Funding comes after a summer filled with FRA
inspections and closures for repairs and maintenance
By Eugenia Jones
With fall foliage forecasters predicting beautiful autumn colors during the fall train season, the return of the Rail Events/Warner Brothers Polar Express Train, and a plethora of track repairs completed, members of the McCreary County Heritage Foundation (MCHF) and employees of the Big South Fork Scenic Railway (BSFSRY) in Stearns, KY are optimistic about the future of tourism in McCreary County.
Last week’s announcement by U. S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross declaring the McCreary County Heritage Foundation will receive $2 million to renovate and revitalize the downtown historic area in Stearns only added to the upbeat mood of those serving on the Foundation. The federally funded project is aimed at expanding the community’s tourism industry to increase economic opportunity and activity and will be used for repairs and upgrades to the BSFSRY as part of a larger project.
“The receipt of this EDA grant represents a great step forward,” MCHF Chairperson JC Egnew remarked. “We deeply appreciate the efforts of all those who helped put this grant together and also the confidence of the EDA folks who placed the trust in us to award this grant.”
Kentucky’s U. S. Senator Mitch McConnell resonated local optimism when he commented about the federal funds earmarked for McCreary County.
“I extend my congratulations to the McCreary County Heritage Foundation for being awarded the necessary resources to revitalize some of Kentucky’s treasured locations, particularly those listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” Senator McConnell stated. “In this historic coal community, an injection of federal funding can help increase tourism and spur economic growth around the Big South Fork Scenic Railway.”
The Foundation’s current optimism comes on the heels of a series of setbacks encountered in recent years including, most recently, a summer tourism season derailed by Federal Railway Administration (FRA) inspections and an approximate six weeks cancellation of scenic train excursions designed to allow workers time to complete railroad maintenance and track repairs. The summertime closures occurred following FRA track inspections in June. Inspection reports from the FRA obtained by “The Voice” reveal two recommended violations as well as several other areas of concern noted during the June inspections.
Although the two violations were immediately corrected, a decision was made to close the railway to allow time for BSFSRY employees and United Rail contractors brought in from Somerset to address other defects-primarily gauge and crosstie concerns. Realizing temporary repairs to alleviate gauge defects might not last long due to over elevated curves on the track, a decision was made to correct the elevation of nearly a dozen curves long term by removing pitch and flattening. In addition, four hundred railroad ties were replaced with 260 tons of ballast tamped around the replaced ties. Excessive vegetation growing along the mainline was also removed. As a result, the scenic railway track is now greatly enhanced with all gauge issues currently corrected and brought back into specification long term.
According to MCHF vice chair Ray Moncrief, repairs completed over the summer will provide a solid foundation for additional repairs and upgrades funded through the EDA grant. Upon completion of the additional work, Moncrief is certain the railroad will be in superior condition for the decades to come.
“This grant will allow the MCHF to add to the railroad repair work that it began in the summer of 2018,” Moncrief stated. “There will be new rail, additional new crossties, and primary and secondary engine updates. This is indeed a proud day for McCreary County.”
Funding from the EDA grant will allow the actual railroad tracks to be upgraded with longer lasting rail. Furthermore, officials anticipate an expansion of the train bridge at Blue Heron to allow mountain bikers and hikers to cross over to a scenic biking/hiking trail leading from Blue Heron to Bell Farm alongside Rock Creek. Additional funding from a secured $100,000 USDA Rural Development grant will be used to extend the loading platform at the Stearns Depot.
Beyond the grants already received, leaders are waiting for final approval of a $1.1 million Abandoned Mine Land (AML) grant for further railroad work and downtown restoration. A $2,000,000 Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) Power grant application to rebuild/restore downtown Stearns has also been submitted. If received, the ARC funding will provide a facelift for the town of Stearns and restore businesses and shops devastated by fire in 2012. The downtown Stearns buildings were built in the early 1900s as a company town and central hub for the Justus S. Stearns coal and timber empire. Downtown Stearns is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.