Into the Hills and Mountains
Hello again, Don Milne here, your ROADTRIP-'62 ™ traveler. On this, the first of our ROADTRIP-'62 ™ routes, we are traveling US-23. We’re at Portsmouth, Ohio, nine days out from our northern beginning point at Mackinaw City, Michigan. We’re still heading south, using the roads of 1962 on our first day in Kentucky, the third state on our trip. We left Columbus, Ohio yesterday and won’t see a city that big until we get to Atlanta, Georgia. For a couple of days the towns and even the farms are small. As we drive this virtual roadtrip, if you see anything you like I encourage you to get out on the road and enjoy it for yourself. A virtual roadtrip can be fun, but there's nothing like the real thing! And, at any time, click on an underlined word below to learn more about the places on the trip. But now, let’s buckle up again and go!
Before we leave Portsmouth, I’m buying us some donuts at Helen’s Bakery. It’s just a few blocks west of US-23 before we cross the river. It’s located in the historic Boneyfiddle District, which is full of antique and specialty shops. The district still looks very much like the town it was in the 1860’s, with many buildings from as far back as 1835. One of these buildings houses Helen’s, and right next door is Market Street Hardware & Toy Town. Not only has it been a hardware store since before 1962, now it also has an all-year Christmas Shop, art supplies, and collectable toys. As we don’t find a lot of old businesses on this route, I figure it may be a good place to get some film, a new cooler, postcards, or whatever you need by this point in the trip. Oh, and of course the donuts (or maybe some bran muffins) at Helen’s!
Just a few years ago we could have driven across the old U.S. Grant Bridge, but today it’s the new bridge: another piece of 1962 gone and demolished in 2001. The original bridge, erected in 1927, was a traditional two tower suspension bridge while the new bridge is a modern cable-stayed bridge. Personally, I liked the look of the older bridge better, with the curves of the steel structure performing as a work of art; the new bridge is too spartan for me. In 1962, this was a toll bridge but it’s free today! Crossing into Kentucky, part of our trip today is on a divided highway because they often built it right on top of old US-23, but none of it was divided in 1962. If we want to strictly stick to old US-23, you can see some of the old road used as business frontage roads alongside the new divided highway through South Shore, Kentucky. It also passes through the old South Shore business district. This criss-crossing of the old and new US-23s continues through Grays Branch, on present day Kentucky-3116.
Graysbranch, Kentucky falls under the heading of odd roadside sites. Anvil Rock, on U.S.23 at the mouth of Greysbranch creek, is an anvil-shaped rock that fell from the adjacent hillside during an 1811 earthquake. The earthquake was reportedly an 8 on the Richter scale, causing the Ohio River to run backwards briefly. And, if you happen to like covered bridges, there is one just a little less than 2 miles west of US-23, on Kentucky-10. The Bennett’s Mill Covered Bridge, at 195 feet, is one of Kentucky’s longest wooden single span, covered bridges. It was built in 1855 by the brothers B.F. and Pramley Bennett at their mill site. At one time there were more than 400 covered bridges in Kentucky and we have a chance to see 2 today.
Graysbranch is also where we find the Greenup Lock & Dam on the Ohio River. We can stop and watch the barges "lock through" the dam, which was constructed beginning in 1958 and filled to full height during the summer we’re traveling, on June 4, 1962. The dam raised the river so that the normal lift in the lock is 30 feet and the river behind the dam would have both looked smaller and lower before the dam was constructed. Since 1960, the lock has enabled shipments on the river to grow from nearly 20 million tons to over 68 million tons of commodities by 2004. Coal is what you’re most likely to see passing through here. This shipping is not on the big freighters we saw on Lake Huron in Michigan, but on barges pushed by smaller ships. Sometimes they raft together a dozen barges, all carrying the same thing. Besides the lock and dam, there is a hydroelectric plant and Kentucky-10 crosses a bridge at this point. Let’s watch some barges.
The old route leaves the new one for a few miles at Greenup, but the old bridge over the Little Sandy River is no longer passable. It’s closed and barricaded and we have to detour to come into Greenup, Kentucky on old US-23. Currently, it’s Kentucky-2541 that passes through downtown. Just in case you didn’t see enough floodwall murals, they have a short group in Greenup also. Some are by the same artist that did the Portsmouth murals, but some are different. These are also much more recent than 1962, so don’t look too long. There is also a flood marker along the wall, to show the height of previous floods: the 1937 flood was one of the worst and the flood that convinced the towns of this area that they needed the floodwalls, which were built in the 1950s. Looking at the marker towering above you, you can quickly understand why this section of the Ohio River has floodwalls in every town. Leaving town on Kentucky-1, we reach Greenbo Lake State Resort Park in about 4 miles. The property was bought and the dam and park constructed by a local private association, the Greenbo Recreation Association. When they realized that management of such a park was beyond their expertise, they gave the land to the State of Kentucky sometime between 1954 and 1969. Today the park has a lodge, camping, fishing, and 25 miles of trails. I’m taking a morning hike on one of these, maybe the Fern Valley Interpretive Trail.
