Commonwealth Journal

August 7, 2013

Burnside Time Capsule

1950 Detroit newspaper offers final look at town before it was impounded by Lake Cumberland

by Bill Mardis
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —


A journalistic treasure was found recently while a Somerset woman was going through some old papers at her home on College Street.

The special “find” was a full newspaper page of photographs of Old Burnside published by The Detroit News Pictorial September 10, 1950, nearly four months before the gates were closed at Wolf Creek Dam to impound Lake Cumberland.

“I thought this would be interesting to the Commonwealth Journal,” said Jane Tibbals Ledford, noting all the publicity about problems at Wolf Creek Dam. She found the old newspaper at her current home, the former Dr. F.E. Tibbals’ residence. Jane Tibbals Ledford is a sister to the late Carol Tibbals Troxell, wife of Larry Troxell, former news editor for the Commonwealth Journal.

Reason given 63 years ago for the spread of photos about old Burnside in Motor City was “ ... over the years thousands of Detroiters en route to Florida or the mid-South on U.S. 27 have passed through Burnside in central Kentucky on the banks of the Cumberland River.”

The Detroit newspaper writer said Burnside “ ... was the last place to get a decent meal before entering the twisting Cumberland Mountains part of the journey. The tedious twists and turns start just south of Burnside and end at Harriman, Tenn.” Thankfully, the lake is here and U.S. 27 has been widened since 1950.

Photo at the top of the old newspaper page was a passenger car parked in front of a sign in sight of a partially completed Southern Railway Bridge.

Said the sign: “You are now riding on the bottom of future Cumberland Lake. This fisherman’s dream is now filling and when filled with be the largest lake east of the Mississippi River. This vacationist’s haven will be filled by vacation time of 1951. Make your plans now to return.”

Lake Cumberland would be a shot-in-the-arm for the Somerset-Burnside area, gasping economically from the recent closing of the Southern Railroad Shops at Ferguson. The Shops had employed 600 men with relatively high-paying jobs.

Other photos on the newspaper page showed auctioning of contents of a building housing the post office, bus station and general store in Old Burnside; Oscar (Doc) Dyer locking his drugstore at the end of the old Seven Gables Motel; and razing of a building that served as Civil War headquarters for Union General Ambrose E. Burnside, after whom the city of Burnside was named.

James “Jim” Brooks, former mayor of Burnside, was there when Old Burnside was demolished to make way for Lake Cumberland and new Burnside was built on a nearby bluff.

Brooks, a few years ago, related to the Commonwealth Journal what to many was a traumatic event as the lake water rose and covered their former homes and businesses.

A teen-ager when Burnside was forced to move to its current location, Brooks still knows Old Burnside like the back of his hand. It was easy for him to trace crumbling blacktop that once was U.S. 27. 

The old road was still visible along sunbaked terrain for six years while the lake level was kept low to facilitate repairs to Wolf Creek Dam. Now that the lake has risen 20 feet, water covers most of the Old Burnside area.

Brooks pointed to the spot where the famous Seven Gables Hotel welcomed visitors. He remembers Robinson Milling Company and its adjacent ice house, launching point for deliveries to homes with a card in the window.

“We had everything Somerset had at that time,” said Brooks. There were Standard Oil and Texaco bulk plants, two large lumber companies, an enormous tie yard, Burnside Veneer Company, George P. Taylor Produce and two wholesale grocery companies.

Bunker Hill was still Bunker Hill. “Nobody had thought of General Burnside Island State Park at that time,” said Brooks. Crops grew on the famous Civil War battlefield.

“There were at least three farms up there. Most of the land on the hill was owned by (the late) Bob Cox,” Brooks related.

Residents on and near Bunker Hill didn’t have city water. Brooks said they got water from Town Spring, a gushing stream that created a creek on the east side of Bunker Hill. 

The creek was swollen by the lake to become part of a body of water that turned Bunker Hill into an island. The setting made the hill attractive and the state built a park, the only island state park in Kentucky.

Before the lake was impounded, Cumberland River was navigable. Point Isabel, later called Burnside, originally was the eastern terminus of a brisk river trade. Steamboats plied up and down the river between Burnside and Nashville.

“Steamboats had about played out before the town was forced to move,” Brooks remembers. He said the railroad and trucks had taken over most of the movement of goods.

“The last riverboat, sometime in the late 30s, got stuck and had to stay up here a while,” Brooks recalls.

Point Isabel on the Cumberland River was settled around 1800 by pioneers from the Carolinas and Virginia. During the Civil War, the Union Army, in 1863, set up a troop rendezvous and supply base at Point Isabel as a prelude to the East Tennessee Campaign of General Burnside. The area became known as Camp Burnside in official dispatches and the name Burnside was retained after the war.

Moving the town was a bitter pill for many Burnside residents, particularly older people. “Some of them just didn’t want to leave their homes,” Brooks said. 

Burnside lost population because of the lake. Between 1,200 and 1,500 lived in the town at the time it was moved, according to Brooks. Some of the residents apparently didn’t get enough money to rebuild in the new town and were forced to find housing somewhere else, including Somerset. Burnside’s current population is 611, according to 2010 census.

Brooks said most younger people didn’t seem to mind so much to move from Old Burnside. One of the people forced out was his father, R.L. Brooks, operator of a Gulf Service Station.

“It was a mess,” the younger Brooks remembers. Gates on the dam were closed in December 1950 and it was supposed to take two years for the 101-mile-long lake to fill.

“But we had a flood ... and the bridges weren’t done,” said Brooks. A ferry was put in operation to take people to Ky. 90. Cars lined up and sometimes waited more than two hours to be ferried across the lake.

“It was scary ... the water got choppy. The ferry carried school buses ... the children would scream,” Brooks recalls. 

Burnside, billed as “The Only Town on Lake Cumberland” has changed a lot since it moved along what is now new U.S. 27. Annexation, including taking in Lee’s Ford Marina Resort near Nancy, has made new Burnside in land and water area the largest city in Pulaski County.