As George Jones sang, "Step right up, come on in, If you'd like to take the grand tour" and that is a fitting intro to this piece.
Friday, March 8th, I met up with Trains Magazine editor Jim Wrinn in Danville Ky to give him a quickie tour of the CNO&TP as we made our way to Bristol Va for the SR 630 trips that weekend. He had asked earlier if I wanted to join him during a stop at the Kentucky & Tennessee RR (Big South Fork Scenic) shops in Stearns Ky that afternoon to check out the progress on the restoration of the steam engine they have been working on for several years now. That was an invite that was hard to turn down, and what was supposed to be a quick visited turned into a 4 hour grand tour of the RR.
For those that don't know, the K&T is one of the last "classic" Kentucky shortlines left in the state. The RR was started around 1902 to serve the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company and its vast holdings of coal and timber in McCreary county and surrounding areas. The K&T stretched out over 25 miles (at it's peak) from a connection with the CNO&TP at Stearns KY, to such exotic locations along the Big South Fork River as Barthell, Camargo, Blue Heron and even OZ. The railroad served its intended function for well over 80 years until the coal finally played out. Today, the K&T still does move around 1200 cars of freight in Stearns, but is mostly known for the Big Southfork Scenic RR, which carries thousands of passengers a year through the rugged landscape and awesome scenery to a restored coal mine at Blue Heron. The line is riddled with tight curvature and a ruling 3% + grade through some very remote areas of Southern KY.
The K&T's biggest claim to fame was probably its motive power, which in later years included a certain Southern Railway Mikado numbered 4501, which was the K&T #12. She served the K&T well until 1964 when it was moved to Chattanooga TN to start a Third career as the Southerns most famous excursion engine. After steam was gone, the RR used a Trio of former DRG&W Alco S2's, of which one remains.
The RR currently uses a former SAL EMD SW9 as the primary motive power, and the last of the original Alcos, # 102, is also kept in good running condition, but is only used for special occasions. The RR is also about midway through a comprehensive restoration of former Union RR 0-6-0 #77, in the old shop at Stearns. The 77 also has strong ties to the state of KY, serving the Morehead & Northfork as their #14 for many years, before ending up at the Tombstone Junction amusement park near Cumberland Falls, KY The engine will become K&T #14, and once the restoration is finished in the next couple of years, will once again bring the sound of a steam whistle to McCreary County
We stopped by the RR office in Stearns to meet Bill Johnson, and soon after found ourselves standing in the old K&T shop where all of the motive power was maintained. #14 was still in "kit" form, with the completed frame and running gear sitting on a track next to the boiler, which showed signs of major work being done. New firebox sheets had been installed, along with a multitude of new (and renewed) parts and appliances. Bill told us the next step would be installing the staybolts and tubes, to prepare for the first hydro test later this spring. The tender has already been completed, including a new welded tank and roller bearing trucks. The newly built cab, setting off to one side by itself, ready for installation when the time comes. . The project is progressing at a slow but steady pace, and hopefully it wont be long now before the first test fire is lit, bringing the smell of coal smoke to a town that was once used to it every day.
After we had finished in the steam shop, we where able to get some roster shots of the "new" EMD which Bill was nice enough to start up and bring out of the diesel shop for us, along with a peek at Alco #102, which was safely tucked away inside. Once the engine had been put away in the shop again for the night, Bill made another one of those offers that was hard to refuse. Even though we had a long drive to Bristol to make that night, it was hard to say no to a ride on his lovingly restored Fairmont motor car #9, which is an original piece of K&T equipment. As the sun began to sink slowly in the sky, we found ourselves rolling along the mainline down the hill to Blue Heron, with a few photo stops along the way. We rode over the entire mainline, and even got a look at the out of service portion between Worley and Yamacraw (end of track)..a Grand Tour to say the least.
If you have the chance to stop by and take a ride on the train this summer, I would highly recommend it! The scenery is some of the best you will find around these parts, and you wont find a better group of railroaders anywhere. The majority of the mainline is not easily accessed by road, so riding the train is about the only way to see the line or get any pictures.
A special Railfan day will be held on May 18th that includes shop tours and other special events that may be of interest. A special ceremony will be held in the shop area for #102 to commemorate her 50th Anniversary on the K&T and also her 69th Birthday. We will be celebrating this old locomotive's milestone during the same year that steam will be returning to the K&T. Check out this link to see the details. http://www.bsfsry.com/index.php/component/content/article/44/74-k-and-t-railfan-day
Below are a few samples of what I shot during our tour. Check the links here to go to the full gallery to see them all, and the link to Youtube will take you to a few short clips I made during our ride (including a fast paced run through the tunnel)
K&T Pbase Gallery >>>> http://www.pbase.com/kd4jsl/ktrr13
"The hallowed halls of history, alive again" Inside the shop of the Kentucky and Tennessee RR at Stearns KY. This shop, that once maintained and rebuilt the steam locomotives of the K&T (including the famous SR 4501) are once again being used for the intended purpose. The restoration of ex-Morehead & North Fork #14, ex-Union RR #77, which will soon be running as K&T #14.
The sidesheet of K&T #14 drilled and ready for new staybolts
BSFR #106, EMD SW9 built in 1951 as SAL #183, Idles outside the diesel shop at Hemlock
"Lady in waiting" 50 years ago, a group of used Alco's replaced steam as the primary motive power on the Kentucky & Tennessee RR. Only 2 of those remain on the property today, and the 102 is the only one left in operating condition. A EMD switcher has taken over as the regular power on the K&T trains, and the 102 is safely tucked away inside the dimly lit diesel shop, waiting for her time to shine once again.
Bill Johnson and his restored K&T #9 at Stearns
#9 stopped at the lines only tunnel about halfway down the hill
Crossing the Paunch Creek bridge on the Mine 18 spur near Blue Heron
Dropping down the 3% grade near Barthell
End of the line. #9 sits at the end of the present day K&T mainline near Yamacraw. The rail has been removed past this point