Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Things To Do

August 16, 2012

Back when coal was king

Stearns celebrates its mining roots

CROSSVILLE — At the beginning of the 20th century, coal was king, and coal mining was not only the driving force of many local economies in the Appalachian region, but the entire reason some communities existed.

Today, many of the former coal mining sites are closed up and the communities that once sprung up around them are gone without a trace. History buffs and explorers have the chance to get a taste of life in a company town when they visit Stearns, KY.

Stearns, KY, served as headquarters of the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company. Justus Stearns, of Michigan, established his company in 1902, buying 200 square miles of land in Kentucky and Tennessee. He built railroads to access the hardwood forests and rich coal seams. Those railroads took workers to remote areas of the Cumberland Plateau.

Part of the railroad system remains today, and visitors on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway can enjoy a train ride into the Big South Fork River valley.

The train departs from the Stearns Historic District, which includes old company stores, a general store, museum and the depot. A fire swept through several of the buildings in the district in July, and work is under way to clean up and recover from the blaze. Visitors can still enjoy visiting the Stearns General Store, which offers a variety of antiques and collectibles in individual vendor booths, and tempt their sweet tooths at the Kilby Sisters Sweet Shop. The Sweet Shop offers a variety of home made treats, including traditional apple stack cake, to accompany sandwiches or a hot plate lunch.

Local crafts, art work and souvenirs can be found strolling through the historic district just off Hwy. 27 in Kentucky. In the heart of the downtown area is the McCreary County Museum, housed in the old Stearns Coal and Lumber Company headquarters built in 1907. It’s filled with historic documents and photographs that help tell the story of this coal mining town.

The Big South Fork Scenic Railway departs from the depot in Stearns, with trains departing Wednesday through Friday at 11 a.m. EDT. Saturday trains depart at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. EDT and the Sunday excursion leaves the station at 12:30 p.m. EDT. The trip takes about three hours and runs rain or shine.

The train trip takes passengers into the Big South Fork National River and Recreation area and offers views of scenic vistas not easily seen otherwise. It stops at the Blue Heron Coal Mining Camp.

The Blue Heron community, about nine miles from Stearns, KY, in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, has been restored with a collection of oral histories from the miners and the women who lived in the community that flourished from 1937 to 1962, when the mine was no longer profitable.

With their employment gone, the people of the town moved on, leaving their homes behind. In the 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt the town, using metal ghost structures that are the approximate size and at the approximate location of several of the buildings that served the more than 200 residents. From the entrance to the mine, across the coal tipple and down to the company store and church, oral histories have been recorded so that visitors can hear the memories and stories of those who once called this remote community home.

The original coal tipple remains from the mining days. It was a state-of-the-art coal sorting machine in its time. There, coal was inspected and sorted by size and use, from coal dust with little to no commercial value, to stoke, nut, egg and block sizes. The coal was loaded onto coal cars, on display at the tipple, and taken into town on the railroad.

The Stearns company encouraged education by seeing most camp towns had a school, and the company paid for two months of the teacher’s salary while the state picked up the rest of the tab. These little camp schools not only provided education for the children of the workers, but for the residents who lived out in the hills and hollars, regardless of if their parents worked for the company or not.

The church was the center of camp life, and the residents there helped to build the structure that replaced the school house as the meeting place. There wasn’t much entertainment for the residents, and church services and socials provided the majority of social interaction for the men and women of the town.

Not far from Blue Heron is Barthell Coal Camp. Adjacent to Big South Fork, Barthell was the first coal camp of the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company and it has been reconstructed, as well. It is open to the public for tours, dining and lodging. Tours include the coal mine and the camp, and restored structures include the doctor’s office, barber shop, bath house, machine shop, a typical worker’s house, school house and church and the company store.

In addition to the historic displays, Blue Heron also offers hiking trails and, just down the road, scenic overlooks of the Big South Fork river gorge. The Blue Heron Trail is a loop trail following the rim of the Big South Fork gorge and then down into the river past a narrow, rocky stretch at Devil’s Jump. The 6.5 mile hike is rated moderate to difficult.

If you take the train, check with them about the Saturday pass, which allows passengers to ride out on the morning train and explore all day, returning on the afternoon trip.

Other points of interest in the area include numerous hiking trails in both the Big South Fork and the Daniel Boone National Forest. Favorite spots include Buffalo Arch, Eagle Falls, the first commercial oil well, and Lick Creek Falls. Yahoo Falls is the highest waterfall in Kentucky and is accessed by a one-mile trail. Visitors can walk right to the base of the falls and behind it. The trail continues past the waterfall to Yahoo Arch.

Horseback riding is a popular activity, as well, and there are a number of horse camps where riders can lodge their trusty steeds and camp as they explore the many horse trails offered in the Big South Fork and Daniel Boone National Forest.

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