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The Kentucky Steam Heritage Story

On July 27, the Heritage Highball stopped in Midway, Ky., where a special one-day community event was hosted with food vendors, live music, and locally made arts and crafts. R.J. Corman was essential in facilitating this part of the move. Chris Campbell photo

The Kentucky Steam Heritage Story

March 2020By Drayton Blackgrove/photos as noted

There was not a dry eye among the crew of the Kentucky Steam Heritage Corporation (KSHC) as the “Heritage Highball” train rolled into Ravenna, Ky., on July 28, 2019. For the first time since 1956, a modern coal-burning steam locomotive had returned to the hills of rural Estill County. Thousands of people had lined the tracks in anticipation of the train’s arrival, listening and waiting for the train at Choo-Choo Park where a monumental celebration was about to take place. Chesapeake & Ohio 2716 was almost home. The 75-year-old steam locomotive had been given a new lease on life, and its arrival in Ravenna would mark the beginning of a new era of economic development in eastern Kentucky.

A railroad town literally built by Louisville & Nashville Railroad in 1915, Ravenna will soon become the home of the Kentucky Rail Heritage Center, a massive building project with a campus that will occupy 47 acres of the former CSX Transportation rail yard. Locomotive 2716 will be the epicenter of the site, with its restoration taking place at the car repair facility on the property.

Ravenna has a rich history rooted in coal country. “For decades, the coal industry is what drove the entire economy in eastern Kentucky,” said Joe Crawford, executive director of the Estill County Development Alliance. “Even though there were no mines here in Estill County, all that coal coming out of the hills ran right through here on the railroad.” Crawford has been fighting for his community’s future in the wake of the slow, steady downturn in the coal industry over the last two decades. “We are really looking for something to be hopeful about and believe that this project is exactly what we need to move forward and thrive as a county, community, and region,” he added. For Crawford and many others like him, the arrival of 2716 was a dream realized.

Kentucky Steam Heritage

KSHC Chief Mechanical Officer Jason Sobczynski inspects the firebox with Joe Bratcher of Kentucky Railway Museum. Parts of the sidesheets on the mud ring (the bottom) that are original to the locomotive’s construction from 1943 are very thin. Chris Campbell photo

The train arrived at the park in the late afternoon. Kentucky Steam Heritage Corporation had just accomplished what some had deemed impossible — a three-day journey over CSX and R.J. Corman rails on a route that extended over 150 miles. This homecoming was an event that extended beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, and the entire community was there to celebrate. Some people cheered, some cried tears of joy, and others held signs that read: “Welcome Home, 2716!” Indeed, this was a historic event for the town of Ravenna.

After the celebratory group photos were captured, a ceremony would be held at Choo-Choo Park to recognize KSHC and its corporate partners. Stepping up to the podium with the locomotive as his backdrop, Joe Crawford excitedly exclaimed, “We’ve got a lot of young people out here today and I want all of them to etch this moment into their brains so they can tell their grandkids someday, ‘I was there when the train rolled in!’” Following Crawford’s opening remarks, Kentucky Railway Museum, Southern Appalachia Railway Museum, and ScaleTrains.com would address and congratulate KSHC for its efforts, with the manufacturer making a donation from the proceeds of its “Spirit of Ravenna” models.

A joint proclamation was then made between the cities of Irvine and Ravenna to dedicate July 28 as “CSX Rail Heritage Day.” CSX also presented a plaque in honor of the occasion, with Eric Hendrickson, CSX director of network planning, addressing the crowd: “Honestly, we (CSX) don’t do this stuff very often. We do it when it means something. It’s got to mean more than just running a steam locomotive. At the end of the day, it’s about helping this community.” Hendrickson then called KSHC President Chris Campbell to the podium, and announced the donation of CSX SW1500 1100, (ex-L&N 5000), giving the group its own working engine to move equipment on the shop property.