Back to US-23 and we travel to Worthington, Kentucky. Here, it looks like US-23 never did go into downtown, but instead we skirt the edge of the rail yards on Kentucky-3105 and go through Raceland, Kentucky instead. The area from Worthington through Raceland and to Russell is the home of a huge CSX railroad yard. Spanning these three cities, it is claimed to be the largest privately-owned yard in the world and we can see much of it right along old US-23. At the east end of the yard is a switch tower, an old C&O depot, and a restored C&O bay-window caboose. The depot was probably open in 1962 and I’m going to watch trains for awhile, maybe at the depot. One other thing here of course, as with the barges, is coal, this time in railcars. We also see steel mills, and piles of iron ore. This may be the same ore that was traveling in the freighters back on Lake Huron and it’s here to be made into steel. The steel is made just to the southeast in Ashland at the Ashland Works of AK Steel. The factory still looks like 1962, or even the 1950s: huge, rusty, smoky and noisy! Right at the Boyd County line, there is a roadside historical marker commemorating the world's first continuous steel sheet rolling mill. It began operation here, in 1923, and was built by Armco Steel Corporation. In 1953 it was replaced with newer technology, a hot-strip mill. A little further east on Winchester Ave. at 6th St. in Ashland, Kentucky, there’s another marker for the Ashland Furnace. This was dismantled in 1962, and at that time is was the world's oldest known operating blast furnace. We could have seen this furnace, built in 1869 and in 1962 operated by the by Armco Steel Corporation.
Entering Ashland, we cross US-60, twice (because it’s on one-way streets). US-60 was another coast-to-coast route, until 1964, when the west end was shortened from Los Angeles, California back to Quartzsite, Arizona. We travel along with it south to Cattletsburg, Kentucky. Ashland has a walking tour, with maps available at the Convention & Visitors Bureau. There are dozens of pre-1962 buildings in this old town, so let’s spend awhile walking around and pretend we are here in 1962. I’ll even buy some goodies at the local supermarket for a picnic later today. Let’s see now, some sandwich fixings, local potato chips, and a great Kentucky soda, Ale-8-One! Ale-8-One is a ginger ale, and even today it’s only sold in Kentucky and southern Indiana and Ohio. It’s been bottled since 1926 in Winchester Kentucky, just 110 miles west of Ashland down US-60. In 1962, the second generation owner re-incorporated the company and the real growth of the new corporation began. All over the country there used to be regional sodas, but few are left today. I’m putting a six-pack in the cooler so we can enjoy some down the road too.
Still walking around, we come to Central Park. It’s a 47-acre, wooded rectangle smack in the middle of downtown Ashland. It was actually a horseracing track from 1900 to 1923. The 1937 pond was filled in with five feet of dirt during 1962, but in 1995, the pond was excavated and was filled with water again. When it was, the original water lilies that were planted in 1937 came back in full bloom. There are also a lot of antique stores, so we can actually buy something from 1962. And we can gas up the car at some old service station while we’re here too. On our walking tour, we also come across two things that every Ohio River town in this part of the country has: Native American mounds and a floodwall. The mounds here were burial mounds and their remains are in Central Park. And yes, this floodwall (and the continuation in nearby Cattletsburg) also has murals. Once someone has a good idea, everyone gets into act!
One place we won’t visit while walking around today is the Highlands Museum and Discovery Center. In 1984 the former Parsons Department Store was opened as a museum, so it’s too new for us. It is a fun place for kids though, as they have an ambulance to drive, baby dolls to doctor up, a pretend McDonalds, a coal mine to crawl through, magnets, and more fun stuff. There just weren’t any of that type of museum in the early 1960’s. It’s a shame too, because they have a great exhibit on the culture of eastern Kentucky music and pop country music stars of the area. Department stores like Parsons were found in many of the cities along US-23 back in 1962. Parsons closed in 1989 and most of these local department stores are also now closed, usually because of competition from larger chains or enclosed shopping malls built in surburban areas. Several we could have shopped at in 1962 along our route were Wiechmann’s in Saginaw, Michigan; The Lion Store in Toledo, Ohio; Rich’s in Atlanta, Georgia; and Furchgott's in Jacksonville, Florida. Maybe we should visit the museum just to imagine shopping in the old store.
