If not for DuPont in the 1920’s, Cumberland Falls might have been eliminated to make hydro-electric dam
Cumberland Falls is known as the “Niagara of the South,” and for good reason. A 125-foot wide curtain of water plunges 65 feet over the falls. The volume of water pouring over Cumberland Falls is the second greatest east of the Mississippi River after Niagara Falls.
Cumberland Falls’ most famous distinction is that it is the only place in the Western Hemisphere where you can observe a regularly recurring moonbow, which is similar to a rainbow but can only be seen at night during a full moon.
Have you ever wondered who the first people were to see the wondrous site of Cumberland Falls, and how this wonder of nature became one of Kentucky’s most popular state parks?
In 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker named the waterfall after the Duke of Cumberland, who was a son of King George II of England.
Kentucky historian Richard Henry Collins wrote a vivid description of Cumberland Falls in his 1874 History of Kentucky, saying the surrounding countryside “presents to the eye of the traveler a succession of scenery as romantic and picturesque as any in the state.”
In 1780, a four-person hunting party, including Zachariah Green, was making its way down the Cumberland River in their boats without any knowledge of what laid ahead, and made a sudden discovery of the falls as they were swept over before they knew what was happening. At the time the water level was quite low so they were able to swim to shore.
By the early 1800’s the Falls of Cumberland, as it was generally known at the time, was becoming a well-known site especially after word of the amazing “moon bow,” which could be seen there.
In 1800, Matthew Walton and Andrew Shepherd were granted a land patent that included the falls and 200 acres of land.
In 1850, Lewis and Mary Renfro acquired this land and an additional 200 acres, and became the first permanent land owning settlers at the falls. They built a small cabin beside the falls and later the couple added a two-room lean-to for visitors, who wished to fish and enjoy the falls.
The couple remained there for 25 years during which time more rooms were added. It served as a recuperating facility during the Civil War, and was reported to have “fine mineral springs,” which reportedly could cure ailments of the day.
During much of his early life, Lewis Renfo spent much time searching for the fabled John Swift silver mine that was rumored to have been in the vicinity of the falls.
At the time of the Civil War, several con men began selling stock in the fabled silver mine, including thousands of shares sold to people in Chicago, New York and reportedly Paris, France. As a result, Renfro accumulated a tremendous debt, and was forced to sell his 400-acre tract of land to Socrates Owens in 1875.
Owens planned to build a large inn where the Renfo cabin stood, and he obtained lumber from a local sawmill about 10 miles upstream from the falls on Jellico Creek. The logs were floated down from the mill to the site where Owens was building the inn.
Later the inn was converted to a hotel named the Cumberland Falls Hotel.
In 1890, Indianapolis resident Henry C. Brunson bought the Cumberland Falls Hotel. For the next 30 years he and his family operated the resort, which was known as The Brunson Inn. It was a two-story structure with 40 rooms on each floor and a wide porch.
Brunson later sold his holdings to the Cumberland River Power Company for $190,000, which planned to build a dam above the falls and tunnel through the mountain dropping the water below the falls through a turbine in order to generate electricity.
In 1927, T. Coleman DuPont offered to purchase the greater area for $400,000 in order to preserve it in its natural state. In 1931, his widow donated the land to the state of Kentucky for use as a public park.
In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed DuPont Lodge and 15 cabins for visitors along with campsites, picnic areas, roads and trails. A fire destroyed the DuPont Lodge in 1940, but a new lodge was built in 1941. Fires destroyed the old Cumberland Falls Hotel in 1947, and the Moonbow Inn in 1949.
Cumberland Falls State Park remains today as one of the most popular and visited state parks in Kentucky.
Last month, Kentucky’s Best, as voted upon by readers of “Kentucky Living” Magazine were announced at the Kentucky State Fair and Cumberland Falls State Park took home three awards among those presented to tourist destinations across the Commonwealth.
The falls, known as the “Niagara of the South” won the award for “Best Selfie Spot.”
In addition the park finished second behind Mammoth Cave for “Best Day Trip,” and third place behind Mammoth Cave and the Louisville Zoo for best “Family Day Trip.”