Journal-Times (Grayson, KY)

March 20, 2013

Carter Caves State Resort Park: The rest of the story of the early years

Part 2 of a series

By Keith Kappes - Publisher

March 20, 2013 — (Editor’s Note: Some readers told us after reading last week’s first installment of this series that other names and events should be added to those we listed as significant in the development of Carter Caves as a state resort park. Today: Footnotes to history.)

We learned last week that several families, some well known and others relatively unknown, apparently share a deep pride in what their ancestors did to convert a good but underfunded business concept into what has become the tourism jewel known today as Carter Caves State Resort Park.

We will start with the names of those eight prominent citizens of Carter County who accepted the invitation of the visionary J. F. Lewis of Carter City and invested in the Carter Caves Company, a for-profit stock company with 1,000 shares of common stock.

They included Ollie M. Lewis, W. M. Tabor, R. M. Bagby, Dr. J. Watts Stovall, Thomas S. Yates, John M. Rose, J. A. Bagby and Wick H. Strother.

Thanks to Jonathon Lewis, author of “Carter Caves State Resort Park: A Living History”, for helping us fill in the details of those early years. His book, now in a second printing, is available at the park’s gift shop.

J. F. Lewis was his great-great grandfather.

The company’s business plan was to harvest virgin timber from the original acreage and use those proceeds to finance facilities that would bring tourists to Carter Caves to see the caves and to enjoy the incredible scenery of that rugged, isolated part of Carter County.

That enterprise lasted just over 20 years but eventually fell victim to wartime rationing of gasoline and other factors, particularly the untimely death of J. F. Lewis in late 1937.

Early on, the lack of a dependable, passable road to bring visitors the four miles from US 60 to the caves property was overcome in 1929 with the state’s construction of what is now KY 182.

Despite being a seasonal operation in terms of cash flow, J. F. Lewis and his Carter Caves Company embraced innovative ideas when they could afford them.

Among the more noteworthy was using a gasoline-powered generator to provide electricity for lights to allow visitors to more fully enjoy the natural features of two of the caverns carved over millions of years of water coursing through limestone.

Spring water was collected inside Saltpetre Cave for use as drinking water. It was pumped to the ticket office, a log structure which survives to this day as the Welcome Center/Gift Shop with several additions and renovations along the way.

Individual log cabins and a hotel were built as overnight lodging for early visitors, a tradition that flourishes today with the park’s highly popular rental cottages and Lewis Caveland Lodge.

Judge R. C. Littleton of Grayson apparently initiated discussions between the Grayson and Olive Hill Rotary Clubs that led to a countywide fundraising campaign that generated $40,000 to buy out the remaining interests of the Carter Caves Company.

The sale price was $5,000 less than what J. F. Lewis paid originally for the nearly 1,000 acres in 1924.

It reflected the good intentions of Lewis and the remaining investors who came to realize that converting Carter Caves into a state park was its only chance of surviving and for preserving the underground treasures for the future.

Local landowners in the caves area, including the Justice, Maggard and Plummer families, gave their crop proceeds to the fund drive.

They were among literally hundreds of citizens who stepped up to give what they could in hopes of seeing a state park become a reality.

It should be noted that a local newspaper editor wrote as early as 1902 that Carter Caves should become a state park.

Some of the caves were being visited by residents of Cincinnati who traveled by excursion trains.

Although established as a state park in 1946, state funding for Carter Caves did not occur until 1948.

In the next seven years, the state spent $600,000 on park improvements, including the construction of 45-acre Smokey Lake for fishing and boating.

Another $900,000 was expended in the ensuing eight years to add the lodge, a nine-hole golf course, picnic areas, and a number of other improvements.

Today, Carter Caves State Park is flourishing as a beautiful and exciting place to visit.

It stands as a memorial to those farsighted, proud Carter Countians and a few of their neighbors from other nearby counties who recognized that the land and its natural features were worth preserving for future generations to enjoy.

(Next: Part 3 will review the park today and how its attractions have changed over the years.)

Keith Kappes can be reached at or by telephone at 800-247-6142.