Friday, July 13, 2012

Big South Fork Scenic Railroad

Last week we took a ride on the Big South Fork Scenic Railroad, which leaves from nearby Stearns, KY. This is a fairly long ride, so get comfortable and enjoy the trip. The trains are privately owned, but operate in cooperation with the National Park Service. The tracks were originally built by the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company to haul coal and timber from their operations, and to provide passenger service to the company-owned camps.

There is entertainment while people gather for the train ride. The guitar player turned out to be the engineer, as well.

But we had brought our own engineer. (Her great uncle is an engineer for Norfolk Southern and had given her the child-sized engineer's cap.)

Maybe riding with her Granny would be more fun than driving the train.

The train ride goes from the top of the Cumberland Plateau into the valley of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, passing through cuts and a tunnel that are barely wide enough to let the train pass.

Much of the trip follows Paunch Creek as it flows down to the Big South Fork.

It passes through the recreated mining camp of Barthell, where overnight lodging is available in reconstructed miners' cabins.

At one point Paunch Creek runs rust red from acid mine drainage, the result of improper mine closure. The mining company has been in litigation over its closures and just recently forfeited its mineral rights ownership in settlement of the case.

At the bottom of the hill the track curves to follow the Big South Fork downstream. A switch is thrown and the train moves in reverse ...

crossing Paunch Creek on its approach to the Blue Heron mining camp. The railroad bridge over Paunch Creek was bought used by the mining company, and curved in the wrong direction. That was remedied by simply installing the bridge upside down and laying the track on the bottom of the bridge, which of course was now facing up.

The track runs beside the mine road on its way into Blue Heron, and both parallel the river in a strip barely wide enough to contain them. Throughout much of Appalachia there isn't room for a road and tracks on the same side and they will occupy opposite sides of the creeks or rivers.

The National Park Service has recreated the Blue Heron mining camp. Significant structures, such as miners' cabins, the church, and school, are represented as "ghost structures," skeletal buildings of the correct dimensions located in their original places. Inside these structures are life-size cutouts of the people who lived, worshiped, or learned in them. A push of a button plays a recording made by these same people describing their life in Blue Heron.

The track ends at a station/museum/ gift shop in the middle of the coal camp. Riders have an hour and a half before the train leaves for the return trip.

Inside the museum is an H.O. scale model of Blue Heron as it looked during coal production.

Then it's off to find some lunch.

Ahh! Mountain soul food, pinto beans and cornbread. Does anyone have some chopped onions?

The excursion train consists of passenger cars built on old flat cars. It's currently pulled by a diesel switch engine. By this time next year they expect to have their 0-6-0 steam locomotive restored and in operation. I'm looking forward to that, especially since that very engine once ran on the Morehead & North Fork Railroad that was part of my childhood.

There was more entertainment as people gathered for the return trip.

Along with much anticipation.

The whistle means it's time to go!

The return trip led past a rock house occupied by the wee folk, one of whom sat and watched the train go by.

We again passed through Barthell, passing the miners' cabins perched on the hillside above the tracks.

It also passed a former passenger platform, a remnant of the days when this line was the only means of reaching coal camps such as Barthell, Blue Heron, Zenith, and Yamacraw.

The trips ends back in the town of Stearns. The large building just barely seen at the far right in the photograph is the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company headquarters building. We rode the train on Friday; on Saturday night the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company building was destroyed by fire. Arson is suspected.


  1. What a trip! And so much history. It's a shame some fool decided to burn down such a historic building. Hope they catch up with him soon.

  2. that sounds like fun, and I could tie some kayaking in at the same time.

  3. It looks an interesting and scenic trip. Fun being able to see some things through a child's eyes too. I enjoyed hearing recently our Saltaire folks' account of their trip to your neck of the woods, exploring the mining legacy of Sir Titus. Such a lot of history in those hills.

  4. I love trains. What fun the scenic railways are!

  5. Quite a ride, Jim. And a beautiful young engineer to keep you on track.