Donna LaVaughn set her mind to her guitar and let loose with “I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter.” Gene Williamson sidled in with his bass like the train was about to leave the tipple (which it was); Penny Perry set his five-string banjo on fire, his fingers flashing hot as a miner’s lamp searching for new places to dig.
It was the end of the day, and Gene “Bosco” Ross was about to pull two toots on the engine of the Big South Fork Scenic Railway.
He had brought us down from the Company Headquarters at Stearns, just south of Whitley City.
It was time to return from the old Blue Heron Mining Camp, the end of the line, where memories of the first year of operation, 1937, still linger like a lonesome whippoorwill’s call.
The Stearns company shut down Blue Heron in 1962, after the last of the coal played out. The miners and their families are all gone now, but a visitor today can hear their voices.
In 1989, the National Park Service re-created the mining camp. You can hear a father talking about the hard down-on-the-knees work up there in Mine 18, a mother lamenting her lonesome life yet holding on stubbornly, a young person longing for escape to the outside world.
The main tipple is there, but no more coal-grades named for birds like Blue Heron and Scarlet Tanger-no more of the carefully sized grades tumble into the waiting railway coal cars. Only the sound of a soft summer breeze plays through the trees.
When Penny Perry finished picking Bugle Call Rag on the five-string banjo, he stepped to the front of the caboose and spoke by walkie-talkie to Bosco Ross up in the engine.
“Ready if you are.”
The two toots sounded, and Bosco eased the diesel away from the Blue Heron station. The Big South Fork of the Cumberland, snaking its way north toward Yamacraw and Yahoo Falls, defined the view on the left side of the tracks.
The train switches just the other side of Roaring Creek and heads caboose-first to the Barthell Mining Camp, restored by Harold and Marilyn Koger. Their goal has been to make the camp look as much as possible the way it did around 1910. The train stops to pick up tourists who have stayed awhile, remembering the past.
It is a past that sometimes pains. Giant coal operators, such as Michigan industrialist Justus S. Stearns, for whom Stearns, Kentucky, is named, have been criticized for taking out the timber, then the coal, and then leaving the area to its own imagination.
He has also been praised for entrepreneurship.
The outcome has not been without vision. Tourism plays a prominent role in the new life of McCreary, Kentucky’s 120th county. Formed in 1912 by combining parts of Pulaski, Wayne, and Whitley counties, approximately 85% of McCreary is now owned and managed by the federal government: the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, and the Daniel Boone National Forest.
There are 427 square miles in McCreary with a 1990 population of about 15,600. That’s only about 37 people for each square mile, compared to Jefferson County’s 1,723 and Fayette County’s 805 people per square mile. A Kentuckian who lives a lifetime without visiting McCreary County has missed something as awe-inspiring as anything any major city has to offer.
There’s so much to do-hiking, camping, horseback riding, birdwatching, running the wild river, or just sitting and listening-it deserves to be called final destination.
When the Big South Fork Scenic Railway backed into the station at Stearns, we said good-bye to Donna, Gene, Penny, and Bosco, and we headed to the Whistle Stop Cafe to sample again Sweet Kreations Fudge, a dandy way to bring down the curtain on a trip into one of Kentucky’s most remote areas.
For more information, contact Bandy Creek Visitor Center at (931) 879-3625, Kentucky Visitor Center (606) 376-5073, or the Blue Heron Interpretive Center (606) 376-3787.