Opened in 1937 as Mine 18 for mining coal, the Blue Heron Mining Camp was one of the more surprising and interesting sites I visited in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. The small site is big on education and features one of the few entrances into a former coal mine open to the public. With only an hour to explore I headed out beneath the massive tipple buildings to learn about coal mining on the Cumberland Plateau.
The Train Depot (#1) is mostly used for when people arrive at the camp on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway as I had this day. Although there is plenty of parking at Blue Heron I wanted to take the scenic route (and it was a very scenic route) on the train. That gave me an hour to explore the area before I had to hop back onboard.
I grabbed a quick bite at the large concession stand (#14) that had foods like burger, hot dogs, and bags of chips. There was a large covered shelter with plenty of tables but I didn’t want to waste time sitting here so I took my food to go.
I began the long but gentle walk up the paved path from the first of many outdoor exhibits (#7-10). Each exhibit explained a different aspect of living and working at this coal mine. I mostly skipped these on the way up because I was anxious to see the actual mine.
The entrance to the coal mine (#11) is one of the few entrances of a coal mine open to the public. These are usually shuttered and sometimes even destroyed when a company leaves a mine. The very square cut walls were interesting as I wondered just what kind of blade is required to cut stone like this. It was a little bit chilly inside the dark mine and I could only walk a few feet before meeting a gate with a mannequin display beyond.
It wasn’t until I found a park ranger at the top of the tipple building that I realized this was a National Park Service unit. It made sense considering it was inside the great Big South Fork. The ranger told a small group about the history of the mine and how these tipple buildings worked.
But my mind was already on the length of bridge ahead. There was another mine across the river, maybe more, so the mining company built a massive bridge with a rail across the river to bring coal back to the tipple building on small rail cars. Now it’s a tourist attraction that offered one of the best views of Blue Heron and the river below.
The train whistle cut through the quiet air and startled me just a bit. That signal meant I had ten minutes to get back to the train or else I’d be walking back to my car in Stearns. It only took five minutes to briskly walk down the path back to the train depot so the warning gives you plenty of time. I boarded the train and took a seat at the back so I could watch the Blue Heron Mining Camp shrink as we pulled out.