home at night.
Learned a little more about the life of a coal miner…their living and working conditions. Next time perhaps will take the Big South Fork Scenic Railway, which reaches the heart of the canyon along the Cumberland River and drops passengers off for a visit to the Blue Heron Coal Mine. Add a Coal Miner’s Lunch all wrapped up in a bandanna for a better taste of the mining experience.