A coal mine might not sound like a vacation destination, but history buffs and nature-seekers are sure to enjoy a stay at the Barthell Coal Camp.
The restored mining camp opened to the public in 1999, many years after the last miners left. The Barthell Coal Camp was in operation beginning in 1902 until the last mine was closed in 1962.
“The Stearns Company came in from Luddington, Michigan, and began buying property for the timber because they were in the lumber business,” says Richard Koger, Director of Operations for Barthell Coal Mining Camp. The crew building the railroad into Barthell discovered the coal seam. “They didn’t know anything about the coal business, so they went back to Michigan and rounded up everyone they could find that knew anything about the coal business. Most of those people were immigrants from Europe who’d had experience in mining.”
The Stearns Company built 41 houses for miners and their families at the camp. The camp included a school, a doctor’s office, a barber shop, and a company store. In total, around 350 people lived at the Barthell Coal Camp.
“It was tough. Before unions they were working 12 hours a day, six days a week,” says Koger. “They had no holidays, no vacations. It was just a hard life for these people. They were pretty happy though. [Stearns] had a very good accident and death rate in their mines. It was better than a lot of the other companies. As a matter of fact, some people came from other companies just to work for the Stearns Company because they did have such a good record.”
After the mines closed, Stearns demolished many of the buildings with the aim of allowing the land to reforest. Stearns was, after all, still involved in the lumber business.
Koger’s family purchased the land in 1984 with the intent of keeping Kentucky’s coal mining history alive. But the family’s history goes back much further than that.
“My great-grandfather came to this country from Wales,” says Koger. “When he came to this country he came for a better life, but it just so happened that Stearns company contacted him and hired him because he knew how to ventilate these mines before electricity.
“Then my grandfather he worked for the mines,” Koger continues. “He started at age 11 and worked 48 years. Then my father went to work at Blue Heron [the No. 18 mine owned by Stearns]. It was a dream of his to rebuild it back like it was originally. He thought this was a type of history that was being lost, so he wanted to rebuild this camp to keep this history alive.”
The Kogers wanted to make sure that the buildings were restored to historical accuracy, showcasing how the camp would have been set up when it was in operation. To do so, they brought in outside help.
“We did have a lot of old pictures and a lot of people who could remember how it was,” says Koger. “But it was hard to place all the houses and buildings. He contacted University of Kentucky and hired them to come down and do an archival study. They found the location of every house and every building. They went to the Stearns Company and got the floorplans of the houses, the sizes of all the buildings, the type of lumber that was used, the paint colors. Everything here is pretty much exactly like it was in the beginning.”
Today, the Barthell Coal Camp includes restored buildings including the church and school and the company store. One of the houses has been set up to show how the houses looked at the time. Visitors can stay in some of the other camp houses.
“People can come in and experience living in a mining camp,” says Koger. “It’s sort of a walk back into time. People really enjoy is coming and staying here. It’s really peaceful.”
The mine is located in the Daniel Boone National Forest and adjacent to the Big South Fork River Recreation Area, making it an appealing spot for nature lovers. Visitors can also tour parts of the now-closed mines. Guided tours take groups about 300 feet into the No. 1 mine, which the Stearns Company started in 1902.
“It’s really neat to see how these miners really had to work in those days,” says Koger. “It was really tough. A lot of the mine is only three feet high, so that meant the miners were having to work on their hands and knees most of the time, and that’s what people are really surprised about. They can’t comprehend being able to work in areas like that. It’s neat to get these school groups down here to show them how life was back then and how hard these people had to work to get that coal out to have electricity.
“My father was really proud of this place and I was glad that he lived long enough to see it work,” says Koger. “People love it when they come. They just love the tours, they love staying here, they love everything that they can see. It does make you proud of it.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2019, which originally aired on May 23, 2015. Watch the full episode.