Oral histories: days of coal camps in Big South Fork River

Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area

Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area is full of beautiful scenery such as this of the rocks in the gorge.

The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area lies within the Daniel Boone National Forest and straddles the Kentucky and Tennessee border. Although well known for its many recreational opportunities including camping, hiking, and rafting, Big South Fork is also the site of many coal mine communities from the first half of the 20th Century.

Stearns, Kentucky, a town created by the founder of the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company, is the starting place for a ride back in time to when coal was king. In Stearns one can book passage on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway (BSFSR) for a 16 mile, three and half hour railroad trip along banks of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. Along the way the train passes by the sites of coal communities; all long abandoned.

Barthell Company Store

Barthell Company Store - the train no longer stops in Barthell however the town is accessible by automobile.

The first coal town on the trip is Barthell. Coal was discovered in the area in the 1880s and the coal camp at Barthell was established in 1902; the first of 18 mining camps in the area. The mine continued producing until 1952 when the town and the mine were then dismantled. In the 1984 the town was reconstructed for tourism. Among the buildings are a Company Store, restaurant, and company houses which can be rented for overnight stays so visitors can get a feel for the way the miners lived decades ago.

The train then continues along the 600 foot deep gorge with scenic vistas of the Cumberland Plateau. There are a remnants a few towns long gone including Camargo which was flooded in 1929 and never rebuilt.

Mine tipple at Blue Heron

Mine tipple at Blue Heron - probably looks much the same as it did when it was still in operation.

At the end of the line, before returning to Stearns, the train stops at the Blue Heron Mining Community. This was the last (built in 1937) and most remote of the mining camps. The mine tipple still exists but the town only exists in the form of outline of the homes and buildings that once stood there. What makes this trip all worthwhile are the oral histories of those who lived in the camps. In each of the buildings, including a school, church, and homes of the miners, are buttons to push and listen to the voices from the past. Some of the narratives are funny, some sad, but all are moving.
• From a female voice, “I wanted to continue school but my daddy said that it was no use because I was a girl all I was ever going to do was get married and have babies.”
• From a male voice, “I wanted to go to school but I didn’t have clothes to wear.”
• Another female, “We were so far back in the woods and away from the main roads that I couldn’t imagine anyone willing to make the effort to come to Blue Heron to date me.”

Blue Heron camp number 18

The 'church' at Blue Heron camp number 18. All of the community structures at Blue Heron were just outlines of the buildings that once stood there.

• Another male, “Church was the center of the social life and everyone went to church; some in work clothes as they came straight to services after ending their shifts in the mines.”
• A male, “I once stole a piece of candy from the store but clerk didn’t say anything; he knew my momma and told her.”
• A female, “Life was hard and I hated it while I was there but looking back I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”
The hard part of listening to the oral histories is making sure you hear as many of them as possible before having to get back on the train for the return trip to Stearns.

The train can hold 400 passengers with both enclosed and open air cars. A narrator offers background history of the area and hints on where to look for the best views along the way. Kids love to ride trains so this is a great family outing.
The Big South Fork Scenic Railway runs regular scheduled train trips April through October. Information about rates and schedules can be found at www.bsfsry.com. The town of Stearns is in south-central Kentucky, just a little west of US-27 and a little north of the Kentucky/Tennessee border.