For a little lunch before we leave town, we might try the Chimney Corner Café or Katie's Corner Cafe. Then a visit to something that has been here since 1931. The magnificent art deco style Paramount Theatre has been preserved and restored with many of its original fixtures and furnishings, including the brass entrance doors. Paramount Pictures had originally planned to build one "perfect movie house" in every state of the union. But only a few were completed before the Great Depression ended this plan. In addition to Ashland, Kentucky, there are Paramount theaters in Peekskill, New York, Oakland, California; Denver, Colorado; Aurora, Illinois; Anderson, Indiana; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Springfield, Massachusetts; Bristol, Tennessee; Abilene, Texas; Austin, Texas; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Seattle, Washington. The Paramount in Hollywood, California was fully restored in 1991 and renamed the El Capitan. And one is still standing but is not in operation in Boston, Massachusetts. Hopefully, we can see a show in one of these others on another Roadtrip-‘62 ™ route. In 1962, this Paramount was still showing movies but it closed for good in 1971, with the last movie shown being a Walt Disney film. Of course it wasn’t his 1962 “In Search of the Castaways." Today the Paramount Arts Center houses all types of shows and events. Unfortunately, we’re not here in the evening, so unless we can get a private tour, we’re out of luck.
I can’t leave town without mentioning one of the biggest businesses here, Ashland Oil & Refining, as it was known in 1962. The oil refinery is actually in nearby Catlettsburg and had a 2009 capacity of 222,000 barrels per day. It was founded in 1924 and expanded by acquiring other small, regional refineries over the years. The company began diversifying by purchasing the petrochemical firm of R. J. Brown Company in 1956. In 1998, Marathon Oil and Ashland Oil joined to form Marathon Ashland Petroleum LLC. Today the refinery is part of Marathon Petroleum Company, because in 2005 Ashland sold the petroleum division. While we can’t fill up our tank with Ashland gas today, we could buy Marathon or get an oil change at Valvoline, which is still one of Ashland’s products. Regional gasoline brands have disappeared since 1962, along with department stores and soda brands, under an onslaught of consolidation.
Back in the car and let’s travel along with US-60 down to Catlettsburg, where it crosses the Big Sandy River into West Virginia. We never get into West Virginia on this trip, but you can see it across the river. Here, US-23 becomes confused. Or maybe just confusing and I’m confused. In 1959, US-23 went inland, west towards Cannonsburg. On a 1961 map, it’s shown along the Big Sandy River, so it appears to have switched between those years. But the current road is a divided highway, and I’m sure that wasn’t here in 1962. I could therefore make the argument to head west towards Cannonsburg on what is currently Kentucky-3. Confused? Not as much as that road is. It is the twistiest part of the whole journey, with several places where we have to go north just to continue south. I can readily see why they switched it to today’s route along the Big Sandy River. But, since the old road is more scenic and the switch was made just barely before 1962, let’s take that old route.
This kind of travel takes longer than our usual driving. You can rarely go faster than 35mph and we encounter stop signs at some junctions. This is probably the most rural, out-of-the-way part of our trip, so sit back and enjoy the old scenery. The scenery is very different from what we’ve traveled through so far: lots of rock cuts along the road, small farms with cows and junk piled out back, old gas stations, and lots of churches. I’ve driven down other roads in this part of the state and seen a lot of tobacco drying barns, but I didn’t spy any along US-23. We eventually come up alongside Blain Creek at Fallsburg, Kentucky. On the bend of the creek just north of town are the Falls of Blaine Creek formerly known as the Turn Hole. Locals use the spot for swimming; I’m just looking. But they are adjacent to a campground, so I suspect we could have stayed here and had a swim.
The building at the campground still has an old metal sign for “Top Value Stamps.” For those of you too young to know about these stamps, back in the 1960s and earlier, many merchants gave you stamps with each purchase. You saved the stamps in books and when you had enough, you could redeem them for merchandise. They were a kind of loyalty builder for stores; the idea being you kept shopping at the same stores to get enough stamps to redeem for the merchandise. I used to collect both Top Value and S&H Green Stamps, the oldest and longest lived stamps, during the 1970s. There were many regional stamps, including Gold Bond Stamps, Plaid Stamps, and Blue Chip Stamps. I even remember that Clark Gas Stations had their own stamps. If you know about other regional trading stamps, please let me know. They all disappeared before 1980, I believe. Today many credit cards, gas stations or motels have electronic rewards points that serve the same purpose. Even S&H now has Greenpoints, awarded by stores like JC Penney.
