I noticed a common theme dominated by water as we explored the southern tier of Kentucky, from Lake Cumberland to Mammoth Cave: water as an historical and modern source of power; water as a recreational activity; water as an obstacle and water as a force of nature. The Cumberland River and the Green River, both tributaries of the Ohio River, ran tendrils through areas we traveled as we moved towards the west.
Mill Springs Mill
Mill Springs Mill
Mill Springs Park sat along a side-road on Lake Cumberland’s southern side. The Cumberland River cut steep banks over millennia along that southern flank, and over those walls rushed streams forming waterfalls. It didn’t take settlers long to figure out how to harness that fortunate confluence to their advantage.
An 1817 mill lent its name the community of Mill Springs, while the mill itself went by a somewhat more redundant name, Mill Springs Mill. As implied by its title, the mill with its huge waterwheel harvested the power of a spring-fed stream as it rushed towards the Cumberland River. It ground grain into flour and cornmeal, as it still does on weekends for historical demonstrations.
The site also gave a name and played a small role in the Battle of Mill Springs during the Civil War. That battle isn’t known particularly well today although it was important at the time. Fought in January 1862, this was the first battle of any significance won by the Union army. The Confederate general, Felix Zollicoffer, established winter quarters at the mill before moving to the northern side of the Cumberland River where the battle took place and where he lost his life during his defeat.
The distance between the mill and the battlefield isn’t long as the crow flies. Today, however, a large lake stands in the way.
Wolf Creek Dam and National Fish Hatchery
Wolf Creek Dam and Fish Hatchery
That interceding lake is Lake Cumberland, and it was created by the Wolf Creek Dam in the 1950’s both for flood control and for hydroelectric power. It took most of a day to drive around the lake in a complete circle, albeit at a leisurely pace with plenty of stops along the way.
One of those stops included the Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery at the base of the dam. Trout raised for sport fishing by the Fish and Wildlife Service started as eggs in incubators then moved to indoor tanks and finally to outdoor raceways as they grew in size before being released. Fish food was available for sale at the visitor center. The kids enjoyed watching the scrum as fish devoured each handful tossed their way.
Green River Ferry
Green River Ferry and Mammoth Visitor Center
I’m a huge fan of ferries and I’ve taken many routes over the years. This one was quite interesting. I don’t recall riding any other ferry quite so short or small. The total crossing took maybe thirty seconds — certainly less than an average stop light — and carried only three cars at a time. It was so easy we had to double-back and try it again.
Actually there was another ferry on the park grounds however it was grounded for 2013 due to budget cuts. It’s a good thing we called the park’s ferry hotline ahead of time or we would have taken a huge detour.
New Entrance Tour
I’d been to Mammoth Cave as a child although I didn’t remember much about it other than it was indeed mammoth. Several 12MC readers cautioned me that there were probably better caves in the area if I wanted to see lots of formations rather than a big tube. I heeded their advice and selected Mammoth’s New Entrance Tour instead of the classic "Historic" tour. The image above shows the road distance between the start and the end of the New Entrance Tour. Draw a line between the two points and that would be the approximate underground route.
Look! Formations! Much of the Mammoth Cave system does not have formations due to an impermeable layer of sandstone resting above the limestone that serves as a water barrier. No dripping water means no stalactites, stalagmites, columns, flows, or other assorted goodies one normally associates with a cave. Mammoth was formed primarily by underground streams and rivers flowing down to the Green River, leaving behind tunnels as they carved still deeper into the earth. Even so, there are a few places where sinkholes formed and broke through the sandstone. Water dripped to create formations below those spots.
White-Nose Syndrome is a huge problem in the eastern United States, an irritating fungus that grows on bats as they hibernate and causes them to wake too early. They cannot find food and they starve to death. I’ve been in several caves in recent years although Mammoth has been the only one specifically within the target area. Generally, one cannot bring anything that’s been in one cave into another cave in the United States. That’s why the photo is pretty lousy. My mobile phone was the last camera I owned that had never been in a cave. Now I guess I need to buy a new camera.
Kentucky Adventure articles:
- Part 1 – Getting There
- Part 2 – Blazing a Trail
- Part 3 – Appalachian Heritage
- Part 4 – Power of Water
- Part 5 – In the Middle
- Part 6 – And the Rest