In 1902, Justus S. Stearns of Ludington, Michigan bought 30,000 acres of virgin timberland in southern Kentucky. When coal was discovered soon afterwards, the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company was established. The company built the town of Stearns to serve as the hub of a logging and mining empire that would control over 200 square miles of land, build the Kentucky & Tennessee Railway, erect the first all electric sawmill in the U.S. and employ over 2,200 people living and working in 18 coal and lumber camps.
Most of the buildings in the Stearns business district were painted in company colors – sage green with white trim. The Company office headquarters building and surrounding Company houses were painted white with dark green trim. Residents enjoyed services provided by the Company, such as water and sewage, electricity, and steam heat for their homes. Recreation amenities included a golf course, tennis courts, pool hall, and baseball field for their leisure time.
The Kentucky & Tennessee Railway once stretched over 25 miles into the Big South Fork River valley and operated 12 steam locomotives. It served as the primary passage not only for timber and coal, but also for workers and supplies going to camps along its line. The K&T, like many shortline railroads operated steam locomotives several years after the mainline railroads had switched to diesel power. One of the more notable steam locomotives, Southern Railway No. 4501 was purchased by the K&T, re-lettered K&T No. 12, and operated until 1964. The only original K&T steam engine still in existence today is the K&T No. 10. Both No. 4501 and No. 10 are now located at Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga.
In the 1950’s, the Stearns Company closed several coal mines and the K&T discontinued passenger service. By 1976, the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company had sold its mining operations to Blue Diamond Coal Company. The Company’s vast land holdings transferred to the National Forest, the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, and private ownership. Coal mining ceased along the K&T in 1987. Today, the McCreary County Heritage Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization, has taken on the task to preserve, protect, and interpret the rich history of one of the few company towns in America still surrounded by its coal, lumber, and railroad roots. The National Historic District of Stearns, McCreary County Museum, and Big South Fork Scenic Railway provide the venues necessary for the Heritage Foundation to keep this thriving history alive.
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