Also present for the historic event were both Senora May and Tyler Childers. The country music power couple and Estill County residents were there to support Kentucky Steam and christen the locomotive. May would do the honors, smashing a bottle of locally made moonshine against the front of the locomotive to uproarious applause.

Kentucky Steam Heritage

The abandoned CSX yard, office, and car repair shop at Ravenna, Ky., were empty in 2016. Aerial photo by Drayton Blackgrove

Inspired by Steam
The Heritage Highball was the culmination of four years of hard work and collaboration for KSHC. Incorporated in 2015, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization was founded by Chris Campbell, a native of Lexington, Ky., with a passion for historical steam locomotives. “This project has transformed into something that none of us could have ever imagined when we formed this organization four years ago. It’s not about just restoring a steam locomotive. It’s about revitalizing this region through economic development. It’s about giving people hope. The possibilities of tourism, hands-on technical skills training, and education are endless,” said Campbell.

Campbell’s interest in steam locomotives originated from his childhood. Growing up in the heart of the commonwealth, Campbell was first exposed to the thrill of main line steam excursions when he took a trip with his parents behind the famed Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 611 out of Lexington in fall 1984. That early exposure would ignite a passion for preservation in Campbell which still burns brightly today. However, it wasn’t until fall 1993 when he would ride behind “Chesapeake & Ohio 2765” (actually Nickel Plate Road 765 in disguise) on the New River Train with his parents, Bill and Diane.

“I had always wanted to see a C&O steam locomotive operate,” Campbell said. “Growing up in Lexington, I was interested in the three major hometown railroads — Southern, Louisville & Nashville, and Chesapeake & Ohio. For some reason, C&O was my personal favorite. There is just something about that low-mounted headlight that piques my interest,” he added. Indeed, 1993 would prove to be a pivotal year for the then-teenaged Campbell.

In summer 1993, the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society (FWRHS) was busy disguising the famed NKP Berkshire 765 as one of Chesapeake & Ohio’s 2-8-4 “Kanawha” locomotives. During the early 1990s, Norfolk Southern and CSX were still warm to main line excursions. “Several members of the society wanted to represent the predecessor railroads of CSX better on the New River Train that fall,” said Gary Bensman, owner of Diversified Rail Services and a longtime member of the FWRHS.

Kentucky Steam Heritage

KSHC partnered with Lexington-based architectural firm Sherman Carter Barnhart on redesigning the existing infrastructure on the property.

For Campbell, riding behind “2765” on the New River Train would spawn a dream that would eventually grow into becoming the Kentucky Steam Heritage Corporation some 22 years later. “I remember those trips like it was yesterday,” Campbell said. “The sight of a ‘C&O’ 2-8-4 running through the Alleghenies never left me.” Also onboard the train that weekend were T.J. Mahan and Jeff Lisowski, two future board members of KSHC. Mahan attended the same high school as Campbell but the two did not personally know each other.

By the end of the following year, Norfolk Southern would announce the end of its nostalgic steam program. CSX would soon follow in the footsteps of NS with the last New River trips being pulled by Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 261. “When it came to the end of the steam excursion era, 261 on the New River Train was basically it,” Campbell said. “This was a sad time for kids like me who had just received their driver’s licenses.” After the demise of the steam programs that fall, Campbell would finish out his high school years working at a Lexington area Burger King with fellow Lafayette graduate Mahan. “I remember flipping burgers with Chris back in ’94. I never forgot how sad we were when the end of the steam program was announced that fall,” said Mahan.

After high school, Campbell and Mahan would go their separate ways. Campbell would go on to attend Transylvania University where he played baseball. “I coached baseball at Transylvania from 2004 until 2016. During our seasons, we would play at William Marquard Field near I-64. On my way to the field, I would parallel the old L&N main line and envision the days of steam. I dreamed of seeing a steam locomotive on that very line someday,” he said…

March 2020Read the rest of this article in the March 2020 issue of Railfan & Railroad!

This article was posted on: February 24, 2020