Middlesboro, also spelled Middlesborough, is a city in Bell County, Kentucky, United States. The population was 10,384 at the 2000 census. The estimated July 1, 2009 population of the city is 14,835. The entire micropolitan area has a population of 69,060 (as of 2000 census) which includes all of Bell County. It is the principal city of the Middlesborough, KY Micropolitan Statistical Area. Middlesboro is the largest city in Southeast Kentucky.
The city was incorporated in 1890 as "Middlesborough", named after the town of Middlesbrough, England. The U.S. Post Office began using the spelling "Middlesboro" in 1894. Both spellings are used interchangeably; for example, the city's school district uses the Middlesboro spelling, as does the Kentucky Secretary of State's Land Office.
The city is located on the Kentucky side of the Cumberland Gap near the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
As the coal industry has declined over the last several years, the area has been increasingly hoping for a growth in tourism, primarily from the nearby national park. Pine Mountain State Resort Park is also located in nearby Pineville.
The town is home to the Middlesboro Country Club. Founded in 1889, the 9-hole course is one of the oldest golf courses in the country. The club also claims to be the oldest continuously played course in the nation. Pianist Ben Harney originated ragtime music in Middlesboro in the early 1890s, inspired by the fusion of African-American and local music styles heard in the community's saloons.
Geologists believe that the Middlesboro basin between Pine Mountain and the Cumberland Mountains is the remains of an ancient meteorite crater, which would give the town the rare distinction of being one of the few cities in the world completely built inside a crater. The crater is one of three known astroblemes in the state.
Middlesboro was recently featured on the History Channel's "How The States Got Their Shapes" on an episode titled Forces of Nature. The city also featured in one of the BBC's "Wonders of the Solar System" episodes. Watch part of the video on the Middlesboro Tourism Site.
In 1674 the first known white man passed through the area, Gabriel Arthur. He was followed by the explorers Dr. Thomas Walker in 1750 and Daniel Boone in 1769. It was not until 1886 that the story of Middlesborough began. In that year a businessman from Knoxville, Tennessee made his first trip to the region. Alexander Alan Arthur was the son of a Scotsman, though he spent much of his early life in Montreal. He saw great promise in the region and after surveying the land he went to Asheville, North Carolina in an attempt to raise funds to begin development of the city he envisioned. The wealthy of America's Gilded Age had mansions around Asheville, and while Arthur was successful in garnering support from the sons of these families, the patriarchs were not as eager. Not to be dissuaded, Arthur traveled to England to raise funds.
Arthur, after the land was surveyed again, was able to raise substantial funds to begin his grand city. All looked well at first and development was rapid. Just south of the Cumberland Gap, in the area of Lincoln Memorial University today, a grand resort hotel had been built. The Four Seasons Hotel contained some 700 rooms, including a 200-room spa and sanitarium. $1.5 million was spent to build and furnish the hotel in 1892. However, fires and poor quality iron ore left the project's coffers empty with nothing to refill them (which steel production was meant to do). An 1890 fire and the 1893 U.S. stock market decline further mired the dream of Alexander Arthur.
The city continued to have troubles and triumphs as it changed and grew. Like the rest of America, it was affected greatly with the Great Depression but quickly recovered, installing the first electric street cars of any municipality west of Washington, D.C. The 1930s was an era when Middlesboro saw a rapid change. Then known as "Little Las Vegas," the town had no shortage of slot machines, saloons, and brothels. The city kept changing with the decades and in the 1950s had a population of roughly 15,000 residents. The nickname "The Athens of the Mountains" was given to the city due to its large support for the arts. Middlesboro was one of the few cities in Eastern Kentucky to boast a grand opera house and one of the finest school districts in the state. The first shopping mall was built in the city sometime during the 1960s. The 1970s decade brought a revival in the coal industry and the city once again prospered. Middlesboro began looking forward to turning 100 years old in the late 1980s and held a grand centennial celebration in 1990 that included a ball, air show, beauty pageant, an establishment of a new city park, along with many other things to help celebrate the huge milestone. The city started to prepare for the future and looked for new ways to prosper with the opening of the Cumberland Gap Tunnel in 1996.
Currently, Middlesboro is investing in downtown revitalization to help create new business and give the city a better image. In 2004, Discover Downtown Middlesboro, Inc. was formed to promote and lead the revamping of the historic downtown area. Since its inception, Discover Downtown Middlesboro has helped numerous businesses receive a face-lift and has restored the historic Fountain Square in downtown. In June 2011 a severe flash flood damaged many homes and businesses in Middlesboro. Following a rainfall of 8.5" in 48 hours, the waterways could not cope with the deluge. Two area residents perished in the flood, and dozens were left homeless.