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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.”
The area is rich with wildlife like deer, elk, bears and birds. A wildlife center will open in 2019, as mining operations continue nearby.
Frank Allen is the board chairman of the wildlife foundation. He said the area’s mining activities actually created a good environment for elk -- a large deer native to North America.
The Monday Creek Restoration Project in New Straitsville, Ohio, has given locals their first look at a stream with clear water in generations.
Nate Schlater, the project’s manager, says Monday Creek was once “a dead stream.” In 1994, it was considered unrecoverable. Today, 36 species of fish live in Monday Creek.
“My grandkids are catching fish where there’s never been a fish in my lifetime,” Schlater said.
“Coal country” strongly supported Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election. As a candidate, Trump promised to create more jobs in the coal industry.
About 1,200 new mining jobs have been created across the area since Trump took office. But that does little to make up for the huge decline in recent years; in southwest Virginia, for example, mining employment dropped 45 percent from 1990 to 2014.
The new economy appears to be bringing jobs, tourists and even new residents to southwest Virginia.
One study there found that arts, entertainment, recreation and related fields added over 5,000 jobs between the year 2000 and 2014. The area’s professional, scientific, education and health industries have also grown, the study found.
Still, the area has lost many more coal jobs than it has gained in other industries, Christensen said. But he added that communities in the area are “embracing” the creative economy, and the large numbers of young, college-educated people moving in.
He added that visitors often come in with an expectation of what they think they will find.
However, he says, “nine times out of ten, they leave with a different perspective than what they brought.”
I’m John Russell.
And I'm Ashley Thompson.
The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in This Story
tourism - n. the activity of traveling to a place for pleasure
draw- n. someone or something that causes a lot of people to come to a place
Prohibition - n. the period of time from 1920 to 1933 in the U.S. when it was illegal to make or sell alcohol
exotic- adj. very different, strange, or unusual
godforsaken - adj. not at all interesting or appealing and usually located far from interesting people and places
abandonment - n. the action or fact of leaving and never returning
peak - n. the highest level or degree of excellence, quantity, activity, etc.
lodging - n. a place where a person (such as a traveler) can stay for usually a short period of time : a place to sleep
stream - n. a natural flow of water that is smaller than a river
embrace - v. to accept (something or someone) readily or gladly
perspective - n. a way of thinking about and understanding something (such as a particular issue or life in general)