Fellow Hoosier adventures make the occasional trek 4 hours south from Indianapolis for a weekend (or if lucky enough, longer) of boating, camping, water skiing, fishing, and indulging in an atmosphere of fun, sun, adult beverages and relentless boating.. Yet, little do most know that an era of history—complete with the trials and tribulations of just living—lies just a few hundred feet below the hull of their boat. It’s a sobering thought as a day on the water translates to the calm of the evening.
Lake Cumberland is a monstrous body of water, deep and serene in southern Kentucky, and with a story to tell to those interested. Did I say it is large?
The origins of the lake centered on the Wolf Creek Dam constructed across the Cumberland River—10 miles southeast of the small humble burg of Jamestown and 12 miles north of Albany on the edge of the Tennessee state line. It did its job on backing the river up. The Lake Cumberland shoreline measures some 1200 miles, with the main lake being 101 miles long and one mile across at its widest point. The lake lays claim to portions of several counties: Clinton, Laurel, McCreary, Pulaski, Russell and Wayne.
Viewed on a map, the lake curves and twists serpentine through rolling stretches of terrain that once carried their own saga—but no more. Any type of progression brings a degree of sacrifice, and Lake Cumberland certainly has its own stories to tell.
The Wolf Creek Dam & Reservoir was authorized for construction by the Flood Control Act of 1938. Residents in the day needed a reason and they soon received it: flood control for the lower lying regions and the production of hydro electric power. It was a winning proposition for those in leadership that looked ahead to a prosperous future in the area. And at that time, there might have been the twinkling thought of future tourism.
Groundbreaking ceremonies were held September 1, 1941 in tiny Rowena, Kentucky (ironic in itself considering the soon to be fate of the town). The dam was originally slated for construction at the confluence of Wolf Creek and the Cumberland River several miles upstream, but after reevaluation it was moved to its present location. The name, however, remained the same. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers fired up their bulldozers and got to work.
When the United States entered into World War II the construction of the Wolf Creek Dam came to a grinding stop and didn’t resume until 1946. Finally all the work came to an end. On September 1, 1951 the project was dedicated. 1954 witnessed the resulting body of water being officially named “Lake Cumberland.” A new era had begun and definitely a new landscape!
But at what cost?
Not all were in favor of a dam or any type of flood control. And no one was in favor of uprooting and losing their home. Life was fine and manageable just the way it was. The region that the lake took over encompassed a variety of small Kentucky towns, farms, and homesteads. The region also encompassed a way of life—etching out a living from the soil, raising a family, and making their own personal mark in their moment of history. They did not want to give it up their home and land (the offered sums of money were laughable at best), and most stayed as long as they could. Yet in the end, what the government wants they eventually get. Businesses, farmlands and homes that had been in a family for generations rolled to a rapid halt and waited for the rising water. And when it came, it came quickly.
The towns of Lulu, Long Bottom, Indiana Creek, Rowena, Stokes, Swan Pond Bottoms, and a portion of Burnside suddenly ceased to exist.
The groundbreaking festivities of 1941 in Rowena had to have been a bittersweet experience for Arnold Daffron. His families’ homestead was located in nearby Smith Bottom in the town of Lulu. The homestead had been passed down from his father. His father Marion had a general store there. Arnold worked as ferryman in Rowena, transporting automobiles and goods across the Cumberland River. It was good lucrative work. The ground breaking that day separated the present from the past in terms that were hard to grasp—soon the homesteads and towns of Rowena and Lulu would became part of a watery grave and in time only a memory. Arnold relocated his family up the road to Jamestown.
The dam brought about a quick flooding. Rumor states that entire towns were covered as still intact buildings, homes, roads, signs and power lines sank beneath the rising water. I would think that the Army Corp of Engineers would have leveled these prior to flooding, yet some might have been missed. Roads however were left untouched. And, nevertheless, ghost towns were born in a matter of days.
The town of Burnside in Pulaski County, presently framed by Lake Cumberland, had put some thought into the upcoming flooding. They instituted a new stretch of town—“Upper Burnside”—which in effect saved them. Businesses were relocated and new houses were built above the flood plane. However, more than 600 residents ended up displaced, with the majority complaining about the substandard payment they had received for their property. They had not won the battle…they seldom do. Many gave it all up and moved to other towns, trying to put the nastiness behind them.
