We follow the route leading down to it, cut by Daniel Boone’s 30 axe men in 1775. They were developing a trail wide enough for a packhorse, and then families who would be following. Families with lots of children. And brave ones, indeed!
They had come to stay, establishing the first settlement of Colonel Richard Henderson’s Transylvanian empire, the northern border set at the Kentucky River through negotiations with the Cherokee Indians. Except they didn’t own it. Virginia did, and George Rogers Clark made certain that it remained in the Commonwealth.
Boone’s people are still there, remaining today on the land opened up to them by Boone’s men. The people of Otter and Calloway Creeks that took the route chosen by Boone to reach their new home. But why here? Let’s talk about that.
There is irony in the site first chosen by Boone for the stockade and community that would bear his name. For one, he chose to locate not on that fair, flat field where Otter Creek breached the Kentucky River, but at a ravine further downstream with a concentrated forest of white, shiny Sycamore trees. Surely Boone didn’t miss the botanical connection with the treaty that brought them there. The one negotiated with the Cherokees at Sycamore Shoals.
And we must note the additional irony that this settlement, named in Boone’s honor, would have him court-martialed for allegedly attempting to surrender it to his newly adoptive father, Chief Blackfish of the Shawnee Tribe. Boone was acquitted, and elevated in military rank. But to add insult to injury, he was tried at Logan’s Station, another of the founding settlements at the headwaters of the Dix River.
Boone would not return to live in Boonesborough, instead moving north of the river and founding Boone’s Station. Boonesborough struggled on, but wasn’t able to make it. It wasn’t able to form up into a vibrant future, like the other new settlements in Kentucky.
And it wasn’t just because Boone left it. He was a peripatetic wanderer by nature. I think it was because no crossroads led through Boonesborough. And the Kentucky River was surely a barrier to cross behind it.
When the new Commonwealth of Kentucky chose to widen the packhorse trail into Kentucky from the Cumberland Gap, they did not choose Boone to cut it. The new Wilderness Road went west through Mount Vernon to Harrodsburg, instead. Boone’s Trace and Boonesborough, itself, fell out of use.
The people remained, however, and are spread out all over these hills today. We will visit where they live, now, with Bobby Russell, a modern native, born, raised, and schooled here.
And the Boonesborough Fort, itself? Its location was the subject of much historical debate, but the Commonwealth got it right when they bought the land for a park in the 1960s. Archaeological research documented the stockade’s location. And then the state created a new destination for long distance travelers right next to it. A park for recreational vehicles that is very popular!
But what about the historical park? The one that once fielded a stockade? Well, it has been shuttered since last spring’s floods, and that is a shame. Although the fort is gone [there is a reproduction on top of the mountain], its original outline has been located, and just standing on it brings the brief, but stunning, human history of the place back to heart.
And there is a boat ramp to lead you to the river to look in. Back then, the waterway was a highway of travel, and a backdrop of protection. But it didn’t keep Native Americans from attacking the fort or capturing Jemima Boone and the two Callaway girls floating down the river on an adventure.
Boone would rescue the girls two days later, but not by following the Indians’ trail. Boone knew this land better than they, so he circled around and met them where they came out of the forest.
There is a new historical marker up under the bridge, just downstream of Boonesborough. It is worth hunting to locate that point in the river where the girls were taken. And you can get a cold beer there, down under, if you are thirsty!
Now climb back up to the road following the north side of the river and head east. It is called Ford Road. Excellent views across the river of the Sycamore stand and the park, proper. And right there, beneath the now closed Park Center, lies a beach. Yup, as in swimming. It was called the “Kentucky Beach” and featured a motel, cabins, a restaurant, and a public bathhouse.
The beach was still open in the early 1980s when I brought my new wife from Santa Clara, California to vacation. I thought it was wonderful, a natural inland river swimming opportunity. Well, I suppose that aspect of outdoor Kentucky recreation needed a little more time to grow on my new family!
Two of them made an impression on Daniel Boone, and both were found outside the fortifications around the Sycamore stand. The sulfur well is one, and I am still looking for that location. The other is called the “Lick Spring” [even though it is freshwater]. I found it over near the R.V. Park, unmarked, hidden, and almost filled in. I will leave finding it again as your part of this essay’s journey.
Let us continue on that Ford Road. Where does it go? To Ford, of course, but not to cross the river, unless you are a railroad. But you will understand more when we get there!
