Backpackers walking in the footsteps of Daniel Boone

March 21, 2015

150319BooneTrace0086Curtis Penix, left, and Givan Fox, hiked last Thursday in Laurel County along the historic route of Boone Trace, the 200-mile path Daniel Boone and his crew blazed through the Cumberland Gap to Central Kentucky in March 1775. Penix’s 5th-great-grandfather, Joshua Penix, took the path to Fort Boonesborough in 1779. Photos by Tom Eblen


RACCOON SPRINGS — As dawn broke, backpackers Curtis Penix and Givan Fox emerged from their shelter, rubbed their eyes and filled their water bottles from natural springs that trickled out of a hillside.

Daniel Boone camped here many times and drank from the same springs, which he supposedly named after being startled by a thirsty raccoon.

This became a busy way station along Boone Trace, the 200-mile trail that Boone and his crew blazed for the Transylvania Company from Cumberland Gap to Central Kentucky in March 1775. Raccoon Springs is now in Laurel County, a few miles southeast of London.

Penix, a steel mill worker from Michigan, was here because his fifth-great grandfather, Joshua Penix, walked Boone Trace in 1779 on his way to Fort Boonesborough, where he was listed among the settlers.

Fox was here because his father, retired Lexington physician John Fox, is president of Friends of Boone Trace, a non-profit group that hopes to preserve the historic route as a hiking trail, walking paths and a memorial to the pioneers.

Penix, 46, and Fox, 42, think they may be the first people in two centuries to walk all of Boone Trace.

“There’s so much history here,” Penix said. “Millions of Americans today, just like me, have ancestors who came through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. ”

150319BooneTrace0005While many of the well-worn buffalo and Native American paths Boone incorporated into his trail are now country roads, railroad tracks and even major highways, other sections of Boone Trace have all but disappeared.

Penix started his journey March 10 near Kingsport, Tenn. He hiked through Virginia to Martin’s Station near Cumberland Gap, where on March 15 he was joined by Fox, a medic in the Colorado National Guard.

The men carry a satellite communicator that transmits their position every 20 minutes to Penix’s website,, where they blog daily about their experiences.

“The first four days were rough, nothing but rain and highway,” Penix said when I met them at Raccoon Springs Thursday. “No Indians, but a lot of semi-trucks, a lot of spray in the face.”

After several days of walking 20 miles or more, the two planned a slightly easier schedule. They were to stop at the sites of other Boone Trace landmarks, such as Twetty’s Fort and Woods Blockhouse, before completing their journey Thursday at Fort Boonesborough State Park on the Madison-Clark county line. After a ceremony there, they plan a big steak dinner and a lot of rest.

Boone Trace is often confused with the Wilderness Road, which was built later and became more popular, especially after Kentucky achieved statehood in 1792 and state government funded improvements.

The two roads ran together through Cumberland Gap, but split below London. Boone Trace went to the Kentucky River at Fort Boonesborough, while the Wilderness Road went to Harrodsburg and on to what is now Louisville.

“Everybody talks about the Wilderness Road and forgets about Boone Trace,” John Fox said. “Once Daniel Boone opened the trail, people just flooded in. About 100,000 people may have traveled it before Kentucky became a state.”

The Daughters of the American Revolution placed stone markers at several key points along the route in 1915. Other groups added markers in 1942, the 150th anniversary of Kentucky statehood.

But, over the years, the markers became overgrown and were forgotten as highways were improved. Many sections of Boone Trace were lost until Louisville architect Neal Hammon began researching it in the 1960s. He and others remapped the trail by using computer technology to piece together old records.

Penix familiarized himself with the route by studying maps and satellite images. He worked with John Fox to get permission to cross private land. Fox is providing occasional support from his pickup truck, but his son and Penix are carrying all of their camping gear and food.

“It was suggested by some people that we do it in buckskins and linen shirts,” Penix said. “There’s just no way we would have survived.”

