MIDDLESBORO, Ky. -- An eastern Kentucky town that has been struggling through economic decline is hoping that an out-of-this-world attraction can help turn things around.
Geologists in Kentucky have concluded that Middlesboro was built in a meteor crater, and local officials feel sure the discovery will pay huge dividends in tourism dollars.
William M. Andrews Jr., a geologist with the Kentucky Geological Survey, said erosion and vegetation have hidden most signs of the meteor's impact. But enough evidence remains, he said.
"You have the round shape, shattered rock in the middle and deformed rocks around the sides that have been bent, folded or shoved," Andrews said. "That's pretty strong evidence that it was a meteor impact crater."
It's enough to excite local tourism officials, who are hoping people will come from across the nation to visit the town. They're now promoting Middlesboro as the only town in America built inside a meteor crater.
"We're trying to get the word out," said Judy Barton, director of the Bell County Tourism Commission. "This is just another jewel in our crown."
Middlesboro, historically dependent on the mining industry, has been in decline for decades, suffering alongside coal operators. Mines have shut down. Shops have closed. And workers have hit unemployment lines.
With no upturn in sight, local leaders have been trying to bolster the tourism economy.
Barton said more than 1 million people already come to Middlesboro each year to visit Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, home of the famed mountain pass that settlers traveled through into the nation's midsection in the late 1700s.
Tourists can walk the footsteps of the famous frontiersman Daniel Boone, who led the way through Cumberland Gap for a flood of settlers to come into Kentucky and beyond.
Nearby is the Lost Squadron Museum, home to a World War II fighter plane that spent a half century encapsulated in the icy cold heart of a glacier. Some 20,000 people came to Middlesboro last year to see the P-38 Lightning fly for the first time since being pulled piece by piece from beneath 268 feet of ice and snow in Greenland.
The plane was among six fighters and two bombers forced to crash-land during foul weather on July 15, 1942. The crews were rescued from the frigid glacier, but the warplanes were left behind to be slowly buried by snow and ice. A local restaurateur spent some $3 million to recover and rebuild the plane.
Barton said those two attractions keep Middlesboro-area hotels and restaurants busy. When word spreads that people have the opportunity to see an actual meteor crater, Barton believes visits may skyrocket.
In fact, more than 60 geologists arrived in town Thursday to survey the crater themselves, and to be on hand when the Kentucky Society of Professional Geologists declared the city a distinguished geological site.
Andrews said geologists who have visited Middlesboro are confident that the valley is, in fact, a crater.
"Middlesboro is in this strangely round valley in the middle of Appalachia," he said. "You don't get round valleys here. It's not normal."
While the shape of the valley initially drew the interest of geologists, they soon found stronger evidence. Andrews said rocks were found near the center of the basin in 1966 that were so shattered that something out of this world had to have occurred. The theory is that a meteor more than 1,500 feet in diameter struck the earth here some 300 million years ago, creating the crater four miles in diameter.
On The Net:
Kentucky Society of Professional Geologists: http://www.kspg.org/
Impact Crater Data Base: http://www.unb.ca/passc/ImpactDatabase/