Robot mule and miner Joseph Marchelli from Sicily.
Robot mule and miner Joseph Marchelli from Sicily. "Coming to America, it was a good thing I did-a."

Portal 31: Dark Ride Mine Tour

Field review by the editors.

Lynch, Kentucky

If you enjoy an off-the-beaten-path adventure -- but not too adventurous -- then Portal 31 is a satisfying trek. It's easily accessible by car, though still halfway up the side of Black Mountain, the highest peak in Kentucky, and nearly two hours from the nearest freeway exit, which isn't even in the same state.

African-Americans made up much of the workforce at Portal 31.
African-Americans made up much of the workforce at Portal 31.

Remote as it is, Portal 31 is popular -- even with travelers from overseas, according to director Nick Sturgill. That's because it's a cross between a classic Spook House "dark ride" and a pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair -- and it's underground in a real coal mine, enhanced with robot dummies and quirky special effects. "The ride is very cold, it's very bumpy, it's very dark," said motorman Devon to our tour group. "Anybody have any problems with that?" With no one voicing any paralyzing dreads, the tour train lurched into the abyss.

Portal 31 was once one of the richest coal mines in the world, honeycombing Black Mountain with tunnels that stretched for miles. On February 12, 1923, its miners set a world record by hauling out over 25 million pounds of coal in a single day. But 40 years later the mine was closed; it had become too vast, too maze-like, too difficult to ventilate with breathable air. Decades of inactivity followed, with retired miners sitting outside the entrance, drinking coffee, while visitors would occasionally stop by, wondering why they couldn't go inside. According to Nick, that sparked the idea of turning Portal 31 from a mine into an attraction. Years passed, the plans became more elaborate, millions of dollars were raised to make the mine safe for tourists, and Portal 31 finally opened to the public in 2008, robot dummies and all.

Portal 31 is our kind of coal mine tour: you never get dirty, and you never have to walk.
Portal 31 is our kind of coal mine tour: you never get dirty, and you never have to walk.

Changing the cutting bits on a continuous mining machine.
Changing the cutting bits on a continuous mining machine.

The tour is narrated by the disembodied voice of miner "Mac" McKenzie, who announces, "we'll be going not just through the mine, but back in time." As the train squeaks and rumbles through the darkness, it stops at various "years" to hear stories told by Portal 31's cast of animatronic coal miners. "Coming to America; it was a good thing I did-a," says Joseph Marchelli, a Sicillian immigrant, in 1919. "The mine, she is-a cool and safe. My bambinos, their stomachs are full." Portal 31 was a subterranean melting pot; miners from 38 countries once worked here, as well as many African-Americans, who have their own memorial down the road in Lynch.

As the tour progresses, Joseph and his friendly mule are replaced by younger miners working with increasingly complicated and noisy machines. However, even these newer miner-dummies have an encrusted, grimy veneer of authenticity thanks to years spent underground at Portal 31. "Computer systems and animatronics, in a mine, are not an easy fit," said Nick. "Thank God for duct tape and zip ties." Nick said the attraction intends to upgrade, but we hope that any repairs keep the battered realism intact.

Video miners converse with a miner robot.
Video miners converse with a miner robot. "You boys must always remember: respect the mine."

The Portal 31 tour covers only a tiny fraction of the tunnels inside Black Mountain.
The Portal 31 tour covers only a tiny fraction of the tunnels inside Black Mountain.

Portal 31 closed in 1963, and at the last timeline stop on the tour, two miner-dummies take a moment to reflect. "Joseph died of black lung disease, didn't he?" asks one. "He worked in the coal mines for 30 years," answers the other, who apparently is Joe's grandson. "Most of that time they didn't know what breathing coal dust could do to you. Oh well; our shift's over. Time to get going."

But the ride isn't over. The train stops in a passage with a soaring ceiling, and onto it is projected a Story of Coal Creation. "Time passed. Millions upon millions of years," says a narrator, as the molten earth evolves in about seven minutes into a mossy paradise and then a montage of projected miners, smiling from a lumpy wall. "What was once beneath the swamplands now surrounds us. The tunnel we are now in once held a rich seam of high grade coal...."

Nick told us that Bible literalists who take the tour sometimes fuss about this last stop ("That ain't right!"), but the vast majority of visitors seem pleased with Portal 31's depiction of coal mine reality.


"Safety First" was the motto, but many men died in Portal 31.

The attraction works hard to present miners as everyday heroes, and to be educational rather than gratuitously emotional. In fact, Joseph's demise-by-illness is the only mention of death on the Portal 31 tour, although a black granite memorial out front lists the names of well over 200 miners who never made it out alive, with an "additional fatalities" slab for those who couldn't fit. Nick said that he didn't believe in ghosts until he started spending time inside Portal 31. "You work here a week, you'll change your mind." Visitors sometimes see ghostly miners on their tours.

The "Anybody have any problems with that?" warning from Devon was not flippant. Being inside a mine, even a fun mine like Portal 31, can freak some people out. Nick recalled -- and chuckled about -- tough guy "supermen" who swagger onto the tour train and then panic as soon as it's enveloped in darkness. "We're gonna die! I can't do this! You gotta get me out of here!"

Also see: Black Coal Miner Memorial

Portal 31: Dark Ride Mine Tour

Address:
100 Church St., Lynch, KY
Directions:
US-119 to Cumberland. Exit at milepost 35, then at the bottom of the ramp turn left onto KY-160, toward Benham and Lynch. Drive 3.5 miles. Just past the overhead coal conveyor, you'll see the Portal 31 entrance on the left.
Hours:
Tu-Sa 9:30-5 (Call to verify)
Phone:
606-848-3131
Admission:
Adults $17.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Black Coal Miner MemorialBlack Coal Miner Memorial, Lynch, KY - < 1 mi.
Stone Face Rock with Nonoffensive NameStone Face Rock with Nonoffensive Name, Pennington Gap, VA - 15 mi.
Natural Tunnel State ParkNatural Tunnel State Park, Duffield, VA - 21 mi.
In the region:
Where Hank Williams Passed Up A Last Meal, Bristol, VA - 48 mi.

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