Middlesboro, Kentucky: Crater City

Middlesboro, Kentucky, is the largest town within an hour of where Tom and I are living this summer.  Fortunately, it has about 10,000 residents, so it has three grocery stores including a Walmart and a Kroger.  Although I consider 10,000 people to be a good-sized small city, Middlesboro has more of a village or small-town feel.  It is a city that seems to be in denial about its size.

Bell County Museum housed in the old Carnegie Library

Middlesboro was founded in 1886 by Alexander Arthur, an entrepreneur who was interested in turning the area into “The Pittsburgh of the South.”  Arthur planned Middlesboro as a modern city of 250,000 people centered around the iron industry.  He recruited English investors and began building Powell’s Valley Railroad, with the aim of connecting the Cumberland Gap region to Knoxville.

First Presbyterian Church

Arthur’s project failed by 1893. The poor quality of local ore meant that revenue from Arthur’s steel mills was insufficient to weather the Panic of 1893 on Wall Street.  The Cumberland Gap was too steep for a railroad and a costly tunnel had to be built.  A fire devastated the ornate buildings in town in 1890.  The fancy 500-room Four Seasons resort hotel closed after just two years.

Middlesboro became known as “Little Las Vegas” in the 1930’s because of all the gambling establishments and bars.  By the 1950’s the city had reinvented itself into a center of the arts and was being called “The Athens of the Mountains.”  Although Middlesboro is much larger than neighboring Pineville, Pineville is older and is the county seat.

Fountain Square in downtown

Middlesboro is currently in the process of revitalizing its historic downtown area.  Concerts take place weekly during the summer in an outdoor venue.  There are several restaurants along Cumberland Avenue and businesses are moving back into the downtown storefronts.  Cumberland Avenue is anchored by Cumberland Gap National Historical Park on one end and a small, community hospital on the other end.

Middlesboro has a unique geography.  It is the only city in the United States built in a meteor crater.  A meteor about 328 feet in diameter created the crater when it struck the earth about 300 million years ago.  The crater and Cumberland Gap together create an unusual weather-related phenomenon called fogfall.  When cool air gets trapped in the crater bowl by warmer air on the top of the Cumberland Mountain, fog forms.  The fog pours over the gap like steam comping out of a teapot spout.

Fogfall from the Pinnacle

Tom and I have seen fogfall many times as we drive to work.  It looks like a perfectly clear day in Virginia and Tennessee, but Middlesboro is all fogged in.  The Pinnacle has the best view of the fogfall and we love to drive up there to see it.

Fogfall on our way to work

Middlesboro is uniquely positioned to be a gateway town for a popular National Park, but it has not embraced that identity.  We are used to gateway towns having good local restaurants and interesting shops.  Middlesboro seems content to let the town of Cumberland Gap be that place while Middlesboro continues to be a generic small city with lots of chain stores and restaurants.  With all the nicknames in its past, and its potential to be THE “Crater City” in the United States, Middlesboro is missing an opportunity.  But it has shown its ability to reinvent itself in the past and perhaps it will do so in the future.

In the meantime, it is a good place to get groceries and our weekly allotment of Dairy Queen.