It’s not really there, at the junction of the Middle and North Forks of the Kentucky River. Nothing but soybeans, Kentucky jungle, and muddy water. But I have hiked in. Rough going. Bushwhacking. Feet into dense ground foliage, hidden fallen trees, risk of falling into the water. And these are not creeks. Do rattlesnakes inhabit the slopes of these floodplains? Copperheads too? What am I doing!
I reach that spit of land that separates two river kingdoms. Surprised, I find that it rises. A sandy promontory from which to praise this territory. Sand swept in by the river’s embracing melding. A chapel of giant cane with giant deer prints of one who came before me, like me, to reach that point where waters mingle, and wonder.
Franklinville. They were selling lots here in 1794. From England. They certainly never saw it. And no town was ever laid down here.
This is a wild place, yet a place of nature’s rest. A place to mingle where the Kentucky River gathers in its aquatic members. Then those waters roar down to Beattyville to join with the South Fork and become the force of nature that named a Commonwealth.
But how to get there, and how to return? On this trip, I come into Richmond and head east, toward the knobs that you see before you. Wind around some outlier knobs and ridges, and you are at the Kentucky River proper in Irvine and Ravenna. Keep going and follow that river and its railroad track partner. Head into the mountains on Highway 52.
This is a gorgeous old-time ride. It’s an early route into the mountains. Time-eroded road cuts with blocky sandstone blocks seeming to hang out next to the road just to scare you. You are now climbing into the sandstone and coal “plays” of the Cumberland Plateau.
This is the route to appreciate Kentucky’s eastern escarpments. Knobs, ridges, and natural bridges that attract hikers, campers, and climbers to this region. And hillside springs piped into concrete and rock basins once used by the locals.
High now, still in the knobs, but overlooking the long, deep drainage of Furnace Creek below. So majestic, you would think you were out west. At the bottom, you turn left and drive in. The creek is fed gravel, its course a bed of pebbles. It leads to Fitchburg and its massive iron furnace.
Iron? In these sedimentary rock formations? Was Kentucky an iron-producing state? [Indeed it was!] The furnace is silent now, with a Methodist Campground and Retreat Center quietly tucked in back there.
Back out to Highway 52, and moving up again. We are driving through the lower, older Mississippian Period strata, into the younger [if you consider 300 million year old compressed muds, swamps, and sand to be so], higher Pennsylvanian Period rock layers. The oceans were shallow back then, retreating from Kentucky and leaving the land. On its swampy edges grew the great coal forests. As you drive up, you can’t help but notice the angularity of the sandstone overhangs peering directly at you!
You are on a crest now. On the narrow, cleared ridgetops, some with stubborn thumb-like extensions adding flesh to its bony ridgetop backbone. Highway 52 gives you a great cross-section of Kentucky’s knob land. And the road from Irvine to Beattyville is a great beginning to understand mountain living.
Stay on Highway 52 down to Proctor and drive into Beattyville proper along the Kentucky River. There are mountaintop attractions advertised along the way. “Whisper Valley,” “Youth Haven Bible Camp,” “Sleepy Bear’s Dream Lair,” “Bear Track Lake Adventures,” and “Lago Linda Hideaway.” And more roadside springhouses!
Steep grade down to Beattyville. There is the slender railroad underpass, framing the city’s entrance. I sure wish Dooleys Purple Cow Restaurant was still open!
This is Beattyville. It is an important part of Kentucky’s early history, and its geography makes that point certain. At the end of a thin peninsula of land, the North and South Forks of the Kentucky River join and form the center of our Commonwealth. For 260 miles [to Carrollton at the Ohio River], it drains 7,000 square miles from the center of our living. Our history, our culture, and our route into the interior.
In the middle 1800s, Beattyville was the commercial hub of the mountains. Early railroads centered in Frankfort and small steamboats could reach up the river, in high water, as far as Beattyville. From there, “push boats” [oared and poled flatboats] could carry products to the communities growing farther up in the Forks. The railroad reached the Kentucky River near Boonesborough in 1883. By 1890, an extension of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad moved up the Red River Valley and crossed over to Kentucky’s North Fork near the mouth of the Middle Fork, where this story begins. It was constructed to Elkatawa by 1894, and then into Jackson itself. In 1912, the railroad reached all the way to Whitesburg in Letcher County.
Another railroad pushed along the Kentucky River through Irvine, reaching Beattyville in 1903. Ravenna was built by the L & N Railroad to service this route in 1915.
Beattyville was once the center of Kentucky River mountain commerce. But further upstream, Jackson would boom with the coming of the railroad, only to see its attraction move upstream to Hazard as the railroad proceeded further.
But Beattyville had its day, and is still an important place. In 1879, the Chief of Engineers for the United States described Beattyville thusly in his Annual Report:
“Here is the Gibraltar of the Kentucky River Valley; all outward bound freight must needs past this point, and … for observation or research find this the natural starting point. Command is had here of all products of the Upper Kentucky Valley.”
Geographically, Beattyville is still a significant location to see!
And Beattyville is a groovy river city. There is a canoe livery and a well-maintained city boat ramp to put into and take out. And Brenda’s BBQ Smoke Shack is right around the corner. Down the road, toward Booneville, is the well known Bobcat Drive In.
Drive, now, on the south side of the North Fork toward St. Helens, and that Middle Fork of the Kentucky River that started this “Surrounding” discussion.
There are not many bridges over these great aquatic barriers. But there is one at Airedale, on Route 2016. That road heads north on the long ridge line between the waters of Walker Creek and the Kentucky River, itself. A road heading toward the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, looking down into that famous Red River cliff country!
There is another possible canoe put-in there at the bridge. That is, if you have courage, can swim with a life jacket, and have a 4-wheel drive vehicle! I will report to you later as I am headed in now!
Time to get home, driving beyond that bridge at Airedale. And it is getting dark. Good road, though. Black with yellow stripes. Only one other car, but it soon disappears.
Is it the dusk that outlines these neat homes with lines of forest? Why would I think of Dorothy and her bicycle, with the thought of Oz pulling me forward? Small, stingy fields elbow outward, and create fields of flesh on the skeletal frame upon which we are now moving.
As darkness falls on the blacktop, a haunting feeling comes over me. The last vestiges of daylight leave the tops of the now faint tree line. Spooky shadows seem to dance where the trees once stood. Fireflies pop out in all directions. Are they looking at me? Creepy.
There is a sentinel shack station at the cemetery bend in this crest ridge road. Terrifying in the darkness. Crosses and flowers line tombstones and bear witness, to the loved ones still tending their dead there still sleeping.
No lights are seen across the valley that gulfs beside me. It is night, but that void is not empty. And I am not alone. Eye lights come clawing back through the sharp darkness on the road behind me. No, Dorothy, this is not Kansas!
Too much going on around here. I drive on in silence. Toward Venus, which appears motionless before me. It is alone in the darkening sky, seeming to hang on its own curtain of twilight. The other celestial dancers are still hiding, not yet ready to pay homage.
Are we on the road to Xibalba? No. This is “Big Andy Ridge Road.” [How did it get that name?] And who is that following me in this scary nighttime driving?
Let us end where I started. How do I know of the false town of Franklinville, Kentucky? From a forgotten historian. A geographer. A woman whose work I now pour over when writing up my own adventure stories. Mary Verhoeff. She had a closer view, a better feel, and a stronger reason to excel in her field. She wrote, “The Kentucky Mountains, Transportation, and Commerce ,” and “The Kentucky River Navigation .”
If you admire annotation and footnotes detailed in preparation [and I do], you will appreciate Ms. Verhoeff’s scholarship even better. Some of it lives again in this writing!