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 that 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. However, enough evidence remains, he said, to support the conclusion.
"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.
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.
More than 1-million people already come to Middlesboro each year to visit Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, which is home of the famed mountain pass through which settlers traveled into the nation's midsection in the late 1700s.
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. 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.