One of the major tenets of visiting all the national parks in the Southeast is that there are no secrets. If I read enough and ask enough questions, I can get to every place in the parks.
So after two days of hiking in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (BISO), I wanted to visit a completely different section of the park. I headed for Blue Heron Mine, or Mine 18, an abandoned coal mining town.
Most visitors take a tourist train from Stearns, the same train route that miners used to get in and out of this isolated place but the train didn’t get here until almost noon. So I drove down myself and got there about 9 am. I met Ranger Chelsea Lauber who was opening up the tiny visitor center and bookstore.
“Are you here from the Smokies?” Chelsea asks. Chelsea also worked at Oconaluftee Visitor Center for Supervisory Ranger Lynda Doucette for several seasons, and is now here in a permanent position. Oh my gosh, I think, have I been visiting parks this long? Not only do I recognize rangers, but they recognize me. I was the only visitor here and I got a great introduction to the Blue Heron mining site.
Blue Heron was one of many coal camps in the BISO area, owned by Stearns Coal and Lumber Company. This one was active from 1937 to 1962. The tipple is one of the few original structures left. A tipple is a sorting mechanism to separate, crush, and size coal from nearby mines. The mines collapsed or were collapsed by the park. They surely didn’t want visitors to explore the old coal mines.
When the coal company decided to close the mines, the buildings were either removed or lapsed into decay. These buildings were only meant to last fifty years anyway. So no original houses, school, or church stands. When the park decided to recreate the community in the 1980s, they built open metal shells, which they refer to as “ghost structures.” Each shell is built on the approximate site of the original buildings and was made as close to the original size and orientation as possible. Each shell contains displays and an audio program told by the original residents of the Blue Heron community.
The concrete outline of the bathhouse also remains. It was important for the miners to have a place to clean up before going home. Enough coal dust was around in the camp that the men didn’t want to bring in any more in their houses.
Blue Heron has all the conventional trappings of the isolated coal camps that you read about. The school had one teacher for eight grades and maybe thirty students. Few went beyond eight grade since high school was in Whitley, accessible only by train. The Southern Baptist church was the center of community life. Strong faith and coal mining seemed to go together because of the isolation and danger and darkness of the mine.
The company store took scrip money. The displays even use the words “I owe my soul to the company store.” Life was tough on women who kept cleaning coal dust. They had few aspirations beyond wife and mother. One glaring omission was the camps didn’t have medical facilities. A sick person had to go on the train to Stearns. I’m sure that the camp had informal emergency treatment but no building or nurse. But the display adds, “In camps, life was more progressive than on farms.”
And all I keep thinking about is the date: 1962. I was in high school in 1962. Where were you in ’62?