You never know when you’ll come across orchid information. Sometimes it turns up in the most unusual places, like a Kentucky Coal Mining Museum.
I was visiting the museum and the exhibition mine, Portal 31, with a group and discovering what life was like when the mine was at its peak production. Mine No. 31 is tunneled deep into Kentucky’s famous Black Mountain and in 1923 set the world’s record for coal production in a nine-hour shift, 12,820 tons.
The museum recreates life as it was at that time showing a typical miner’s home and how it was furnished as well as tools and clothing worn by the men for work. Our group had the opportunity to enter Portal 31 for a tour and between my claustrophobia and the recent events at the Quecreek Mine I must admit that I was more than a bit nervous.
While riding the elevator to the lower floor to be outfitted with a battery pack and miner’s hat it became clear that I wasn’t the only one with reservations about entering the mine. There was uneasy laughter as, one by one, we were helped into our packs and hats and were shown how to turn the all-important lamp on and off.
I wandered around the room waiting for the others to finish, and that’s when I saw it. On the far wall, near the elevators was a poster showing the orchids that are native to Kentucky. Since a coal mine was the last place I expected to see a poster about orchids I asked Bobbi Gothard, Director of the museum about it. Gothard told me that the poster came from the Kentucky Coal Council. “Each year,” she said, “the coal companies sponsor Earth Day programs for children. In our particular area the Arch Minerals Coal Company worked with the schools to put together a program of planting trees and studying nature. They learn about the importance of land reclamation. This poster was part of that program. The children like to see the pictures of the flowers and all the colors in the piece.”
These are the orchids that I discovered were native to Kentucky, if you need further information on each, contact me.
Showy Lady’s slipper, Spreading Pogonia, Pruple-fringed Orchid, Ragged fringed Orchid, Small White Lady’s slipper, Rose Pogonia, Shining ladies’ tresses, large Yellow Lady’s Slipper, Club-spur Orchid, Showy Orchid, Pink Lady’s Slipper, Fragrant Ladies’ tresses, Three Birds Orchid, White Fringeless- Orchid, Whorled Pogonia, Crested Coral-root, Lily-leaved Tway-blade, Yellow Fringed Orchid, Green Adder’s Mouth Pale Green Orchid, Spring Coral-root, Kentucky Lady’s Slipper, Cranefly Orchid, Grass-pink, Bog Tway-blade, Southern Tway-blade, The Crested Fringed-Orchid, Rattlesnake Plantain.
My surprise find was exciting but now it was now time for our mining adventure. We were led into Portal 31 by Burley Wright of Mining Consulting of Kentucky and Bob Lunsford whose father worked in the mine in 1924. Lunsford himself worked in that same mine for 42 years. He said, “My dad was a pumper and each Sunday I brought his lunch to him. I looked forward to that because when we kids brought the lunches the company store would give us a treat.”
He also said that the mine was owned by U.S. Steel Company and at one time the town consisted of 1,100 houses, two schools and 15 to 20 different nationalities.
Wright said that there is approximately 70 more years of coal in the area before it is all mined out. This particular mine extends into the mountain for about 13 miles. Over the years there were 285 men who lost their lives to Portal 31.
At one time miners carried canaries into the mines with them to protect themselves from the deadly methane gas, which is odorless and colorless. If a miner saw the canary in distress he knew the gas was around and he would get out as soon as possible. Wright said that now miners use gauges that make continuous checks for methane.
We ventured into the mine for about 800 feet and I got new appreciation of what these men had to endure to earn a living for their families.
Portal 31 closed in 1962 and in 1996 Arch Coal decided to donate the property to Harlan County. Mining Consulting Services Inc. with Professional Engineer J. Steven Gardner in charge is in the process of converting the mine into an exhibition mine where tourists will be transported through the mine area via rail cars, with their journey beginning back in 1918, when the first miners used breast augers, dynamite, and hand loaded pony carts. As the tour progresses, the timeline will move forward, showing the evolution of mining technology. The finale will take place in a large chamber, where a dramatic closing sequence will show that almost every industrial and consumer product is in some way connected with coal.
Plans call for this to become reality in June of 2003. The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum and a school house that has been converted to a B&B are already in operation and are important to the overall plan.
Kentucky is about a five to six hour drive from Pittsburgh. If you would like to plan a visit to this historic area or would like more information about it contact the Southern and Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association (SEKTDA). The toll free number is 877-868-7735.