Stearns, Kentucky: Ludington’s southern connection.

April 5, 2016


The site includes displays of old coal carrying cars.

The site includes displays of old coal carrying cars.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

STEARNS, Kentucky — On our way back from our family vacation to Florida, we stopped in Stearns, Kentucky and took a trip on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway. As a local history buff, I have wanted to visit Stearns for a long time. After reading Ludington resident Mike Nagle’s recently published biography on Justus Stearns (“Justus Stearns: Michigan Pine King and Kentucky Coal Baron, 1845-1833”), I was even more intrigued.

Justus Stearns was a lumber baron based in Ludington who became one of Mason County’s first philanthropists. He was born in Chautauqua County, New York and moved to Ludington at the age of 31 in 1876 where he worked for his brother-in-law Eber Ward, a lumber man who held over 70,000 acres of land along the Pere Marquette River, according to Nagle’s book (page 16). Ward also operated two of the largest lumber mills on Pere Marquette Lake. Eventually Stearns took over the Ward’s company and expanded. Stearns didn’t stop with lumber, he owned multiple companies in the Ludington area (I’ll let you read the book for more details).

Eventually, as the lumber industry in the Great Lakes region began to dry up, Stearns sought out other regions. In 1903, Stearns purchased 30,000 acres of virgin timberland in southern Kentucky. Coal was soon discovered in the area, adding to Justus Stearns’ fortunes.

stearns_kentucky_aStearns started the town of Stearns, Kentucky and began mining coal. Eventually the company became known as the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company — which operated into the mid-‘70s.

More than 2,200 people were employed for the 18 lumber and coal camps in and near Stearns, Kentucky. Most of the land that was once owned by the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company is now part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Our journey to Stearns began by taking a narrow winding road, known as the Old Tennessee Highway 63, out of Caryville, Tennessee, through the Cumberland Mountains. The road meets up with US 27 and then heads into Stearns, on the edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest.

The Kentucky & Tennessee Railway was among the many businesses started by Justus Stearns. It 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.

Today, part of that railway is operated as the Big South Fork Scenic Railway, which is part of the McCreary County Heritage Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization, which 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.

stearns_kentucky_dThe 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.

On the day we visited, April 2, the railway was in its second day of operation for the 2016 season. Though I had been wanting to visit Stearns, our visit was rather spontaneous, but certainly worth it.

The 45 minute train ride descends 600 feet into the gorge before stopping at the Blue Heron Coal Mining Camp, a National Park Service outdoor interpretive site. The ticket (under $26) includes the train ride and admission to the McCreary County Museum in Stearns (unfortunately I wanted to get back on the road and did not visit the museum). The train stops at the mining camp for about 90 minutes before returning back up the gorge. T

The Stearns Coal & Lumber Company used species of birds as a way to advertise its 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.

A National Forest Service ranger talks about the Blue Heron Mine.

A National Forest Service ranger talks about the Blue Heron Mine.

When the train makes it’s 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 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 also accessible by car, but the train trip was much more fun.

Justus Stearns’ influence is still alive and well in Ludington and Stearns, Kentucky. Thanks for the Stearns family, we here in Ludington enjoy Stearns Park, one of the largest, and certainly most beautiful, free municipal beaches on the Lake Michigan shoreline. Decedents of the Stearns family are still members of our community and also still active residents of Kentucky.

For more information on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway, visit Mike Nagle’s biography on Justus Stearns can be purchased at the Book Mark in Ludington, Historic White Pine Village and also the Big South Fork Railway terminus in Stearns, Kentucky.

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