October 4, 2023
Kentucky Steam Heritage Receives $1.9 Million AMLER Award For Estill County-Based Project
Ravenna, Ky. — The Kentucky Steam Heritage Corporation has been awarded a $1.9 million Abandoned Mine Lands Economic Revitalization (AMLER) grant through The Division of Abandoned Mine Lands and the Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet. The announcement was made at the SOAR Summit in Corbin Wednesday morning by Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear. Kentucky Steam is one of 14 Kentucky-based nonprofits slated to be funded by the program in 2023.
The grant is directed at infusing the blossoming Estill County-based “The Yard” project, a railroad-centered attraction that harnesses the region’s rich rail history to all things Appalachian Kentucky. The grant is allocated to both develop the property into a diverse rail attraction, and to restore 80-year-old steam locomotive Chesapeake and Ohio 2716.
Chris Campbell, Kentucky Steam president, says the announcement is a watershed moment for the Irvine Kentucky-based 501(c)3 public charity, as well as for the further redevelopment of the economic base of Eastern Kentucky.
“This 2023 AMLER award is a game changer for our project, and is proof positive that the Commonwealth is committed both to our project and to real investment in Appalachia and coal country,” he said.
“The capital infusion validates the hard work our all-volunteer organization has put in over the past seven years and gives a big boost to the community that has welcomed us since our inception in 2016. We appreciate the Governor’s office, Energy and Environment Cabinet, and the entire federal delegation including Congressmen Rogers and Barr for their show of support of our endeavor.”
The concept of a railroad-themed Eastern Kentucky-based attraction took shape in 2018 when Kentucky Steam, founded just two years earlier, purchased a 43-acre tract of former rail yard from CSX Transportation in Estill County. The parcel contained a then-abandoned rail car facility, the operations epicenter of the planned campus. After five years of volunteer labor, the shop is now the operations hub for the rehabilitation of historic rail equipment, most notably Chesapeake and Ohio 2716, a 200-ton steam locomotive on long-term lease from the Kentucky Railway Museum in New Haven.
The parcel of land surrounding the rail shop offered a unique development opportunity, and Kentucky Steam began collaborating with Sherman Carter Barnhart architects in Lexington to envision a multi-use economic development hub, utilizing a train theme while harnessing uniquely Appalachian aspects of the region. The ambitious plans included an amphitheater, rail heritage museum, food truck pavilion, a restaurant/brewery, walking and jogging paths and an event center.
Thanks to a $125,000 partially forgivable loan from the Kentucky Department of Energy and Environment, and a $500,000 award from the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfield Program, the necessary groundwork was funded, allowing a portion of the land to be developed into a sustainable hub of Appalachian activity.
“The vision we laid out was ambitious and was met with skepticism from a lot of folks,” Campbell said. “But as we continued to develop the project with merely volunteer labor and small donations here and there, we have slowly gained more and more believers.”
One of those believers was the Hardy family from Irvine, who to date has invested over $500,000 in the 4,500-person capacity amphitheater, aptly named “The Hardy Pavilion.” The stage and surrounding grounds are in their final stages of completion this fall, and concerts are planned to begin in the Summer of 2024.
Michael Hardy, President of Hardy Oil, said The Yard development gave his family the opportunity to reinvest in the community and make a positive impact on future generations.
“I love this community and I love music, and the concept these guys presented was perfect,” he said. “Our area is an epicenter of Appalachian culture, and this complex gives us the opportunity to showcase some of what we are great at, and do so right here in our own backyard.”
The 2023 AMLER Grant will springboard further development of the site, funding the construction of more railroad track to be used for train excursions and equipment displays, restoration of the one-of-a-kind historic locomotive servicing facility, as well as construction of a massive glass-sided display building that was donated by the Nicholasville-based R.J. Corman Railroad Group in 2020. The “glass house” was originally erected in downtown Lexington, and was used by R.J. Corman for display of their steam locomotive “Old Smokey,” also donated to Kentucky Steam in 2020, as well as for providing a loading platform for rail excursions.
Campbell said the building will be used for displaying historic rail equipment indoors, but also will be able to double as an event center, complete with heating and air conditioning.
“This project has had so many contributors, and none is more integral than R.J. Corman,” he said. “Their investments have spanned from labor to track materials, and everything in between. The building donation is key to our project’s overall vision, and is integral to this AMLER award.”
Portions of the $1.9 million grant targets necessary structural improvements to the historic L&N Railroad storehouse building, built in 1915. The distinct brick structure houses the nonprofit’s offices and a blossoming railroad museum, an attraction founded and operated by former railroad workers from the area. The museum is now open to the public on select weekends.
The AMLER award also allocates half a million dollars to aid the full mechanical restoration of the steam locomotive that is the impetus for the entire project. Chesapeake & Ohio 2716 was built in 1943 during the height of World War II, and was one of 90 similar engines owned by the railroad. It hauled passengers and freight all throughout Appalachia, and locally between Lexington and Ashland. It was retired in 1957 and was put on display at the Kentucky Railway Museum, then located in Louisville. The engine found brief reprieves in the 1980s and 1990s, operating sporadically on rail excursions, though never in Kentucky. The locomotive, which is in need of a full mechanical overhaul, has already tendered over $250,000 in dedicated donations for its restoration, and the AMLER grant will help push the process along towards completion. Once complete, it will be the largest operating steam locomotive in the southeast.
“Restoring and operating this giant locomotive is the reason we founded this organization in the first place,” said Campbell. “Seeing it operate in this area again, like it did in the middle of the last century, will be a reminder of what made this region of the country thrive in the last century. Its revitalization and operation will be an appropriate hallmark bridging the gap between the region’s past and future.”
While the AMLER grant is a giant step forward, it also gives the nonprofit, which has no paid employees, an opportunity to target fundraising and sponsorship opportunities.
Capital campaigns to restore several other pieces of historic railroad artifacts, as well as to help finish the mechanical overhaul of 2716, will kick off this fall. There are also plans to initiate pre-planning for a railroad-centered campground, which will eventually develop portions of the south end of Kentucky Steam’s sprawling 43-acre tract.
About Kentucky Steam Heritage Corporation:
The Kentucky Steam Heritage Corporation (KSHC) is a Kentucky-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization operating with the intent to educate, entertain and inspire past, current and future generations by operating historic rail equipment. The hallmark of our efforts is the restoration of Chesapeake & Ohio Railway steam locomotive 2716 to operation. The restoration and operation of 2716 and other historic pieces will prove to be living history and will serve as an educational tool, enhancing heritage tourism and stimulating economic growth in Eastern Kentucky.
Kentucky Steam Heritage Corp.