Return to Stith Valley Section, Return to front page.
HISTORY OF OTTER CREEK PARK
CITY OF Louisville
Route 1, Vine Grove, Kentucky 40175
Director JOHN G. ROWE
EARLY HISTORY OF THE OTTER CREEK SECTION
The history of the Otter Creek area and the section adjoining it is rich in historic figures and incidents. Early histories and records indicate that, due to the presence of game in great quantities and the Ohio River, the many tribes of Indians (Cherokees, Choctows, Shawnees, Creeks, Miamis, and Mingoes) used the Otter Creek area as hunting and fishing grounds and as an entrance to the interior lands. This was due to the narrowness of the Ohio at the point now called Rock Haven and recorded as Piomingo Bend. In the 1790's, at the time Washington, D. C. was conceived, another town to be known as Piomingo was planned, to be named after the Ohio River and the Chief of the Mingoes (Piomingo). This town never materialized, but the village of Rock Haven did result and for many years was a busy and industrious river port. Piomingo Bend offers a natural harbor; the cleft in the banks of the Ohio made access to the interior; and with the Falls of the Ohio (later called Louisville) halted transportation far upstream; too late Rock Haven saw Louisville as a rival for supremacy. Rock Haven with its extant mills, cement kilns, remains of warehouses, its numerous iron rings for tying ships in the rocks bordering the river, offers visible proof today that such was the case that Rock Haven was a river port of importance.
Contributing to the above activity are many names in National and Kentucky history. First to visit the Section was LaSalle in 1669 on a trip down the Ohio to the Mississippi. There is a lapse now of better than 100 years where we find no record whatsoever of activity. In 1778 Squire Boone in company with others came into this area. He was the brother of Daniel Boone and was an itinerate Baptist preacher. Daniel Boone visited this section in 1780 and with Squire Boone, legally patented lands for others. Squire Boone remained in this section for some three years, "cultivating only a few acres as game was so abundant". At about this time, George Rogers Clark was using the Buffalo trail, following the Ohio River from Salt River to Wolf Creek, on his expedition to the West, convoying his flatboats down the Ohio. Thus we find that the old buffalo trail, which is now the right-of-way of the L & N Railroad is one of the famous highways of history.
In 1785 General Crist of Revolutionary fame patented lands now included in the Otter Creek Park, namely from the Mouth of Otter Creek to Doe Run, some several miles west of present park boundaries. Aaron Burr passed through the section on his trip westward in 1806, to create a new monarchy. In 1906-08 grist mills were established on Otter Creek, one known as the Overton Mill; one as Sterrets Mill and the other in the village of Garnettsville. Foundations of the Sterrets Mill are still standing, together the mill race; the mill race only with its rock foundations are visible at the Overton Mill. At Garnettsville the mill is still standing, together with portions of original equipment. Around these mills formed communities; one in particular, Plain Dealing the remains of which are still visible. It was probably abandoned due to frequent high waters. Plain Dealing was on the stagecoach route from Brandenburg to Louisville, traces of which are still visible through the Park Area.
In 1809, Tecumseh, the great Indian Chief, met in conference near the mouth of the creek with the Indian tribes of the north and south and attempted to form the Indian confederacy to repel the whites in the Ohio Valley.
John Audubon, the noted ornithologist, frequently passed through Otter Creek section on his trips to Louisville from his home in Henderson. His notes indicate the following: "Left Hardens Berg (now Hardinsburg) on old Sorrell, early morning of October 19, 1811, followed the trace (buffalo trail) through the tall thick grass to Piomingo Bend, arriving there about candlelight." Audubon makes note of many wildlife features, among them bears with cubs, and mentions that wild pigeons had passed overhead northward continuous for eight hours, quote: "throughout my vears of observation of pigeons, this enormous exodus was by far the greatest flight ever witnessed."
In 1826, Lafayette, on his trip upstream from New Orleans spent several days in this section due to the boat in which he and his party were making the trip had sunk.
The next recording of prominent history is during the period of the Civil War in which the name of General Morgan looms prominently in the history of Otter Creek. Due to the natural harbor at Piomingo Bend or Rock Haven, this was his favorite crossing point into Indiana to carry on his warfare. Local inhabitants state that "Morgan's Cave" was his storage point for provisions, or "his refrigerator."
Following this segment of history a few years we find Jessie James and his gang, which report has it, used the various caves as hideouts; further report has it that after the robbery of the Mammoth Cave Stage, Jessie James and his gang hid out in this section.
During the period of 1778 to the last named period around 1880, Rock Haven and Garnettsville were both boom towns. Garnettsville had one of the Colleges of note at that time and numbered around a thousand inhabitants. Rock Haven, a river port town, with warehouses and cement kilns was an industrial center that prospered. But when river traffic all but ceased there is little but debris to remind us that features once so prominent existed
We can find no record that tribes resided permanently in this area. We know that due to the narrowness of the river and the cleft in the banks of the Ohio that Rock Haven was a favorite crossing-point, and due to abundant game, tribes used the present park area extensively as hunting grounds. The buffalo trail along the river was the favorite road north and south, and along this roadway are many records of fierce war engagements and Indian attacks. The many findings of Indian relics here abouts prove that the section was widely used as a focal point for the Indians of six tribes' namely. Mingoes, Shawnees and Miamis of the north; and the Cherokees, Choctaws and Creeks of the "barrens" of the south.
HISTORY OF OTTER CREEK PARK
The area for Otter Creek Park was selected in 1934 by the Federal Government as a recreational demonstration area because of the submarginal nature of the land, its scenic features, and its proximity to Louisville.
Most of the land was purchased in 1935 and consisted of approximately 2,600 acres. The Van Buren Estate, overlooking the Ohio River, has been added to the area.
Much of the plateau which occupies the main part of the park was wornout, eroded farmlands when purchased back in 1935. Since then the land has reverted back to the wild. The camp was built by youths from a C. C. C. Camp which was located on the area until 1942. The roads, buildings and other improvements were constructed with C. C. C. labor. The gullies were given treatment to prevent further erosion by throwing brush and logs into the depressions, and by driving rows of stakes across them at regular intervals. A few plantings were made, chiefly of black locust and pine, along some of the roads and near buildings. For the most part, however, the old fields have been allowed to grow up with pioneer vegetation characteristic of the region.
Much of the Park that fronts on the Ohio River consists of steep cliffs, or very wooded banks. Otter Creek is a small, deeply entrenched stream with steep banks. There are three other streams in the area that have cut deep gashes in the plateau: one from Morgan's Cave to the Ohio River, one that flows along the road to Blue Hole, and finally, a stream that arises back of Piomingo and flows into Otter Creek through the wildest and most beautiful gorge in the Park. The original forested areas were chiefly along the slopes of Otter Creek and the three entrenched streams, but a fine wood lot occupied the part now known as Tall Trees, and extended along the west bank of the Creek to the Ohio River bluffs, and from there west through the Van Buren Estate. Dominant trees are oaks, hickories and beech trees along the rich slopes.
In 1947 the Federal Government presented the Park to the City of Louisville; and since then it has been under the management of a 3 man commission appointed by the Mayor.
A group of Y.M.C.A. laymen and secretaries were instrumental in the selection of the site and in helping with the plans for the original Otter Creek Demonstration Project. The Y.M.C.A. leased the first camp built, Camp Ohio Piomingo as it was then known. The "Y" opened the first camping period in the spring of 1938 with boys and young adult groups on week-end camps. The first boys camp was opened in the summer of 1938.