The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River cuts through the Cumberland
Plateau, carving it into gorges and cliffs and deep hollows. It’s a wild, mysterious
land that was settled rather late.
Rather than scale this forbidding landmass, settlers bypassed it for
easier pickings further west. Sure, hunters crossed it. And an occasional hard-scrabble
farm broke the solid forest. But it wasn’t until the late 1800s that significant
development took place. That’s when loggers and coal miners attacked with a
vengeance, all but denuding the forests and ripping minerals out of the earth.
Even so, much of the area remained wild.
In 1974 Congress created the Big South Fork National River and Recreation
Area, a 105,000-acre wild area that sprawls across the Kentucky/Tennessee border.
With two exceptions-the Blue Heron community and Bandy Creek campground-there
is no development allowed. The rest is preserved for outdoor recreation, including
hiking, river running, hunting, and fishing. Even the National Park Service
(which manages the area under contract to the Corps of Engineers) has its headquarters
While outdoor recreation is justifiably a big draw, it’s the human history
of the region that’s really appealing. And there’s plenty of that.
In 1902, Justus Stearns, of Ludington, Michigan, bought 30,000 acres
of virgin timberland in southern Kentucky. Coal was discovered shortly afterward,
and the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company was in business. In its heyday, the
company became a logging and mining empire that controlled more than 200 square
miles of land, built and operated the Kentucky and Tennessee Railway, installed
the world’s first all-electric sawmill, and employed more than 2,200 people
in 18 coal camps.
The hub of this empire was the town of Stearns, which is still the base
of operations for visitors.
Start your Big South Fork exploration at the McCreary County Museum.
Housed in what had been the Stearns Coal & Lumber Co. offices, the museum
building dates from 1907. Inside you’ll find artfully arranged displays that
trace the history of McCreary County from Native American days until the late
The McCreary County Museum displays are carefully arranged by categories
to tell the county’s story. Most of the categories have their own room assigned
Exhibits include actual rooms set up in the period of early 1900s, including
homes with farm kitchens, interpretation of medicine, railroading, the country
store and post office, and lumber and mining, among others.
Across the street from the museum, in what had been the company complex
itself, are shops and restaurants. There, too, you’ll find headquarters of the
Big South Fork Scenic Railway.
All that is left of a rail system that once stretched more than 20 miles
is the scenic railway that descends 600 feet into the gorge cut by the Big South
Fork, terminating at Blue Heron, the last coal camp operated by Stearns Coal
& Lumber. Along the way it passes the newly reconstructed Barthell Mining
Camp, and makes stops there as well.
Blue Heron lies in a flood plain. Rather than chance losing any reconstruction,
the National Park Service erected “ghost” structures instead. These are roofed
I-beam buildings, open on all sides. A raised dais in the center holds displays
and exhibits pertaining to life at Blue Heron.
Each ghost building is devoted to a particular subject. For instance,
there is one that deals strictly with education, another with church affairs,
still another with recreation. In each of them are life-sized cutout photos
showing former residents engaged in that activity, as well as artifacts.
Tape recordings, however, are the highlight of each exhibit. Somebody
had, as a hobby, recorded more than 300 hours of oral history in Blue Heron.
The park people have edited those tapes so that in each themed building you
hear what it was like in the actual words of people who were there.
Barthell Mining Camp lies on the other end of the continuum, both in
time and in the method of reconstruction. Using old photos and documents, Harold
Koger has re-created the 1902 camp in all details. Included among the displays
are the schoolhouse, doctor’s office, company store, and similar structures.
Visitation is via guided tours, using motorized carts to get around.
You can access the camp either by road, or as part of the scenic railway tour.
In addition to the exhibition buildings, there are 15 cabins following
the same design as the originals. One of them is an actual 1880s log cabin.
Another is a museum. The others are for rent. So, if you ever wondered what
it was like to sleep in a coal camp, this is your opportunity.
Now in its second year of operation, Barthell has been in the works
quite some time. Koger thoroughly researched the camp before rebuilding any
of it, and actually brought in expert consultants from the University of Kentucky
as well. Everything you see there is as historically accurate as it can be-right
down to the slag piles of coal left behind by mining operations.
If there’s one drawback to exploring the Big South Fork, it’s the lack
of accommodations. The Big South Fork Motor Lodge, in Stearns, for instance,
only has 21 rooms. Due to a family medical problem, the Marcum Porter House
bed and breakfast did not open this season, and may not operate again. And there
are the 13 rental cabins at Barthell. Other than that, you’ll need to drive
to Somerset or to Tennessee for overnight accommodations. So reservations are
For information, contact: McCreary County Tourism Commission, P.O. Box
72, Whitley City, KY 42653, (606) 376-3008.
Day Trips & Short Stops
Archeology Weekend at Red River Gorge
Archeology is often a dusty, dry study of the past. Not so at the U.S.
Forest Service’s annual Archeology Weekend at Red River Gorge in the Daniel
Boone National Forest.
There, in a simulated Native American village site, you’ll find costumed
interpreters demonstrating what life was like in a pre-European contact native
These are by no means static displays. The interpreters, many of whom
are full-time living historians, actually live the lifestyle while on location.
The brain tanners make leather, the women cook and preserve foods, the flint
knappers produce arrow points, knives, and other tools, and the dug-out builder
works on a canoe.
Many of these demonstrations are hands-on and interactive. Want to make
an arrowhead? The knappers will be glad to show you how it’s done and guide
you through the process. Want to really know how buckskin is made? Ask the tanners,
and they’ll put a scraper in your hands and let you work on a hide.
This year the archeology weekend will be held September 22-23. As usual,
you’ll find it near the Gladie Creek Information Center in Red River Gorge.
For full details, contact Stanton District Office, Daniel Boone National
Forest, 705 West College Ave., Stanton, KY 40380, (606) 663-2852.
Central Kentucky Fly Fishers
We expected to find trout and we weren’t disappointed. You always find
them at Rock Creek near Stearns. And lately, smallmouth bass too. Which is why
it was chosen as an outing location by the new Central Kentucky Fly Fishers
(CKFF). Many of its members are new to fly-fishing. Some of them had never fished
for trout before. So Rock Creek’s reliability made sense.
Fly-fishers in Kentucky tend to feel lonely. Often they do not even
know another angler. Contributing to this sense of isolation is that we tend
to fish for warm-water species-bass, bluegill, musky, and stripers- rather than
the more traditional trout and salmon.
CKFF was organized to change that and to provide a venue for Bluegrass
fly-fishers to join others of their kind, to learn from each other in a group
that emphasizes fishing for warm-water species. Nearly 20 anglers have found
their way to the club in just two months.
There is at least one club outing scheduled each month. So far, these
have all been day trips. But as the membership expands, they will likely expand
into multi-day trips as well. While an occasional trout foray is held, the outings
are geared more to warm-water species, and to locations in Kentucky or nearby
border areas. Anyone is welcome to join the club.
Other fly-fishing clubs in the state include: Northern Kentucky Fly
Fishers, Paul Stegeman, president, (859) 441-4651, and The Sons of the Cumberland
near Bowling Green, Russ Hopper, (270) 782-5941 (for more information see our
cover story “I’d Rather Be Fly Fishing,” page 30).
To join the Central Kentucky Fly Fishers, or for more details, contact
Brook Elliott, Box 519, Richmond, KY 40476, (859) 623-2765.