First you will notice Lock and Dam No. 10, just upstream from Boonesborough. It was originally built in 1905, but it was overtaken by the railroads that reached the upper Kentucky River basin before the dams did. It has just undergone renovation, but not for transportation. The locks have been closed and permanently sealed, and only the dam, itself, repaired and strengthened. Was the logic in maintaining the pool only based on the need for municipal drinking water?
Keep going. You think you are going nowhere, but you are wrong. Look to your left at the wall panels of murals depicting life on the river. It is a park celebrating the Civil War Earthenworks Fort built in 1863 on the ridge above it. The Union fort was to protect the Boonesborough ford and ferry from Confederate raiders. It has great views of the river, facilities, and a terrific cell phone tour hiking up [859-592-9166].
There are twelve murals at the base of the trail adjacent to the road. Depictions include the ferry crossing, gun emplacement at the fort, a flatboat landing, a water mill, the attack by Native Americans on Boonesborough, the capture of Jemima Boone and the Callaway girls, a buffalo crossing, the Kentucky River Palisades, and what is certainly the great lumber yards at Ford, where we are next heading. The mural was painted by Phil May in 2008. This site is worthy of your visit before the murals fade from memory.
Alright, a little further on is the small community of Ford. Not much there, now. In 1865, nothing at all. It was named not for the river crossing [not many of those on the powerful Kentucky River], but rather for the farmer that sold the property.
Ford was incorporated in 1888, and formed up quickly. By 1896, the railroad was ready to cross the river here. In that year, Ford had a population of 1,000. It boasted the Asher Lumber Company, general store and sawmill; the Ford Lumber Co. sawmill and general store; Bentley & Parmley Distillers; a hotel; saloon; box factory; Justice of the Peace; police; livery stable; shoemaker; a doctor; and grocers.
Get out and take a look. See if your imagination sees all of this. Look closely at the stream course modifications. Then turn around and look at the railroad crossing. The railroad blasted two tunnels on the other side of the river [and two more just beyond!]. One is collared in concrete, and the other, wide open. The open one is the oldest, and not used anymore except by local farmers working the river bottoms. It was cut by hand, by convicts, I am told. There is much interesting history to be discovered in this land.
Back to Boonesborough, now, to drive up Otter Creek, the route Boone’s axe men cut down to the river. Otter Creek forms a beautiful basket of drainageways within this region. And the pioneers readily spread out within its limbs and junction places. Boonesbourgh’s legacy is in these people. Descendants or neighbors of the pioneers that Daniel Boone first led to this Kentucky paradise.
Follow Boone’s route of Highway 388, crossing the railroad tracks that crossed the river from Ford. You are on Redhouse Road. Redhouse is where Bobby Russell lived. The elementary school building is still present, currently being renovated. Bobby attended school there in 1959, warmed by a potbelly stove and an out-of-doors latrine!
And there is a memorial to Bobby’s parents at the Methodist Church at the base of the hill. A hill that was a test of his boyhood strength, riding to the top on a bicycle. And both of his grandmothers attended the same church and elementary school. Kentuckians never forget where they come from!
But what about Boonesborough, the settlement that fired up so much of America’s imagination? In 1865, the Kentucky Business Gazette described it as follows:
“A small and ancient post village of Madison County, situated on the Kentucky River, about 18 miles south-east from Lexington. This place is memorable as the site of a Fort which was built in 1775 by Daniel Boone, the pioneer of Kentucky, and was the first erected in the State. Here, also, convened more than 75 years ago, the first Legislative Assembly of the Western States.”
In the 1896 Directory, Boonesborough is not even mentioned. It had been effectively abandoned, and almost forgotten.
Yet, the communities that Boonesborough spawned continued to live on. In 1896, Redhouse had a Post Office, hotel, blacksmith, wagon maker, feed mill, tavern [serving Kentucky River loggers], and general store. Most importantly, it had a railroad agent.
Boone’s family walked or rode behind trails cut by teams of swinging axe men. A little more than one hundred years later, their neighbors and descendants could visit the entire world in comfort, boarding the train at the railway depot along Otter Creek!
History moved quickly through the frontier of Kentucky. Yet, that same rugged, beautiful land remains for you to remember and visit. To wander and mingle with the pleasant people who decided to remain.