NICHOLASVILLE — Jessamine County leaders hope to tap into millions in unused federal stimulus money to build replicas of 1800s-era buildings at Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park and create as many as 270 construction jobs.
Officials hope to secure $5 million to $20 million in federal, state and private money to put up buildings at what was once the third-largest recruiting and training station for black Union soldiers in the country, said Dean Richards, chairman of the Friends of Camp Nelson Committee, a volunteer group that supports the park and will pursue the money.
"A lot of these projects that got stimulus money have turned out not to be feasible, so the money goes back into the U.S. Treasury," said Richards, an author and Civil War historian. "That's what we're going to try to hook onto."
The project will be the subject of a meeting from 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesday at Camp Nelson to solicit public comment. The Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, the state agency that enforces state and federal civil rights laws, has expressed support for the project because of the site's significance to African-American history.
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Last week, Jessamine County Fiscal Court, which owns the 600-acre park property, gave its approval to the Friends to pursue funding from federal, state and private sources. But the fiscal court made it clear that it does not want to contribute any matching dollars into the effort or be obligated financially in any way.
"They're talking about several millions dollars, and there's no way we could match anything like that," county Judge-Executive Neal Cassity said.
Camp Nelson, about 5 miles south of Nicholasville, was established in 1863 as a supply depot. When Congress passed the Conscription Act of 1864, thousands of slaves and freemen began enlisting in the Union Army. By the end of the Civil War, Camp Nelson became the largest recruiting and training center for black soldiers in Kentucky and the third-largest in the nation. Many recruits brought with them their families — "thousands upon thousands," Richards said.
The Civil War park attracted about 8,500 visitors last year, down from a peak of about 12,500 in 1997. But Richards said the construction could make the park "a premiere national site" and would bring more visitors.
Among the construction projects: a replica of the 272-foot-long Hickman Creek Bridge across the Kentucky River, which Richards said would become the largest single-span covered bridge in the world. (The current record-holder is 232 feet long in Blenheim, N.Y.) The original bridge was built in 1838 and lasted until 1928, when a heavily laden furniture truck fell through the bridge and into the river. The bridge was condemned and dismantled.
The replica bridge would be used by pedestrians only, not by traffic, Richards said, and it would not affect boat traffic. The existing four-lane bridge over the Kentucky River is just west of the former covered-bridge site.
The replica of the bridge would cost an estimated $15 million alone, but Richards says he thinks that money could come from the National Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Act, which has been active since the early 1980s. The replica bridge would be made not of wood but of "cement fiber" with iron underpinnings. It would be put on the same limestone-block foundation that held the original bridge, Richards said.
In addition, Richards said he hopes to secure money to build replicas of about a dozen buildings that were present at Camp Nelson. One of those would be the "School for Colored Soldiers," where the Rev. John Gregg Fee, one of the founders of Berea College, taught thousands of men were taught to read and write. At its busiest, Camp Nelson had about 300 buildings.
Other construction would rebuild Stone Fort No. 2 and Fort Jones, which were earthenwork structures on the Camp Nelson property. Another project would be to open the powder magazine at Fort Taylor to show the public how a Civil War powder magazine functioned. A fence would be put around a 2.5-acre graveyard of African-American refugee women and children who died at Camp Nelson.
The bridge would take an estimated 18 months to two years to build. The other construction could take a year to complete.
Richards emphasized that not all the money would come from the stimulus pot but also from other federal agencies, including Transportation, Interior and the Department of Agriculture. He said he has not heard any discussion or debate about whether millions of taxpayer dollars should be spent on a history site.
"These are grants that have been in existence for 20, 30 years," he said. "If the money pools in those grants are empty or not sufficient, then we will try to seek the monies that have been returned from stimulus projects that were not deemed feasible."
And there is no guarantee that money will go to Camp Nelson, Richards said, but the group has "shown some federal agencies what our grant application is all about. They're generally interested."
"They haven't discouraged us," he said.
The project would not involve any expansion for Camp Nelson National Cemetery, just south of the Civil War park. Some 14,000 veterans and their spouses are buried there.
The estimate of 270 jobs comes from The Hayden Co., the Nicholasville contractor that built the replica of a Civil War barracks that opened at Camp Nelson last year and an interpretive center that opened nearly five years ago, Richards said. The Hayden Co. is studying the feasibility of the Camp Nelson project but has not been chosen as a contractor, Richards said.