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Portal 31 mine tour operated by SKCTC enjoying record-setting summer

It's been a record-setting summer at the Portal 31 coal mine tour in Lynch as 1,099 people toured the historic site during July.

Portal 31, which opened in 2009, is owned by Harlan County but is operated and maintained by Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. The attraction offers a glimpse of the historical mine site and the development of coal mining in the area, specifically at Lynch, during the early years of the 20th Century when the town once, one of the largest coal-producing settlements in America -- was built by the United States Steel Corp. to provide high-quality bituminous coal for the manufacturing of steel. The mineral was shipped by rail to mills located in Pittsburgh and Gary, Ind.

The Portal 31 mine tour is a 40-minute excursion into the past as patrons ride a train (or man trip) deep beneath Black Mountain to explore the past and learn how the coal industry built the area and provided jobs for thousands while assembling a worldwide workforce that was represented by people of over 30 nationalities. The attraction operates from early spring to mid December and offers tours several times each day, noted Drenda Crider, the SKCTC vice president of external education. Her job includes oversight of Portal 31, the Benham School House Inn and the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum.

"Yes," Crider discloses, "it has been a very good summer for us, we are overjoyed by the record-breaking number of folks who have come from far and wide to see us," she said.

With the numbers for July in the book with 1,099 visitors enjoying the tour, Crider notes to date Portal 31 has served 300 more patrons than at any other time in its history -- a rather noteworthy statistic since the site opened a bit later in the springtime as repairs to correct a drainage problem had to be addressed. "Our goal is to serve 1,000 customers each month, and during July we topped that mark; we hope to continue the momentum into August and into the fall."

The Portal 31 tour operates from Tuesday through Saturday featuring a nostalgic yet exhilarating trek into the mine first opened in 1920. It was mined well into the early 1960s as millions of tons of coal, considered by metallurgists to be among the richest in the world, were extracted, first by the use of hand tools, moving then to the use of augers and later with the means of sophisticated cutting machinery.

The tour features eight stops as the train surges into the darkness. A constant underground temperature of about 60 degrees makes it brisk for the riders as the train lurches to its various stops where state-of-the-art and life-size animatronics spring to life explaining the evolution of mining carried out at Lynch. The tour also serves as a tribute to those visionaries who designed, built and worked to make the town one of the largest coal-producing enclaves in the United States in its heyday during the first half of the 20th Century. The tour concludes with a multimedia presentation on how the Appalachian Mountain chain was forged and sculpted by nature, creating rich deposits of coal utilized by the nation and its industries which worked to build America into an industrial giant.

Dr. Lynn Moore, president of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, applauded the efforts of the team who works to make Portal 31 such a popular tourist destination. "I am thrilled by the fact that so many people are taking the opportunity to go underground and experience the mine tour during these hot summer days," she said. We have a great story to tell.

Working to make Portal 31 the success it has become are, according to Crider, team members: Melvin Dixon, Robert Pennington, Clay Slusher, T.J. Combs, Thomas McGrit, Chris Johnson and technical support provided by Freddie Marsili.

Ms. Crider also made note of a marketing campaign featuring Portal 31 and the Benham School House Inn that is luring more sightseers to the area. Since May, billboards have been in place just off Interstate 75 along U.S. 25 at Corbin. "We are very eager to assist those who would like to take our tour. We are more than happy to also offer tours for groups outside our normal working hours, give us a call.

The price of the tour is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $9 for college and high school students and $8 for youth, ages three through eight.

Reservations can be made by phoning the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum at Benham at 606/848-1530.

Folks enjoying a ride into Portal 31