Geologists estimate that the rock over which the Cumberland River plunges is about 250 million years old. Romantics are enchanted with the poetic beauty of the falls. Visitors are awed by the majesty of the falls. Historians note the uniqueness of the site.
Often called the “Niagara of the South,” Cumberland Falls has attracted the attention of countless people since prehistoric times. Although the first permanent, white settlers at Cumberland Falls did not arrive until 1850, people have inhabited this area for thousands of years. Native Americans lived here as long as 10,000 years ago. They made their home in rock shelters at the base of the cliffs that line the river. These people were primitive hunters living off the land. As early as 1650, Shawnee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and the Creek nations visited often and used the areas for temporary hunting camps. Both Cumberland and Eagle Falls were held sacred by many Native Americans. Early maps show the Cumberland River was known as the Shawnee River.
Early travel accounts describe the falls. Dr. Thomas Walker during his 1750 exploration of Kentucky named the waterfall after the Duke of Cumberland, a son of King George II of England. The “Long Hunters” camped in the area. Kentucky historian Richard Henry Collins wrote a vivid description of Cumberland Falls in his 1874 History of Kentucky. He describes the falls as one of the “most remarkable objects in the state.” Collins went on to say that the surrounding countryside “presents to the eye of the traveler a succession of scenery as romantic and picturesque as any in the state.” Cumberland Falls could also take visitors unaware. On February 12, 1780, Zachariah Green and four companions had to quickly abandon their boat when the rushing waters of the Cumberland River carried it over the falls.
Ownership of Cumberland Falls included Samuel Garland, a Virginian who traded a portion of his supplies for the land around the falls. He intended to build a water mill, but instead built a cabin in which he resided for a while before returning to Virginia. The first official record of the falls ownership occurred in 1800 when the Commonwealth of Kentucky granted Matthew Walton and Adam Shepard Cumberland Falls and 200 acres. In 1850, Louis and Mary H. Renfro bought 400 acres “including the Great Falls of the Cumberland.” The couple built a cabin near the falls and later added a two-room lean-to for visitors who wished to fish and enjoy the beauty of the magnificent waterfall.
Socrates Owens constructed a hotel at the falls. Handmade furniture filled the rooms of the hotel. Those things that could not be made on site were brought from Cincinnati to Parker’s Lake Post Office located fourteen miles from the falls. When Owens died in 1890, his widow, Nannie William Owens, and his son, Edward F. Owens, took possession of the Cumberland Falls Hotel. The Owens family later sold the hotel and 400 acres to the Cumberland Falls Company, which in turn sold it to J.C. Brunson, who renamed the hotel the Brunson Inn.
In 1927 the Kiwanis Club sponsored the building of a trail from Corbin, Kentucky to Cumberland Falls. This project involved 200 men and women working for nine weeks to complete the task. In November 1927 Kentucky native T. Coleman DuPont offered to buy the falls and the surrounding acreage and give it to the commonwealth for a state park. The offer came at the right time. Discussions already were under way regarding a proposal by the Cumberland River Power Company to build a dam above the falls. However, not until March 10, 1930 did the Kentucky legislature vote to accept the now deceased Coleman’s offer of the falls area as a state park. Coleman’s widow proceeded to buy the property of 593 acres for $400,000. Under the direction of Dr. Willard Rouse Jillson who had served as the first commissioner of state parks, a committee adopted a motion to make Cumberland Falls part of the state parks system. The dedication of Cumberland Falls as a Kentucky State Park took place August 21, 1931.
The road from Corbin to the falls needed improvement, and in 1931 a new highway was completed. Between September 7, and Thanksgiving Day, 1931, over 50,000 visitors came to see Cumberland Falls. In 1933 the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) had 136 young men working at the falls to improve the park. They constructed DuPont Lodge and fifteen cabins for visitors, along with campsites, picnic areas, roads and trails. The lodge had 26 rooms with a lounge two-stories high replete with a huge stone fireplace. A fire destroyed DuPont Lodge on April 5, 1940. Park authorities constructed a new lodge in 1941. Fires destroyed the old Cumberland Fall Hotel in 1947 and in 1949 the Moonbow Inn also burned. Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, the Kentucky parks system carried out extensive improvements. The park has a museum that has Indian artifacts. All types of seasonal recreational activities take place at the park. However, the greatest attraction is the thundering waters of Cumberland Falls. The falls are 65 feet high and 125 feet wide. When the Cumberland River is at flood stage the width of the falls can quickly expand to 300 feet.
Besides the falls, one of the great attractions at Cumberland Falls State Park is the Moonbow. Visible on moonlit evenings, the Moonbow is said to only be duplicated at Victoria Falls in Africa. This is one of truly awesome sights in not only Kentucky, but also in the world. The beauty of Cumberland Falls draws visitors from across the world to come to Kentucky to see its grandeur.