Located on the border of the Kentucky and Virginia, The Breaks canyon is one of the deepest in the United States. The Russell Fork River cuts through the landscape, creating some of the most breathtaking scenery in Appalachia.
The area around The Breaks remained mostly untouched and isolated until the 19th century. But since then, it has been impacted by forestry, railroad development, conservation, and recreation.
In the late 1800s, industrial logging had become widespread, and unlike the selective tree harvesting that preceded it, this form of forestry had numerous devastating side effects. Clear cut areas were more prone to mudslides, flooding, and wildfires, and the land surrounding The Breaks was one of the affected areas.
“There’s a lot of historical evidence that the yellow poplar trees in the Cumberland plateau region, particularly around The Breaks area, were as high as 200 feet and as much as seven or eight feet in diameter,” says Donald Edward Davis, author of “Where There are Mountains.”
The Yellow Poplar Lumber Company set up shop near The Breaks, despite the challenging terrain. There were no roads or railroads to transport logs, which left the river as the best way to move lumber from forest to market. But the rough, winding water and boulders located throughout the river made that option difficult, too.
In 1909, the Yellow Poplar Lumber Company eliminated some of the larger boulders by way of dynamite. They built the world’s first concrete splash dam three miles upstream. The splash dam would hold back the river until the water level was high enough, and when the water was released it would carry the logs over the difficult underwater terrain.
“The very first time The Breaks’ splash dam is exploded in 1909, it was truly an amazing sight,” says Davis. “You had logs piled 50 feet high for three quarters of a mile in that initial log dump. A couple of the eyewitnesses had been to Niagara Falls, and Niagara Falls had nothing on the explosion of the splash dam at The Breaks.”
The lumber industry had a huge economic impact on the region, but the work it provided was dangerous. Gene Counts, director of Friends of Russell Fork, learned about what life in logging was like from his father, Jim Counts, who was employed by Yellow Poplar from the time he was a teenager.
“My father would follow the logs downstream through the gorge in Elkhorn City, and his job was to help raft those logs together,” says Counts. “He would accompany the rafts to Cattletsburg, Ky., at the confluence of the Ohio River. This was the part he enjoyed the most. It was like ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ He would get to float on these logs and camp out at night.”
Eventually, the yellow poplar population was nearly decimated by the lumber industry around The Breaks. The human toll was devastating as well.
“My father said that he had never seen anyone killed before,” Counts remembers. “But he saw many people trying to free up a logjam or something, and the log would turn, and it would fall down a crevice, taking the workers with it. And he’d seen many people drowned and many people get crushed because he said life was [considered] cheap back then, because they were largely immigrants.”
America embraced the progress and possibility brought by the beginning of railroad transportation in the 19th century. By 1880, over 90,000 miles of rail had been laid in the United States. But a gap in access remained over a large section of Appalachia.
Union General John T. Wilder proposed a 621-mile rail line known as the Charleston, Cincinnati, and Chicago, otherwise known as the Three Cs. But investment in the project dried up quickly and unexpectedly.
“Shortly thereafter, the panic of 1893 hit, and that finished off with the demise of the railroad,” says Ned Irwin, co-author of “The Last Empire Builder.” “Wilder lost most of his money. A lot of people in the region took a loss on it.”
After the Three Cs collapse, portions of the line were auctioned off to settle the debts. One portion that included The Breaks ended up with George Lafayette Carter, a Virginia native and founder of the Clinchfield Railroad. Carter was a self-made millionaire who worked his way up from a teenage store clerk to successful businessman. In addition to his railroad interests, he operated Carter Coal in West Virginia. In fact, his involvement in railroad development in Appalachia was largely motivated by the need for an efficient way to transport coal out of the region.
The Breaks region was key to building viable railroad in the area, and Carter wasn’t the only one with ambitions of controlling rail access through it.
“The battle sort of got heated around 1900 because he who was first controlled the access to these mineral deposits,” says Donald A. McGlothlin, Jr., retired judge for the 29th Judicial Circuit of Virginia. “It went from people staking out their claims, sending engineers and surveyors and teams of workers to clear out places for a railroad bed, to the point where people that were led by George Carter filed a suit against the C and O (Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad) folks to keep them from coming into an area that they thought they would develop first.”
