Stearns, KY and the Big South Fork Scenic Railway have a very rich history rooted in the coal mining and logging industries. Although the mining and logging camps have long been closed, we are working hard to preserve the memory of our founding ancestors who contributed so much to American industry. Pick a topic below for more detail:


“When Coal, Lumber, And Railroads Were King…”

In 1902, Justus S. Stearns of Ludington, Michigan bought 30,000 acres of virgin timberland in southern Kentucky. When coal was discovered soon afterwards, the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company was established. The company built the town of Stearns to serve as the hub of a logging and mining empire that would control over 200 square miles of land, build the Kentucky & Tennessee Railway, erect the first all electric sawmill in the U.S. and employ over 2,200 people living and working in 18 coal and lumber camps.

Most of the buildings in the Stearns business district were painted in company colors – sage green with white trim. The Company office headquarters building and surrounding Company houses were painted white with dark green trim. Residents enjoyed services provided by the Company, such as water and sewage, electricity, and steam heat for their homes. Recreation amenities included a golf course, tennis courts, pool hall, and baseball field for their leisure time.

The Kentucky & Tennessee Railway once stretched over 25 miles into the Big South Fork River valley and operated 12 steam locomotives. It served as the primary passage not only for timber and coal, but also for workers and supplies going to camps along its line. The K&T, like many shortline railroads operated steam locomotives several years after the mainline railroads had switched to diesel power. One of the more notable steam locomotives, Southern Railway No. 4501 was purchased by the K&T, re-lettered K&T No. 12, and operated until 1964. The only original K&T steam engine still in existence today is the K&T No. 10. Both No. 4501 and No. 10 are now located at Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga.

In the 1950’s, the Stearns Company closed several coal mines and the K&T discontinued passenger service. By 1976, the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company had sold its mining operations to Blue Diamond Coal Company. The Company’s vast land holdings transferred to the National Forest, the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, and private ownership. Coal mining ceased along the K&T in 1987. Today, the McCreary County Heritage Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization, has taken on the task to preserve, protect, and interpret the rich history of one of the few company towns in America still surrounded by its coal, lumber, and railroad roots. The National Historic District of Stearns, McCreary County Museum, and Big South Fork Scenic Railway provide the venues necessary for the Heritage Foundation to keep this thriving history alive.


blue heron

The Stearns Coal & Lumber Company used species of birds as a way to advertise their grades of coal. Each mine produced a different grade, with names like Golden Pheasant and Scarlet Tanager. The newest mine and tipple the company owned in 1938 was Blue Heron. This mine, tipple, and surrounding camp houses were abandoned in 1962.

When the train makes its stopover in Blue Heron, visitors may take a self-guided tour of the site. Instead of a complete restoration, the Blue Heron site is designed as an oral history center, where the people who actually lived and worked here tell their story through audio recordings housed in “ghost structures”. The ghost structures are simply representations of where the actual buildings once stood many years ago.

In addition to the ghost structures, there is a picnic shelter, concession stand, and gift shop to explore. The site is now owned and operated by the National Park Service as part of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. A National Park Service Ranger is usually available to answer any questions you may have. The National Park Service may be reached at (606) 376-5073.


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