KENTUCKY’S PILLARS OF HERCULES
Irvine and Ravenna? You think I’m kidding? Again?
True, this is not the Mediterranean. But this is a geographic entrance just as significant, if you live or do business in the heart of this Commonwealth. And here is the best way to see it. Just follow the Kentucky River upstream to its origins!
You are heading into the Cumberland Plateau, that great mountainous expanse known as Kentucky’s Eastern Coal Fields. The landscape is tight in here. Hard to get around and move in a straight line. So it was reasonable, especially in the early days of exploration, to just follow that famous river to wherever it came from. And that’s the route chosen by the railroads. A double set of tracks to reach the forests, minerals, and culture deeply established in the hollows of Kentucky.
We will follow that river too, following the same route the locals do. Through Winchester, Kentucky, driving south on Highway 89. You will soon enter an intriguing region of stream dissection. Rolling hills trying to become ridges, as their slopes are pulled down by the surging Kentucky River. You begin to see that Kentucky’s lush summer shadows do truer homage to the color green than any artist’s palette ever could. Sensual sensations of each tree-drawn leaf leaves a subtle shade of spectrum by which its limbs paint out the season. In the summer, Kentucky is a vibrantly joyous jungle!
Trapp. Turn right and head along a ridgeline dropping down into one of Kentucky’s unique geographic locations. There is a boat ramp and a tidy small marina. A covered patio. Do they rent kayaks, too? These out-of-the-way places make Kentucky special! This one is called the Red River Boat Dock and Campground at the junction of the Red and Kentucky Rivers.
Back up to Highway 89. And there, rising up on your left, is the Great Cumberland Plateau and its striking Pottsville Escarpment. You cross the Red River on a bridge that announces “Start Kentucky Scenic Highway.” You’ve got that right! Now we’re going somewhere!
Here is the Estill County sign.
“Welcome to Estill County
Where the Bluegrass Kisses the Mountain.
Sounds like my kind of place! And it proves so right away. Just look at Knobs creeping forward from the left.
Now farther down, we cross a wide road cut of shale. Dark and crumbly, and lots of it. It even smells, to me, of the organic oil trapped within it. This is that wonderful Devonian Age “oil shale.” It is the source of much of the oil and gas trapped elsewhere in Kentucky. I love to park and walk over big mounds of it. An alien landscape, if ever one existed!
Keep driving. You are now entering that important confluence of mountain, plain, forest, and river. Daniel Boone passed through here, but he was a relative latecomer. He was shown the way by John Finley, trying to again find the magical Shawnee village of Eskippakithiki. This is where the Warriors Path crossed the Kentucky River. This is Irvine, Kentucky!
And tucked in behind it is the famous Fitchburg Furnace Historical Site. The smelting of iron ore [yes, in Kentucky] was an early driver of Kentucky’s self-sufficient desire. If you needed iron on the frontier, best to make it right here!
It is that bridge at Irvine that now draws me to it. And thereon, I found my self driving, eyeing the things that may be hidden but are still of my interest!
And so I see it. The mural. Behind the grown-up trees. It is an old mural on a building facing the river. A quick right turn, and I can see it. The pride of a people announcing their presence on the river!
It is a big painting. Worn with weather, it is an early statement of Irvine’s pride and pleasure. It proudly says, high up in the middle, “Estill County, Established 1808.” And there is a large, round image in the middle. The image has lost much of its paint, but it invites a viewer’s imagination. I think it depicts a welcoming handshake. There are mountains painted in the background, the old Fitchburg Furnace, and a coal-laden train passing through it. Is that the sky, or the river, depicted in the middle?
On the road and in we go. Following the river, we immediately enter Ravenna. What a wonderful line of storefront buildings! They seem to cry out to me, singing their future as a mountain arts community.
Ravenna is a railroad town. A plaque says it was founded by the L & N Railroad in 1915. A double-track road of rail, heading up the river, the way we will eventually go toward Beattyville, and then along the North Fork of the Kentucky River to Jackson, and then on to Hazard! Ravenna is a bright place, with a population of about 600. But it boasts a history with a lot bigger impact!
