Pulaski County Fact Book II
Chapter 10 The Cumberland River

It has been noted throughout history that when the first settlers came together to form a new community there was something that attracted them. Often times it was a waterfall, a river, the junction of two trails or in later days, two roads. The reason for having some attraction was so that there would be something which they could use to provide them with an income. This was true with the founding of Burnside, Kentucky. The attraction, of course, was the Cumberland River, and even more important was that the Big South Fork joins the Cumberland at Burnside.

The Cumberland River is an important branch of the Ohio River. The Cumberland River in Southern Kentucky and Northern Tennessee is formed on he Cumberland Plateau by the confluence of two forks north of Harlan, Kentucky, with more tributaries being added along its route. The river flows in a westerly direction and drains an area of 18,000 square miles, it empties into the Ohio River at Smithland, Kentucky. The Cumberland is 693 miles long and navigable for 461 miles up to Wolf Creek Dam.

The Cumberland River has greatly aided the settlement and growth of Burnside since its founding prior to the Civil War. At that time Burnside was known as Point Isabel. The name of the town was changed to Burnside at the time of its incorporation. This was in honor of General Ambrose Burnside of the Union Army who was stationed here during the Civil War.

The Cumberland undoubtedly was in use as early as 6,000 years ago. Indians known as the "Early Hunters" were on the site of Burnside at that time. Skeletons dating back that far have been found in Hines Cave near Mill Springs. Probably the Shell Mound Indians were on the Cumberland as early as 2,000 years before the time of Christ, however, their principal relics were found in the Green River Valley.

Between the time of the discovery of America and the arrival of the "Long Hunters," the Cherokee Indians probably were the most frequent users of the Cumberland. The Indian name for the Cumberland River was "River des Chauanons." It was also called Showance by an Englishman by the name of Morgan. The river continued to go by the names for quite a while after Dr. Thomas Walker’s discovery and naming in 1750.

In 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker, head of the Loyal Land Company, set out for Kentucky to find 800,000 acres of good land. Coming into Kentucky he stopped on a ridge on which there were several Laurel Trees. This was Cave Gap which later became known as Cumberland Gap, from the name given the river below by Dr. Walker.

The Cumberland River was discovered by Dr. Thomas Walker and his party of hunters. They named the river in honor of the Duke of Cumberland (of England). They also named the Levisa Fork for the sister of the Duke of Cumberland.

The "Long Hunters" were an early group of white hunters from Virginia who were exploring Kentucky in the mid 18th century. (They received the name "Long Hunters" because they were gone from home so long.) The "Long Hunters" came across Daniel Boone (who was also exploring Kentucky at this time), alone and singing in the wilderness. Daniel and his brother, Squire Boone, joined forces with the "Long Hunters" and went with them exploring the "Big Band" of The Cumberland River.

On March 17, 1775, the Transylvania Land Company headed by Col. Henderson, purchased from the Cherokee Indians are triangle of land enclosed by the Cumberland, Kentucky, and Ohio Rivers, with the Cumberland servicing as the southern boundary.

In the early history of the Cumberland River one name is constantly in the picture, that name being Dr. Thomas Walker. Dr. Walker, age 65, camped by the Cumberland during the hard winter of 1779. When all others were freezing and starving, Dr. Walker made out all right. When the river froze he wrote in his journal that it was "very cold."

Crossing the Cumberland was always a problem. In the very early days the travelers had to travel along the river for miles until they could find a suitable place to ford. From a very early date, however, Burnside had a ferry running from the town across to the Bronston area thus connecting Burnside with the Monticello area. One of the most frequent Monticello-Burnside users of the ferry was the stage line. In 1901, the river was frozen at Burnside and the ferry couldn’t cross, therefore, the Burnside-Monticello stagecoach crossed over on the ice and then went on its way to Monticello.

After the ferry had been in operation for several years two bridges were built. A crude bridge arching the South Fork River and a much better one, "The General Burnside Memorial Bridge" crossing the Cumberland, thus connecting Burnside with Somerset. There was also a very unique railroad bridge at Burnside. As a bridge came out of the old tunnel it made a four-degree curve to join the old railroad bed at Burnside. With the relocation of the town in 1950, the need to span the rivers was greatly increased. Two new highway bridges and a new railroad were constructed at that time.