The conflict went on, with suits and countersuits filed back and forth.
“These large groups, after filing the suits and sort of drawing up their armies to battle, end up settling the case,” says McGlothlin. When the settlement occurred, it was Carter’s Clinchfield Railroad taking control of The Breaks.
But the struggle was far from over. Clinchfield engineers were left with the task of finding a way to build track through the challenging terrain of the Elkhorn Extension. Laborers were mainly immigrants from Russia and Italy who spoke little English. Conflicts and even violence broke out regularly among workers. Nevertheless, Clinchfield powered through, and the railroad was completed when George Carter drove the last spike on Feb. 9, 1915.
“The Clinchfield Railroad still runs through,” says Paul Patton, 59th Governor of Kentucky. “But that valley is so narrow there was no way to build both a road and a railroad through it. The railroad itself is a marvel.”
Distilling spirits has long been a part of Appalachian culture, although the production of whiskey has sometimes been hidden in the shadows.
At times throughout history, the U.S. government has levied a whiskey tax. This was done after the Revolutionary War to pay down war debts. Thomas Jefferson repealed that tax in 1802, and for the next 60 years, distillers manufactured their products without government intervention. During the Civil War, however, the government put a new whiskey tax in place. Some distillers complied, but many more took their operations to remote locations in the mountains, including around The Breaks.
In 1905, a U.S. Revenue Agent came to Buchanan County, Va., to raise a posse to break up a distillery blockade. One of the members recruited was Sam Hurley, a man known for his skills at fighting and marksmanship.
“By this time, Sam Hurley is a respected businessman and family man,” says Chris Slone, Sam Hurley’s great grandson. “Go back 10 years though, and he is a rough and tumble young man in a rough and tumble lumber camp up in West Virginia.”
Word of the posse got out, and eight men set up an ambush along the Kentucky/Virginia highway in The Breaks. In the ensuing chaos, 250 shots were fired, and one of the moonshiners was killed. Hurley and the other members of the posse were indicted for murder in the first degree in Pike County, though a federal jury later acquitted them.
Hurley went on to become a successful businessman and a candidate for Congress. He even started a school for underprivileged kids, which still exists today.
The Breaks Interstate Park
Although the railroad had been built through The Breaks, it was still a largely inaccessible area. Those who did come through raved about its beauty, and some were inspired to work toward park status for the area around the canyon so that others would be able to experience it.
Writer John Fox Jr. chronicled a fishing expedition to The Breaks canyon in an article published by Scribner’s magazine in September of 1900. That article was a turning point for The Breaks, bringing widespread interest to the area. One of the readers captivated by Fox’s article was Kelly Day.
“Yosemite had John Muir. The Great Smoky Mountains had Horace Gephardt, and for The Breaks Interstate Park, that man has to be Kelly Day,” says seventh park superintendent Austin Bradley.
As Vice President of The Breaks Reserve and Reforestation Association, Day advocated for having The Breaks canyon and 15,000 adjacent acres of Jefferson National Forest set aside as a National Park. The effort was unsuccessful, due in large part to the section of land right through the middle of the acreage that was owned by the Clinchfield Railroad.
The effort to preserve the land continued, however, and found an advocate in Joe Creason, a journalist with the Louisville Courier-Journal. He drew readers’ attention to not only the breathtaking beauty of The Breaks, but also to the terrible conditions of the only roads available to reach that area.
“The roads into The Breaks, in both the Kentucky and Virginia approaches, are enough to discourage a veteran mountain goat,” Creason wrote. “They’re narrow, deep-rutted, and downright dangerous, hugging the very brink of the gorge in many places.”
Meanwhile, Day continued to use his connections through business and politics to advocate for The Breaks. Thanks to his lobbying, the Kentucky State Chamber of Commerce selected The Breaks as the location for its 1949 Governor’s Tour.
“As they were on their way from Elkhorn City to The Breaks, which is a 7-mile trip, that trip took three hours because of some recent rains that had made the roadway almost impassable,” says Bradley.
