During the 1880s-1890s, a large portion of the land surrounding the Big South Fork was purchased by L.E. Bryant who began exploring the deposits of coal. In 1901, Byrant sent his associate, John Toomey, to lumber baron Justus S. Stearns in Michigan and convinced him to invest in the mineral rights of the Big South Fork area. By 1902, Barthell was established and work began in Mine No. 1. The first shipment of coal was delivered from Barthell in 1903 after the completion of the Kentucky and Tennessee Railroad from Stearns. During 1905 and 1906, operations expanded at Barthell with the opening of Mine No. 2.
From 1923 to 1927, the Bryant lease was fully purchased by the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company. Business boomed even during the height of the Great Depression, with a record monthly coal production of 100,961 tons of coal in January 1930. The onset of World War II further increased coal production at Barthell, requiring the addition of a second railway line.
The decline of Barthell began in 1943 when the tipple at Mine No. 1 was destroyed by fire and was never rebuilt. Mine No. 1 was also closed shortly after the fire at the tipple. Coal mined from Mine No. 2 was then sent to the tipple at Mine No. 18 at the Blue Heron Mining complex. The dismantling of the coal camp began in 1952 and was completed in 1961.
In 1984, the Barthell coal camp was purchased by the Koger family, who invested more than $500,000 of their own money into the revitalization of the community. Many of the community’s original structures, such as the company store, doctors office, and school house have been renovated and can be toured. Fifteen former coal camp homes have also been renovated and can be rented for overnight stays.
The Barthell coal camp is open April-Thanksgiving, Tuesday-Sunday every 2 hours(9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.) eastern time. Admission is $11 for children under 12, $15 for adults, and $11 for senior citizens. A deep mine can also be toured for $15.