A short line worth knowing: the Kentucky & Tennessee

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, February 01, 2017

A business developer from Oregon buying a short line and tourist railroad in south-central Kentucky normally wouldn’t merit the keystrokes it takes to prepare a 400-500 word blog post, but in this case it does: The tourist line is the Big South Fork Scenic, and I know, you’re still shaking your head and saying, “So?” Stay with me.


Many of you will know this railroad by its pre-tourist hauler name, the Kentucky & Tennessee, a coal-hauling railroad that once employed a steam locomotive that has enjoyed fame and stardom for 50 years as a mainline excursion superstar: Southern Railway 2-8-2 No. 4501. That Big South Fork Scenic, in the days when it was the K&T, was once No. 4501’s home is reason enough to pay attention. Better yet, there’s another steam locomotive that may reappear because of this development. But first, let me tell you about my own admiration for the K&T.


As a child, I first learned of the K&T by reading David P. Morgan’s 1968 tribute to everyone’s favorite Mikado, the book called “Locomotive 4501.” But it wasn’t until 1980 that I made it to the railroad — in those pre-Interstate highway days, even though I was in the same general Appalachian region, Stearns, Ky., might as well have been on the dark side of the moon from where I grew up in North Carolina. Coal business was booming, and I remember writing to the coal company that owned the railroad for permission to take photos and visit the shop. Back in those days, hand-me-down Alco S2s were straining to lift cuts of loaded hoppers from the mines in the Cumberland River valley below Stearns, and they provided quite the show on their way to the SR interchange. In between K&T cuts, Southern Railway was busy running trains on its famous Rat Hole line between Cincinnati and Chattanooga. It made for one fine day of train watching, both main line and short line, all within the same field of view.


By the time of my next visit some 10 years later, coal mining was done, the National Park Service had taken over the Blue Herron Mine and houses in the valley below for posterity, and the K&T had morphed into the Big South Fork Scenic. Over the years, the Alcos were replaced with an EMD switchers in a cream and brown paint scheme. One hangs on as a backup.


The train ride is delightful with beautiful scenery, a curving tunnel, and tall bridges. A few years ago on my way south for a Norfolk Southern steam excursion, my longtime and good friend Bill Johnson took another longtime buddy, Emmit Bell, and me for a ride on a genuine K&T motorcar No. 9 down to the Blue Herron mine. The late March trip reminded me just how amazing the railroad is – a true coal-hauling short line with steep grades, tight curves and a remote location.


If the new owners are up to it, there’s even the chance to return steam to the railroad. A big ex-Union Railroad Alco-built 0-6-0, No. 77, is partially restored and sitting inside the shop, ready to become the latest power for the railroad as K&T No. 14. I photographed it partly restored in 2013. The 1944 locomotive was once on the roster of another Kentucky short line, Morehead & North Fork, and it last steamed about 1990 at the Tombstone Junction tourist railroad. I hope to ride the newest incarnation of the K&T soon, and at some point, I hope that another trip takes place behind steam, as it should be.

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