In a state celebrated for having the largest concentration of natural arches and bridges outside of the Four Corners region of the Southwest, this arch stands out not just for its size, but its importance to the community surrounding it. The Creelsboro Natural Bridge is a historic archway on the banks of the Cumberland River in Russell County, Kentucky. With a span of 106 feet, it is the seventh longest natural bridge in the United States. This National Natural Landmark, hidden just several dozen feet from a rural backroad, stands as a monument to a bygone era.
From driving through the remnants of civil war skirmishes, to retracing the steps of ancient Native Americans, all the way to its salvation from development, this arch contains a treasure trove of history worth exploring. Never needing much of an excuse for a quick day trip, I headed off to the outskirts of Lake Cumberland, Kentucky in search of this forgotten gem.
Driving through the backroads of KY 379, its easy to spot the dilapidated old buildings scattered throughout the outskirts of Creelsboros' once booming center of commerce. Continuing past the historically preserved Polston General Store, now named the Creelsboro Country Store, I reached the gravel drive down into the natural bridge area. Despite being easy to find using any modern map application, there are no signs directing to the archs' location. It lays hidden behind a scrub of trees down a steep embankment, for only locals to know about or those purposefully seeking it out.
Also known as Rockhouse Natural Bridge, this spectacular rock formation has been an important part of the community of Creelsboro since the towns settlement. Its existence is well documented, going back to the frontier long hunters that discovered it in the late 1700’s. This once booming trade center was the busiest port on the Cumberland River between Nashville, Tennessee and Burnside, Kentucky. Having the only few river crossings for hundreds of miles made this a hotly contested area during the Civil War, sparking the Battle of Creelsboro and half a dozen other large skirmishes. Although this small community only consisted of less than fifty residents year round, thousands of people would travel here throughout the year to do business.
Near the path leading down into the arch are two stone markers, one entailing the history of Creelsboro Natural Bridge and the other celebrating the family who helped preserve it. The Goff family, who’s descendants still own the land the arch is located on, led the effort to give this area the protection of being named a National Natural Landmark in 1987.
Decades prior to this, there was a real concern the arch would be lost as its location was one of the proposed sites for the construction of the Wolf Creek Dam. Shortly thereafter, excavations by archeologists from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Creelsboro History Preservation Project would uncover evidence of prehistoric Native American settlements in this whole region dating back 10,000 years, further solidifying its cultural importance.
Walking the short trail to the arch, I found the path blocked by the roaring rapids of Jims Creek. This wet weather creek is usually nothing more than a slow trickle, but on this stormy December afternoon, its banks have risen two feet high by nearly six feet wide. From the angle at which I’m standing above the creek, its possible that I could leap across it, but there would be no way for me to make it back. After pacing the waters edge for several minutes attempting to find a way across, I finally resigned to the fact that this is as close as I’m going to get today.
Despite being bummed out by my predicament, I am able to find the silver lining in all of this. Most people who visit this arch during the warmer seasons never get a chance to witness the process in which nature created this natural landmark. Its hard to imagine a docile creek washing away layers of stone into the Cumberland River.
Witnessing this violent stream actively eroding layers of topsoil and dense rock sediment from the arch is a much better representation of nature at work. In the era before the construction of Wolf Creek Dam, its quite possible that most of this arch might be sitting underwater during periods of heavy rainfall.
It was not uncommon for ferrys traveling up and down the river to wander into the arch when the water levels rose enough to allow ships to enter. Theres even an inscribing near the caverns ceiling, marking the Cumberland Rivers highest water level during a terrible flood in 1943. For the ancient Native Americans whom settled the bottomlands of this region, the river acted as a modern day highway for transporting goods as well as people. Creelsboro Natural Bridge was but one stop along a network of settlements spanning the entire southern half of Kentucky.
Its exact location is not widely known to the public, but a small path near the parking area leads to an ancient, prehistoric burial ground located on the ridge above the arch. The cemeteries presence has undoubtedly helped fuel some of the claims that this area is rife with paranormal activity, or perhaps its just a ploy by locals to help keep a mass influx of tourists at bay. In my opinion, some things are better left undisturbed and with todays light rain now intensifying into a heavy downpour, I decide to call it a day.
There is something very special about this place, you can sense it in the denseness of the air surrounding it. If chasing arches is a hobby of yours or exploring history and searching out unique sights around the country is your thing, come pay Creelsboro Natural Bridge a visit. Lets help keeps this place from being completely forgotten!