It has been written, “In the spring of 1951, as the cold waters rose, the heart of Burnside was silenced as Lake Cumberland permanently flooded the area.”
At least more than 100 cemeteries were relocated. It was on the agenda, yet things fall through the cracks of any agenda. Time was of the upmost importance as the date drew near for the dam to close its gates. Graves were missed. The lowering of Lake Cumberland for repair to the Wolf Creek Dam in 2007 revealed some oversights: small cemeteries that had originally been missed resurfaced with the disturbing revelation of now empty coffins and burial vaults….
I have a history with the area, those now forgotten towns, and Lake Cumberland. My grandfather was Arnold Daffron. My mother was a small child when she was uprooted from her home in Lulu and made the move to a much smaller home in Jamestown. I have a photo of the oldest Daffron son, my Uncle Chuck, standing before Marion Daffron’s general store in Lulu. Like it or not, the lake became a part of all of their lives in one way or another. While my grandfather Arnold served a short stint as a police officer in Jamestown, he too was eventually drawn to the lake—settling into a comfortable routine (and job) of towing houseboats from the open water into the Jamestown Dock.
I hold onto memories of myself, my brother Kerry and the troop of cousins making the daily car trek to the Jamestown Dock and bouncing barefooted down the steep and very hot asphalt drive that ended in the floating platform pool. What I didn’t know at the time was that the former town of Horseshoe Bottom set in the murk of the lake right beneath us. The almost neon green waters of Lake Cumberland not only denotes the depth of the water, but also a sense of mystery.
The Jamestown Dock has long been replaced by the now Jamestown Resort & Marina. It’s a massive operation, hard driven by the tourist industry that demands their season in the sun. While the buildings have changed, the lake and hills surrounding it have remained timeless. It is still the Lake Cumberland of my youth, only the faces have changed. I remember watching the fishermen gutting lake turtles on the cleaning stations on the old Jamestown Dock. Fascinating stuff for a young imagination when a summer day seemed to last for 24 hours. And then casting a glance out across the water towards the sound of an approaching outboard motor as a small dingy towed in another massive houseboat. Many times it was my grandfather.
To explore all of the coves and inlets on Lake Cumberland would be a massive undertaking, and depending upon your availability could take weeks, months or years. Each has their own unique quality that has spoken in the past to a young man stretched out under the stars of a dark Kentucky night on the top deck of a houseboat, contemplating the intricacies of life, yet also equally noting the primitive and mysterious circumstances he has found himself in. As the houseboat gently rocked in the current and the men below threw in another fishing line with lantern beams reflecting off the water, this younger version of me was utterly alone and transfixed by the sounds of the dark hills above me (the lonely wail of a bird and critters crashing through the brush at the water’s edge) and the realization that life would indeed go on long after my light has been extinguished.
Folks that permanently reside in Jamestown don’t seem to be much involved with the lake. Is this a carry over from family to family due to the nature of how it began? For some I suppose it could be. The lake is always in the background, yet not a primary fixture of their lives it would seem. It’s the tourist trade that flocks in without fail in the dawn of spring like a hungry band of Canadian Geese that brings the excitement, the commerce, the newspaper drama, the yearly lake mishaps, and alcohol in a dry county. The tourists are generally tolerated and provide good entertainment fodder. It will continue this way. And at the end of the lake season they will leave and Jamestown will ease into a slow slumber, and prepare for the coming spring.
And the towns under the water of Lake Cumberland will grow dimmer and dimmer as each year passes.
Ghost Marina in Lake Cumberland?
There are recent tales of an abandoned marina floating like a “Flying Dutchmen” across the still waters of Lake Cumberland. A vague history states the dock closed in 2009, broke away from its moorings in 2010, and in the span of a few years has floated some 5 miles downstream. At least that’s the story….
And if you think about it, this would be quite the encounter—to come upon this ancient apparition appearing out of an early morning lake fog; with its crumbling wooden decks, bygone era gas pumps, empty buildings, and the still floating remains of a pontoon boat still secured in a stall.
One observer feels it is the old Buck Creek Marina. Another insists, and is probably right, that it is most likely the marina from the Omega Boat Ramp—not actually on the main water of Lake Cumberland, but rather up the Cumberland River between east Burnside and Buck Creek.
Either way it’s all good fodder, and is an added bonus to the story of Lake Cumberland and what lies beneath.
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