This columnist was recently invited to speak at the “Tales of the Cumberlands” conference at Breaks Interstate Park.
This park is jointly administered by the governments of Kentucky and Virginia and occupies 4,500 acres of wild, mountainous, forested land split among Pike County in Kentucky, and Dickenson and Buchanan Counties in Virginia.
Camping, biking, hiking, horseback riding, boating and white water rafting and kayaking are among the many activities visitors can enjoy at the Breaks.
Families can stay in tents, cabins or cottages, and full hotel facilities are available in six park lodges.
This columnist and his wife stayed in the Catawba Lodge in a room with a fantastic view of the “grand canyon of the south,” created where the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River “breaks” through Pine Mountain on its way north to the Ohio River. The restaurant in the conference center has a similar view.
It is said that the Breaks received its name in 1767 from Daniel Boone as he searched for a way from Virginia into Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley.
The conference is billed as a story telling event, with this being the fourth year in a row that it has taken place. Its focus is on history and folk tales from the Virginia-Kentucky border region of Appalachia from the early settlement days to the mid 20th century, with plenty of legend and music sprinkled in.
There were presentations on such topics as the 1926 shoot-out between a whisky drinking sheriff and a Prohibition inspector in front of the Dickenson County Courthouse; life as a child growing up in a coal camp; Daniel Boone’s explorations of Kentucky; the Baldwin-Felts detective agency of the coalfields; and the counterfeiter and moonshiner “Brandy Jack” Mullins.
This columnist spoke about the sixteenth century intrusion by Spanish conquistadors into Appalachia and their encounter with the Yuchi Indians they found there. His informal approach and his many maps and images were well received.
Austin Bradley, the superintendent of the Breaks Interstate Park, gave an engaging, extemporaneous talk about his law enforcement experiences there, in a place where isolation and rugged terrain sometimes bring illegal activities.
Bradley told the story of stumbling on a cache of moonshine liquor while searching for a small boy who had wandered off from his family in a remote area of the park. Fortunately, the boy was found, and a motion sensitive camera was set up to monitor the moonshine cache. A few days later, the camera recorded the recovery of the cache by a man who was conveniently for law enforcement wearing his work clothing with a nametag on it.
Visitors sometimes ask why it is called an Interstate Park when it is many miles away from any interstate highway. It is constitutionally so-called.
Article 1 Section 10 of the US Constitution defines the “Powers Prohibited of States” and begins by stating that “No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation.”
Efforts to turn the Breaks into a national park in the 1940s failed because of its remoteness and because the Clinchfield Railroad runs through the middle of it.
After World War II a movement by local activists determined that the best way to create a park would be to get an Act of Congress allowing Kentucky and Virginia to jointly administer a park as a special exception to the Constitution. The Act was passed in 1954 without opposition.
The only other interstate park in the US is the Palisades Interstate Parkway that opened in 1958 and runs for 38 miles along the western edge of the Hudson River above the high cliffs that constitute the palisades.
In 1915 George Carter of the Clinchfield Railroad opened up access to the beauty of the Breaks region and the gorge by completing a 35-mile railroad link from Elkhorn City, Kentucky, to Trammel, Virginia.
This link descended 1,600 feet into the gorge with a 1.5% grade cut through Pine Mountain and a 7,854-foot tunnel through Sandy Ridge Mountain just north of Dante, Virginia.
The Clinchfield Railroad was perhaps the most expensive rail link ever constructed across the Appalachian mountains, but it has paid off handsomely over the years by carrying coal from eastern Kentucky to South Carolina. Today, the link is owned and operated by the CSX Railroad.
Unlike other state parks in Kentucky and Virginia, the Breaks receives relatively little state funding.
It is supported mostly by visitors’ fees with assistance from the nonprofit “Friends of Breaks Park,” which produced a documentary video about the park earlier this year.
This columnist greatly enjoyed his Breaks experience, highly recommends the park, and hopes to get invited again to “Tales of the Cumberlands.”
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of southwest Virginia.