By Edward W. Lollis, Knoxville, TN
From "Visitors Guide," Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area
National Park Service, 2003, page 10.
The people of Blue Heron Community in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area worked nearby coal mines from 1937 until 1962. They received their supplies from Stearns, Kentucky, over the Kentucky & Tennessee Railway and shipped their coal by the same route.
Today, the Blue Heron Community is an open-air museum of the National Park Service. The K&T has become the privately-operated Big South Fork Scenic Railway (606-376-5330).
Visitors can ride the train between Blue Heron and Stearns. Along the way, they can stop and see more coal mining history at the privately-restored Barthell Coal Mining Camp (606-376-8749).
All of these facilities -- the town of Stearns, the railroad, Blue Heron, Barthell, and several other mines -- were once the property of a single company. And its former office building in Stearns is now the McCreary County Museum (606-376-5730) -- where even more history can be seen.
Curiously, the company which did so much in Kentucky was in fact run from Ludington, Michigan. Thatís because Justus Stearns [1845-1933], one of the last of the Great Lakes "lumber barons," was running out of timber to cut in Michigan. He found more timber in Wisconsin and Washington and Florida. And he invested in other Ludington businesses: Salt, hotels, marine engines -- even the famous Carrom game board company.
But his biggest investment was coal and timber along the Big South Fork. Stearns hired Edward East Barthell [1866-1937], a lawyer from Nashville, to help acquire 130,000 acres in Kentucky and Tennessee. In 1902, they created the new company which they named Stearns for the Michigan "lumber baron." And within a year they were producing their first coal -- from a mine named Barthell for the Tennessee lawyer.
Edward East Barthell and Stearns' son Robert Lyon Stearns [1872-1939], married sisters in Nashville. By 1915, Barthell was doing so much business for the companies of Justus Stearns that he moved his law practice to Chicago.
Both families -- Barthell and Stearns -- had summer cottages together on Lake Michigan. And both families are laid to rest in Ludingtonís Lakeview Cemetery. In the Stearns mausoleum lie Justus Stearns, his son, and his grandson -- the first three presidents of the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company of Stearns, Kentucky.
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