Tourism Is on the Rise in America's 'Coal Country'
Two-thirds of coal industry jobs in Appalachia have disappeared since the 1990s. Now, the area is hoping tourism will help rebuild its economy.
Appalachia is the name for a cultural area in the eastern United States. It gets its name from the Appalachian Mountains, and is the center of America’s coal industry.
For visitors, history and nature are two of the main draws here.
In one town in Ohio, people re-enact a Prohibition rally outside a former speakeasy -- the name for an illegal alcohol store or night club during the Prohibition period in the United States. In rural Kentucky, people are building an elk-viewing area on a former mountaintop coal mine.
Virginia’s Crooked Road presents the area’s country music history; Ohio’s Winding Road takes visitors back to the start of the U.S. labor movement.
Yet, often, American media presents Appalachia through stories of poverty and communities left behind.
Todd Christensen is director of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation. He says his organization’s aim is to present Appalachia as an “exotic, interesting place, not the godforsaken place that we usually get in the national press.“
John Winnenberg is director of The Winding Road project centered in historic Shawnee, Ohio. He says that residents in Appalachia feel a sense of abandonment. Those feelings, he says, come from a history of timber, coal, clay and oil-and-gas industries bringing jobs and money to the area and then disappearing.
Such feelings could change, he says, if locals succeed in building their own tourism-based industry.
“We’ve been owned before,“ he said. “We don’t want to be owned again.“
The promise of a better future for “coal country“ is not new. Billions of dollars have been spent closing, reclaiming, reforesting and redeveloping former mine land since the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act passed 40 years ago.
Yet, there is a new, more positive feeling toward Appalachia. Visitors young and old enjoy staying in a place full of stories built on struggle and hard work.
In Nelsonville, Ohio, the Sunday Creek Coal Company was one of many companies that succeeded in the area’s mining peak, from 1850 to 1940. Today, remains of that period -- opera houses, speakeasies and railway stations -- are protected and promoted for tours, lodging and events such as the re-enactment of a Prohibition rally.
Such efforts are not just for outside tourists, Winnenberg says. “We’re going for ourselves as well.“