Hey, south of Fallsburg I see yet another Mail Pouch Tobacco barn, this one facing northbound! Now I have to wonder how many other northbound barns we’ll miss while heading southbound? At Yatesville, just a mile or so west of old US-23, is the Yatesville Covered Bridge. It was built around 1900 and crosses Blaine Creek. The bridge has been given corrugated tin roofing and was in use until 1965, so we could have driven across it in 1962, but not today. It’s been closed and in 1976 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We make it back to present-day US-23 at Louisa, Kentucky. Louisa is the nearest town to Yatesville Lake State Park, but that’s too new for us, opened in 1992. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but through Kentucky, US-23 is known as the Country Music Highway. This is because of the many country music stars that have hometowns along the highway, together with various festivals hosted throughout the area. Billy Ray Cyrus, Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle, Tom T. Hall, The Judds, Dwight Yoakam and Ricky Skaggs are among those who hail from towns along US-23. In Louisa, you can stop at the Falls Creek Pavilion marketplace, where memorabilia of famous singers are showcased. Our favorite year is part of this, as Loretta Lynn’s first Top Ten hit, “Success,” debuted in 1962. Some people believe the hardscrabble lifestyle of these hills is partly responsible for this area providing so many country music stars over the years.
By the way, if we had used the current US-23 along the Big Sandy River, we could still avoid the divided highway sometimes. Parts of US-23 are parallel to the older, 1962 version of the road, which is itself parallel to the railroad. We would often be in view of the river as we traveled through the small towns of Burnaugh and Buchanan. That route to Louisa is not only more level and faster, it’s also shorter than the inland route we just drove. There was a place in Burnaugh called the Fifties Diner that might have been interesting, and that road would be great for either train or barge watching, but I’m glad I chose the older road.
Continuing south back on old US-23 from Louisa, we rejoin the current US-23 in a few miles. We travel through more of the same rugged country, twisting every which way again. Near Staffordsville, we turn onto Kentucky-321, which used to be US-23. It also used to run from here all the way down to Shelbiana, Kentucky with US-460. US-460 once ran west to St. Louis Missouri, but now ends in Frankfort, Kentucky. We’ll pick them up later, but for now it’s the old road for us. Near Louisa is the only bald eagle nesting area in eastern Kentucky, so this is fairly wild country. We’ll stay tonight in nearby Paintsville, Kentucky. As we enter town on old US-23, we pass the beautiful buildings of The Mayo Methodist Church and Our Lady of The Mountains School, right across the street from each other. Both were built by eastern Kentucky’s first coal baron, John C.C. Mayo. The church has some great old stained glass windows and an organ donated by Andrew Carnegie. The school is the former 43-room home of Mr. Mayo, finished in 1912, and I have read that you can tour it. Both the mansion and church are on the National Register of Historical Places. Let’s stop in and ask, as we have time. Afterwards, I may have to buy a few items for the campfire dinner tonight; maybe grill some chicken and corn. I don't seen any old restaurants that are still open.
The coal mining that made Mr. Mayo’s fortune is still going on in the Paintsville area. The Paintsville Coal Field extends from Louisa down to Prestonburg, so we’ll be driving through more tomorrow. Though in the past most mining was done underground, today much is done from the surface. The entire tops of mountains are removed and then the coal. Xcell Energy & Coal Company of Paintsville has only surface mines. Kentucky was still the third highest coal-producing state in 2006, though it had held the number one spot in the 1970s.
As for a motel, nothing looks old enough, and this coal country makes many things rather dingy, so I’m not sure I would want to stay at any place that was old enough. So instead, let’s head south of town about 9 miles to Jenny Wiley State Resort Park. Though we will need to backtrack a bit tomorrow, we’re less than 3 miles off US-23. I’m camping again for the second time on the trip, in one of the shady campsites. The park was established in 1954 and improved to a resort park in 1962. Before the sun sets I’m going to drive by a few miles of the beautiful overlooks on the park road, which some describe as viewing some of the most magnificent scenery in Kentucky. If you’ve missed doing some fishing since back in Michigan, Dewey Lake has pontoon boat rental. We can try for a couple of hours to see if we can catch some largemouth bass, bluegill, catfish, or crappie on its 1,100 acres. If you wanted to do something indoors, the park includes the Jenny Wiley Theatre. The theatre offers theatrical productions all year. It’s technically too new for us as it opened in 1964, but if you don’t want to fish, it would be a pleasant way to spend the evening. Goodnight now, from ROADTRIP-'62 ™ .
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2012, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.
All other content Copyright © 2012, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.