The governor’s jeep got stuck on the roads multiple times during the trek. One attendant reported that, after finally arriving at The Breaks, the governor said, “If I get off this mountain safely, I promise you that I will build a road from Elkhorn City to the Virginia State line to open up this beautiful area.”
In May of 1950, the Virginia State Highway Commission announced that construction of a highway through The Breaks would begin. On June 10, 1951, visitors celebrated the grand opening of Route 80.
Now, with access to the park finally enabled, The Breaks’ status as a park was closer to reality. In 1954, Kentucky and Virginia agreed to a bi-state compact to designate the area as an interstate park, one of only two in the country. On September 5, 1955, The Breaks of the Cumberland was officially opened.
Lord of the Fork
Today, The Breaks is revered by whitewater enthusiasts, though it isn’t for the faint of heart.
“This river was considered unrunnable,” says Brent Austin, director of American Whitewater. “If you go to the Kentucky whitewater books, they’ll label it Class VI: Unrunnable.”
Commercial, guided whitewater runs started through The Breaks in the late 1980s, but less than a decade later, such operations ceased. There had been multiple fatalities and near-misses, and insurance for such operations became prohibitively expensive. But independent runs by experienced whitewater kayakers continued.
One of those kayakers was Jon Lord, a whitewater veteran who lived and worked nearby and was a regular on the rapids. On Jan. 25, 2004, Lord and his friends went out for a day on the Russell Fork River, despite cold, sleety conditions.
“At the towers rapids, the river splits into at least two channels,” remembers Jack Ditty II, M.D., one of Jon’s friends. “Matt and I decided to go on the right side of this island. John decided to go to the left side. Just a brief split. Maybe out of sight of each other for 20 seconds.”
When Lord didn’t emerge on the other side, it quickly became clear that he was in trouble. The front of his kayak was pinned under a rock, and the intense rapids behind him caused the boat to sink farther.
“We tried for a while to move back upstream to where we could get into a position where we could help,” Ditty remembers. “But the minutes ticked away pretty quickly, much faster than they usually do. After about 10 minutes, we realized at that point what had happened.”
A few days later, Lord’s friends and family gathered at the river to say goodbye.
“We had a little service right there at Ratliff Hole,” says Austin. “They lit one candle for Jon, and one candle for each of his two kids. The thing that was most moving to me was just seeing that light, that candle represent Jon’s life and his two small children adding their light to their daddy’s and it floated downstream out of sight. That was very touching, very moving. I’m still moved to this day.”
The Russell Fork has been home to an annual October kayak race since 1995. In 2004, it was renamed Lord of the Fork in honor of Jon Lord.
“The thing that I think Jon would really be happy about is that…all of his friends are still out here and we think about him and we’re still doing what he loved to do,” says Austin. “There’s no question he would say, ‘Keep boating. Keep being connected.’ Paddling is Zen. It’s mind, body, spirit. Once you’re there, you get it.”
An Island of Wilderness
The Breaks Interstate Park exists today because of people who saw its singular beauty and value. They believed it was worth preserving as a natural place. But the preservation work continues.
In 2016, American Rivers named the Russell Fork the seventh most endangered river in the United States, primarily due to nearby mining interests.
The responsibility for preserving The Breaks lies with the people who visit and love the park. Those already in the know want more people to experience The Breaks in all its changing beauty. Austin Bradley describes what makes The Breaks so special:
“One of the great things about working at The Breaks and having the privilege to be here 365 days a year is really the opportunity to see the park in the four seasons,” says Bradley. “In spring the mountain laurel begins to bloom, and the dogwoods come out, and the hills are almost just alive with a very new and vivid green. It’s just so awesome to watch life return to the area.
“Then summer comes and the rhododendrons start to bloom and the hills are just covered in this lush, deep green. When you’re standing on an overlook and the leaves have covered over any trace of any road or human development, you can really imagine the place like it probably was three hundred years ago.
“Then fall rolls around and that lush greenery from the summer just comes ablaze with fall color and we attract people from all over the united states to stand on overlook and look out at the gorge and all the fall foliage.
“And then finally winter rolls around and our crowds die down that always seems like such a shame to me because The Breaks is a geological feature. It’s a break in Pine Mountain. And the geology of this area is just absolutely breathtaking and you can really only see that very well in the winter.”