The talented local muralist, Kevin Tipton, did many of the murals. I have seen his work throughout the Commonwealth. But I am here introduced to another muralist, Scott Hall, with another, exciting point of painting. His work is found on the wall of the Ravenna Food Mart. And L & N locomotives are drawn exploding out of the wall, coming right toward you!
There is even more excitement on the other side of Ravenna’s tracks. Neighborhoods of homes, a golf course along the river, a Veterans Park with river access, and a soon-to-become locomotive museum! And there you will find the now-abandoned Kentucky River Lock and Dam No. 12.
Let’s follow the river into the mountains proper [the sign says Beattyville is 14 miles away and Jackson, 40]. Head to the road that will take you to the crest of the mountains along which you are to follow. Turn right on Highway 399. You begin to see sandstone boulders, floaters describing the many out-of-the-way pockets, and a rock road cut-through leading to hidden home lockets!
What’s this? A lake? Way up here? A resort? “Lago Linda?” Let’s turn in and see what’s happening. I am pulling my light teardrop trailer. Maybe this would be a good place to overwinter [for a night, so to speak].
Wow, what a cool place! Campgrounds, store, running water, and electric hookups. A little assemblage of rustic resort buildings, store, bathrooms, and even a mountain pub with refreshments.
The lake is studded with full service, high-end cabins, and canoeing is free. Larry and Elaine Fredrickson now own and operate the resort. They are special people who love Kentucky and carry on the vision of Lago Linda’s builders!
Continue on, after a good night’s rest. As you pass homes tucked into the land, you begin to understand how people fit in up here! Follow the ridgetop south. We are headed to Heidelberg, the next bridge over the river and Kentucky River Lock and Dam No. 14.
Now also abandoned, this dam’s grounds have been converted into a fine playground park with restrooms. Look across the fence at the dam and its sealed lock structure [but don’t go down there; it is dangerous at the river!].
Heidelberg was settled around 1799, and named for the German town that the settlers remembered. Why here? Hard to get to. But a beautiful place, with a river for a road and lots of huge timber for the sawmill that would come later.
We turn, now, back west and return to Irvine. So cross the Kentucky River on the Heidelberg Bridge, ride up Sturgeon Creek [one of the longest creeks in Kentucky], and turn right on Highway 587.
You immediately see a road sign for Vincent, Arvel, and McKee. Now you are getting somewhere! You are in Ida May, Kentucky!
You pass a well-maintained “Stone Coal Cemetery.” A cruel play on words? No, just beyond is the small community of “Stone Coal” [here, “Stone Coal” probably referred to “coal” to distinguish it from the “charcoal” made from timber and used in the early iron furnaces downstream]. Soon, you cross the watershed divide and head back down to Alumbaugh along Station Camp Creek. Back to Daniel Boone’s route again!
Here is a creek bed of resplendent pebbles. Banks of cobblestones upon which to sit and picnic. And soon, we find a pull-off with a pebble beach access. It is obviously a locally favorite place. A log still burns from last evening’s séances!
On you drive, out of the mountains. Irvine, again, just ahead at the river. But to your west, more knobs, isolated now, along the Red Lick Creek Fork of Station Camp Creek. Turn left before Irvine, and let’s go take a look. This creek leads to Berea. Is this how Daniel Boone first traipsed through, exploring? Oh, to see the world before the rest of us lay upon it! When giants dominated the forests.
Here, a small sign. Snug Hollow Farm Bed and Breakfast. A famous place! Let’s go up that mountain and meet Barbara Napier, a legend in Kentucky hospitality! And she sells books there, including her best-selling “Hot Food & Warm Memories, Snug Hollow Farm Cookbook.” Three hundred acres, four handcrafted cabins, the Labyrinth, and home-cooked eatings!
Continue the legend, stay a weekend at Snug Hollow, satisfied with your journey through Kentucky’s Pillars