In 1861, in connection with the Civil War, the Confederates had a defense line in Kentucky that arched from Cumberland Gap up and crossed Bowling Green and back into Tennessee near Fort Donelson. When this defense line was broken the North was able to drive farther into the South which eventually proved to be very important in preserving the Union. In sight of the Cumberland River on the rainy morning of January 19, 1862, the first crack of this defense line came when the Union, under General Thomas, won the Battle of Mill Springs. During this famous battle the Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer was slain and buried in the Confederate Cemetery on the banks of the Cumberland, in Pulaski County. Thus, we can see that Old Man Cumberland was looking on during an important part of the great American Civil War.

Thus far, the main subjects discussed have been the physical properties of the river and the early history of the Cumberland. In studying the economic value of the river, it is essential to know the layout of the river and the immediate area, as well as, a knowledge of its history.

The remainder of this article will be devoted to the many purposes served by the Cumberland. These cover a wide variety ranging from river traffic to recreational facilities. These two, being the most important, will be discussed in the greatest detail; however, these were not the only uses of the Cumberland. The other ones will also be discussed in detail according to their importance.

The Cumberland River was very helpful in the migration of early settlers coming into the West. An example of such migration was that of the family of Rachel Donelson who migrated down the Cumberland to the Cumberland Bend area which is near Nashville. It was while she lived in this area that Miss Donelson met and married Andrew Jackson. The Jackson’s were frequent travelers on the Cumberland. When elected President of the United States, Andrew Jackson made a portion of his trip to Washington by way of the Cumberland River. At that time, this was an unprecedented event in the history of the young nation.

The coal supply for heat in the homes and businesses in the towns along the Cumberland River was brought from the Eastern Kentucky mines by way of barges which floated down the river. The coal was then distributed by wagon to the individual customers. The above-mentioned barges were built at the head of the river and were used for many purposes along the river, but due to the swift current above Burnside, they were never returned.

Old Man Cumberland was put to use by the timber industry also. Logs were floated down the river by the thousands. The lumberman would cut them in the winter and roll them down to the banks. Then when the spring tides came, the logs would float down the creeks and tributaries to the main river and then on to the towns along the main stream. Sometimes the logs were rafted together, then brought down by men called "rafters" who rode on these rafts and guided them by the use of long poles. The main town on the upper Cumberland to which logs were floated was Burnside, where the Kentucky Lumber Company operated a Loom that picked the logs up from the water. Below Burnside the main "log catching" towns were Carthage and Nashville, Tennessee. The lumber industry in Burnside has always been greatest in the source of employment.

The Cumberland River was also valuable as a fishing ground, as well as for many other things. A fish trap was also built on the Cumberland at the Shad Shoals about 1 miles up the river from Burnside. Another fish trap was located on the South Fork near Burnside about the same time. Many fish were taken from these traps while they were in operation.

The most important thing, in connection with the Cumberland River to benefit Burnside, was the steamboat business. Burnside had the title of "Head of Navigation of the Cumberland River." Smith Shoals, just above Burnside, marked the beginning of white water through which not even a canoe could go through.

"Everything from a mustard seed to a large steer was shipped on the Cumberland." Anyone alive today who once lived along the river and in the towns such as Burnside will tell you how they listened for the familiar steamboat whistle. Many people life what ever they were doing to come down to the wharf to see the boat land. One of the more interesting stories still being told by local residents concerns Christmas. The Christmas atmosphere and all the "goodies" associated with that time of year depended on the condition of the river and the schedule of the boats. If all conditions were right, everything for Christmas would arrive on time and would possibly contain a prized possession – a banana.

The following is a description given by Harriette Arnow in her book "Seedtime on the Cumberland" concerning river traffic:

I remember the mules pulling the heavily loaded wagons up from the ferry or steamboat landing,

And all about me were people who remembered in ’78 when the Cumberland was the only

Highway and most things from pianos to candy came by boat from Nashville.

The river met the railroad at Burnside, and goods shipped in by rail could be distributed to the towns along the river via steamboats and barges. This was the only town above Nashville to have such a rail hook-up. Also important to Burnside was its being the last town on the upper Cumberland that boats could reach. Just above Burnside were eight miles of shoals, a few barges came down through these shoals; but none ever went up them.

Since 1832, the federal government was spent over $6,000,000 to improve the river channel. Most of this was spent on the lower Cumberland and did not affect the Burnside area.

