Lynch, Kentucky -- A lump of coal blackens my palm.
Bob Lunsford gave it to me, picking it out of a wooden box in the parking lot of the Lamphouse Museum.
Born in 1928 in the town that U.S. Steel built, Lunsford spent 42 years working as a welder in the mines. Now he tells visitors to this remote corner of southeastern Kentucky about the way things used to be. His backdrop is the museum originally the building that provided lamps to the miners and the soon-to-open tour of Portal 31 that will take people deep into the dark heart of the once-rich rock.
"That killed us," he says of the mechanized techniques that reduced the need for human miners from 90 to eight. "We went down like the Titanic."
If Lynch is a sunken ship, it sure is a pretty one. In the early morning mist, Black Mountain rises above the town's limestone landscape; churches and buildings were constructed by Italian stonemasons recruited by U.S. Steel in the 1920s.
In the mid-20th century, the town boomed with a diverse mix of people from Eastern Europe, Portugal, Italy and more than 20 other countries who were attracted to the area by ample work in the underground tunnels. At one point, Lynch's population reached 10,000. After the mines closed in 1986, it shrank to one-10th that size.
Twenty years later, this part of the Kentucky coalfields is summoning a different sort of treasure-hunter: history buffs like me who can spend hours sifting through stories of cave-ins, black lung and union wars in the towns' museums.
A few kilometres west, in Benham, the massive Kentucky Coal Mining Museum provides a veritable crash course in this Appalachian mainstay.
I stroll through the huge red-brick building, once the home of International Harvester, the company that bought the town in 1911. In the basement, a mine for kids is set up, complete with aluminum lunch pails lined up at the low, dark opening.
Upstairs, realistic tableaux of a general store and the mine office mix with memorabilia of miners and that famous coal miner's daughter, Loretta Lynn. Here I learn that miners were paid by the tonne, not by the hour. They had to buy their own tools, probably in this very building.
And that saying about the canary in the coal mine is true: if it died, the men knew that hazardous gases were building in the tunnels. It was a tough life.
"Fifty-five was a long life for miners. The air was bad, and they worked long days, from sunrise to sundown," says Bobbi Gothard, the museum's curator.
I haven't been toiling underground all day, but by the time I leave the museum I'm tired. It's time to head up the hill to my accommodation, another building intricately tied to local history.
Inside the Benham School House Inn, green lockers still line the walls.
Built in 1926, the building served as an elementary and high school for kids whose parents worked in the coal camp. While the mining company murdered union organizers and hired 12-year-old kids, explains Gothard, at least it provided the best education services it could.
A lot has changed. The wide wooden stairs squeak with age, but the guests who climb them are headed to half a classroom. In the renovation, each classroom became two guest rooms. The king-size bed beckons. But first I touch my stained fingers to the rippling glass in the large window. In the distance, the mountains rise. I can't help but think of all that this area owes and all it's lost to coal.
For more information on visiting this part of Kentucky, contact www.tourseky.com.