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Submitted by McCreary County Museum
Beginning this week, The McCreary County Voice and McCreary County Museum, beginning with the oldest, will feature histories of the eight oldest, ongoing businesses in McCreary County.
In March of 1902, Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso became the first well-known performer to make a phonograph record and in April of that year James Cash (JC) Penney opened his first store, called The Golden Rule Store. Meanwhile, in what was to become McCreary County, Kentucky a decade later, the Kentucky and Tennessee Railroad was chartered as a Michigan corporation on May 22, 1902. After two years, its property, rights, and franchises were sold and reorganized as the Kentucky and Tennessee Railway on February 10, 1904. Willard Griffith, of Mt. Ranier, Maryland, was hired as Chief Engineer on the construction of the railroad.
An excerpt from The Gum Tree Story, written by W. A. Kinne in 1929, states, “In the year 1901, Mr. Justus S. Stearns, of Ludington, Michigan, purchased some 50,000 acres of timber land in northern Tennessee. Shortly after this, he became interested in the south and negotiated with Mr. L. E. Bryant for interests in Bryant properties, containing some 25,000 acres located in the extreme southwest portion of Whitley County, Kentucky. These negotiations called for the construction of a railroad, opening of mines, and the conversions of the timber upon the lands.”
“The railroad survey was made from a point on the Cincinnati Southern Railway running from the Old Gum Tree Tie yard westwardly down Copper Creek and Paunch Creek to the river. The organizations necessary to carry on the work had not yet been created and, that this might be done legally, it was necessary that they be brought into being within the boundaries of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. One cold rainy day in the Spring of 1902, Mr. E. E. Barthell, an attorney of Nashville, Tennessee, got off at Pine Knot and was met by Mr. Stearns’ representative. They rode horseback to the Old Gum Tree Tie Yard. Beneath the old Gum, sitting on a waste dump taken from the railroad cut nearby, with a portfolio as a desk upon which to write, proxies were produced, articles of incorporation were signed, officers were elected, and the Stearns Coal Company, the Stearns Lumber Company, and the Kentucky and Tennessee Railroad were born.” Mr. Stearns’ representative was, of course, W. A. Kinne.
For eighty-five years, the largest revenue of the K&T Railway was from the transportation of coal from mines owned by the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company and some independent mines. Independent coal mines included St. Mehiel, Premier, Comargo, and Blue Diamond as well as B. R. Campbell & Son, and Fidelity Mining Company.
The railroad was chartered as a common carrier. The original intention was to build the railroad to Chattanooga, Tennessee, but when the railroad line reached the mouth of Roaring Paunch Creek, the Stearns Company decided to develop the land along Rock Creek and the track turned north along the Big South Fork instead of going south. Benita J. Howell, from the University of Tennessee stated, “By June 1, 1903, the line had been completed from Stearns to Barthell, and the first car of coal was delivered from Barthell on that date. As the railroad was extended, additional mines came into production. Seventeen miles of the K&T were already completed by 1915.” In 1907 an impressive 565-foot concrete arch bridge was built over the South Fork of the Cumberland River at Yamacraw and is still considered a great achievement in railway civil engineering.
Stearns soon became home to the largest lumber yard in Kentucky and thousands of cars, loaded with timber products, were transported from Hemlock, the name of the K&T’s station in Stearns. In addition, workers in the various mines boarded the K&T and returned in the late afternoon. At one time the railway transported more passengers than any other line in Kentucky. By 1918 there were two daily round trips between Stearns and Yamacraw, except for Sundays, and one daily round trip along the entire line from Stearns to Exodus. There was also increased freight business with the hauling of logs and the transport of coal from mines along the track.
In 1948, a twenty-five-mile logging road owned by Stearns Coal and Lumber Company was closed due to the areas of merchantable timber being worked out. This resulted in the abandonment of the 8.32 miles of main track between White Oak Junction and Bell Farm on March 3, 1949. In 1950, the Co-Operative Mine closed. Passenger service was cut back to Worley and operated daily except weekends. Passenger service was discontinued January 1, 1952, and lumber shipments decreased when the sawmill at Stearns closed in 1957. At its peak, the K&T Railway owned at least fifty-five flat cars in addition to passenger cars and hauled 1,000 passengers and 3,500 tons of coal daily.
On July 1, 1982, the Big South Fork Scenic Railway (BSFSR) began tourist rides to Barthell and Mine 18 on tracks once owned by the K&T Railway. Tens of thousands of visitors from throughout the United States and other countries have enjoyed scenic rides along the picturesque countryside. The BSFSR currently operates on seven miles of historic K&T trackage. Although its name has changed, McCreary County’s K&T Railway has been in operation since 1902, making it one hundred twenty-two years old.
For comments of further information contact Debbie Kidd-Trammell at email@example.com.