Taking everything into consideration, Burnside contributed more than its share towards river transportation. For a small community quite set apart from the rest, it fought for and earned its title of control of the upper Cumberland. Situated at the head of navigation on the river, it served a very large trade area. Burnside came into its own as a river point during the 1870-1880 period, when it appeared coal might be successfully barged down to Nashville; and then the railroad entered to help shape the future.

The first steamboat on the Cumberland River as far as Nashville was named the General Jackson, the date of this voyage is not exactly known. It took 14 years for the steamboats to conquer the Cumberland all the way from Smithland to Burnside, a distance of 516 miles.

The first boat to make the trip from Nashville to Burnside was the "Jefferson," in 1832. On the trip, the boat carried a cargo of tobacco.

The Burnside and Burkesville Transportation Company, known as the B&B Line, was organized near the turn of the century. Its first boat was the "City of Burkesville." The B&B Line also owned the Towena and Celina, two of the most popular Burnside boats; however, these boats were infrequently seen at the Nashville wharf.

The Burnside boats frequently overlapped the territory of the Nashville boats between Carthage and Celina, but they seldom went on to Nashville. However, the Nashville packets frequently came to Burkesville and sometimes on to Burnside. Both the Burnside and Nashville packets, as a rule, stayed within their territory; although, neither admitted any territorial limitations. Nashville packets and those from Burnside exchanged up-river and down-river freight as a matter of courtesy.

Burnside also had a competing line known as the Cumberland Transportation Company, with J.W. Davidson, President and George P. and Norman I. Taylor of the Cumberland Grocery Company as the principal owners. In 1917, the B&B Line sold out to the Cumberland Transportation Company.

The last three boats to frequent the Burnside area were the "City of Burnside," "Celina," and "Rowena." These boats ran at intervals until 1928 when highways finally put them out of business.

The "City of Burnside" sank at Burnside. The "Celina" and "Rowena" were sold in 1932-33, and while being towed down the river they sank the "Celina" at Indian Creek and the "Rowena" at Greasey Creek.

In his book "Steamboatin’ on the Cumberland," Byrd Douglas summed up Burnside’s position in relation to the Cumberland as follows:

Point Isabel, the last and by far the most important town on the Cumberland in Southeastern

  • Kentucky, was the leader in the upper Cumberland packet business. Point Isabel was one of the oldest settlements on the Cumberland and one of the most beautifully located. According to a

    Modern survey, it is 325 miles by river from Nashville and is situated in Pulaski County, Kentucky,

    On a high bluff overlooking the Cumberland at the junction of the Big South Fork. Point Isabel

    During the war between the states became headquarters of General Ambrose Burnside of the

    Federal Army and changed its name to Burnside in his honor.

  • One reason for Kentucky remaining neutral in the Civil War was due in part to the economic value of such rivers as the Cumberland which flowed from North to South, thus giving an outlet for products.

    The Cumberland was not always valuable. One of the greatest problems was the floods. When the floods came, the only thing to do was just wait patiently until they receded. If you lived in a two-story house, you just moved upstairs until the water went down. The floods were not so great at Burnside as they were in the towns below, particularly Burkesville where the streets looked like the canals of Vienna. The reason for the floods not being as great at Burnside as other places was that the floods were formed at the forks of the river (located at Burnside) and flowed on to the Ohio River flooding all the towns along the way. In addition to the homes being flooded with water, they were filled with dirt and filth. This was the cause of many diseased such as typhoid fever. The problem of floods was eliminated with the construction of Wolf Creek Dam which was completed in 1950.

    For most of the towns along the river this was the greatest thing that could have happened, but to Burnside it was a completely different story. The entire town would be covered by the waters of the newly formed Lake Cumberland. Everything had to be moved to a new location, and life started all over again. This meant several years of work; and still many businesses, as well as citizens, left Burnside altogether. In terms of an economic disaster, this was a near disaster for the town. If it had not previously attained such a high economic level and had it not been for the assistance from the federal government, it would have been nothing but a ghost town today ... And the Floods Came.

    The greatest flood ever recorded at Burnside was in 1882 when the flood level (above regular river level) reached the height of 73.4 feet. Other high floods were:

    Date Height of Tide

    1826 72.4 feet

    1886 61.4 feet

    1902 64.4 feet

    1918 70.0 feet

    1926 59.0 feet

    1928 54.0 feet

    1929 69.2 feet

    1937 54.3 feet

    1939 65.2 feet

    1943 64.0 feet

    1946 66.0 feet


    Chapter Eleven

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