Rail yard is $5 million closer to again serving as an economic engine

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

For Chris Campbell, Estill County is where almost everyone has a connection to the rail lines that run by the “twin cities” of Irvine and Ravenna, the latter founded by a railroad in the early 20th century. 

Campbell, while not an Estill County native, is a train enthusiast and president of the Irvine-based nonprofit Kentucky Steam Heritage Corp. that is trying to transform the county’s long-time rail yard into an “economic incubator” that can be a draw for his part of Appalachian Kentucky. 

The vision: turning the rail yard into a community greenspace, dubbed the “The Yard,” featuring a pavilion for music, a campground, jogging trails, a museum and a renovated repair shop where historic steam engines are restored. Campbell foresees thousands of people coming in for music shows, spending the night, spending money at local restaurants and stores, and visiting other Eastern Kentucky attractions.

The nonprofit is getting a big boost  toward making that a reality in the form of a nearly $5 million federal grant announced this week to clean up the rail yard, remediating decades of industrial use from hauling coal out of Kentucky’s mountains.

Visitors to the new community space could help “a new economy spring up” on ground where the economy has long been based on coal mining and railroading, says Campbell. 

A stage with a wooden roof and yellow beams sits around a grassy area.
The newly constructed stage for music and other events at the Kentucky Steam Heritage Corp.’s site in Estill County. (Photo provided)

“None of these ideas can even come to fruition if you don’t do the literal groundwork to make it possible. So, the literal groundwork is moving dirt around and to make it legal to have the general public on it,” Campbell told the Lantern. 

The almost $5 million grant is from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields program, which has more funding to distribute thanks to passage of federal spending bills such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Two area development districts and the city of Barbourville also recently received grants through the program to assess properties and create an inventory of properties to be potentially remediated and restored. 

Campbell said the work already done toward the project — which includes a music stage that could start hosting music as soon as this fall — has been made possible through private donations and other state and federal funding in recent years.

Along with building that community space, Campbell said, those at the Kentucky Steam Heritage Corporation want to preserve the legacy of the region’s railroading into the future. 

A steam engine repair shop supplied jobs in Ravenna before trains moved to diesel-electric engines, and the nonprofit is restoring a 20th century steam engine that’s seen plenty of time in Kentucky. Campbell said the nonprofit, which owns the rail yard,  hopes to acquire the tracks from CSX in the future to be able to bring tourists into town by train. He said trains occasionally come down the tracks if they need repairs but the runs are no longer regular.

“People that worked for the railroad were really passionate about it,” Campbell said. “We’re interested in the history of railroading and preserving it but also doing it in a way that’s marketable and has some longevity.” 

Campbell said the nonprofit, which owns the rail yard,  hopes to acquire the tracks from CSX in the future to be able to bring tourists into town by train. He said trains occasionally come down the tracks but the runs are no longer regular.


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