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You can find the same cool breeze blowing through the downtown streets of Cumberland today as families did a generation ago. This old mountain mining town offers echoes of the local river and an economy that isn’t thriving like it did when coal was shipping out daily before the local industry’s collapse.

Taking a walk through the downtown corridor makes it feel like you’re in a ghost town. The boarded-up windows, empty storefronts, and vacant lots have plenty of stories to tell. You’ll find the occasional craft store selling souvenirs and a diner serving up classics, but times are changing.

The decline of coal in Kentucky means it is time for towns like Cumberland to reinvent themselves. Many of them are turning to tourism to make ends meet.

Kentucky Generates $15 Billion in Tourism Annually

Kentucky might generate billions of dollars in economic activity from tourism, but only a fraction of that figure comes through the 18 southeastern countries where you’ll find Cumberland.

The region that’s affectionately called “Daniel Boone Country” brings in $350 million each year. That figure is up 4% from 2016, but it is a far cry from what these mountain towns earned during the coal years.

Harlan County, which is where you can visit Cumberland, reported $26.5 million in tourism activities in 2017.

Reinvention is possible, but it is a process that will take time to complete. Cumberland was a partial recipient of $2.55 million in federal aid from the Abandoned Mine Lands Pilot Grant to redevelop the economy. Local officials used those funds to upgrade a mine tour in nearby Lynch.

The funds are also going to help renovate an administrative building and the old bathhouse in the area. These structures will then let a local religious ministry expand its mushroom-growing business to support the local economy.

Why Do People Choose Rural Destinations?

The one thing lacking from many vacations or day trip adventures is authenticity. You’ll find plenty of that when you go off of the beaten path to visit a town like Cumberland. It is an opportunity to provide an Americana experience that large cities can’t offer.

Supplementing the grant money with efforts to build hiking and cycling trails is only the beginning of Cumberland’s efforts. Coal companies still own a lot of the property in the area, and they aren’t keen to offer easements or grants in case the economy skews back toward this fossil fuel.

That isn’t stopping people from moving forward. For Kentucky’s mountain towns, tourism offers a chance to honor their history while looking to the future. 

Scott Larson