Penix got into trouble early in his walk, when he was forced to spend a night in a motel after days of cold rain left him soaked and in danger of hypothermia. “I had the idea of doing this kind of independent,” he said. “I was going to carry my own food, sleep under the stars the way Joshua did, cross rivers the way Joshua did.”

Penix said he learned a lesson in Rose Hill, Va., when he couldn’t find his planned campsite and a store owner offered him shelter in a storage unit. As he was about to go to sleep on its concrete floor, Pam Eddy, a ranger from nearby Cumberland Gap National Park, came by.

Eddy persuaded him to stay the night at her cabin. And she explained that pioneer culture was as much about helping one another as being self-reliant.

“This was a community,” Penix said. “There were people all along the way with forts and blockhouses and stations where people could stop and rest and get a meal, get resupplied.”

Throughout their journey, Penix said, they have been met by town mayors, local historians and a lot of friendly, helpful people.

“We’ve been fed along the way, offered roofs along the way, just like the pioneers,” he said. “So when I wanted to do it just like Grandpa Joshua, I had it all wrong. I learned how to do it right.”



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A hike through the ruins of Kentucky’s first industrial park

June 2, 2013


Jonathan Bush built this 4-level grist mill in the early 1800s along Lower Howard’s Creek to produce flour for export, likely to New Orleans.  The dry-laid stone mill has fallen to ruins in recent years. “Every spring I come down here I see more stones that have fallen,” said Clare Sipple, manager of the Lower Howard’s Creek preserve. Photos by Tom Eblen


WINCHESTER — A trip to the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve is more than a hike in the woods; it is a journey back into Kentucky business history.

This was, after all, Kentucky’s first industrial park.

I would never have guessed it as I began walking down the hill with Clare Sipple, who manages the 350-acre preserve, and her husband, Harry Enoch, a retired biochemist who chronicled the creek’s commercial history in his 2009 book, Col. John Holder: BoonesboroughDefender and Kentucky Entrepreneur.

The first sign of that history was when we reached a large millstone, thought to have quarried on Pilot Knob in Powell County, hauled here and finished with wrought-iron fitting. It would have been used on one of 15 mills that once operated along the creek to produce wheat flour and corn meal for export down the Kentucky, Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.

In addition to grain mills there were sawmills, distilleries, cooperages to make barrels, leather tanneries, a warehouse, a woolen factory, blacksmith shops, a boat yard, a ferry, a tavern and a store. The largest businesses were housed in buildings of dry-laid limestone quarried along the creek.

130508HowardsCreek0093Most of the valley’s two dozen businesses were along the creek or the Salt Springs Trace, a road built in 1775 from Fort Boonesborough to the salt deposits at Blue Licks in Robertson County. It was one of Kentucky’s first heavily-traveled roads.

This area is now a remote corner of the rural Bluegrass on Athens Boonesboro Road behind Hall’s on the River restaurant. But from the 1780s until the Civil War, it and neighboring Boone Creek comprised one of the largest manufacturing centers west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Much of the development of Lower Howard’s Creek was the work of Holder, a land speculator and businessman who had been a leader during Fort Boonesborough’s heyday in the 1770s.

“He had a lot of business contacts in New Orleans,” Enoch said. “He must have been quite a wheeler dealer.”

Lower Howard’s Creek reached its commercial zenith as the Civil War began. But the war cut it off from its main customers in Southern markets. After the war, railroads started replacing river navigation. Steam engines replaced unreliable water power. The last industries on Lower Howard’s Creek were gone by the dawn of the 20th century.

Mother Nature has slowly reclaimed this valley, now covered with second-growth forest after extensive logging in the 1800s. The preserve has more than 800 species of plants, including many rare and endangered ones.

River otter and beaver now ply the rushing creek that once powered Kentucky’s first manufacturers. The trees shelter a wide range of birds, including warblers, tanagers and cedar waxwings.

“It’s unusual to see some of these birds in Kentucky,” said Sipple, 62, who grew up in the area and first explored the creek on horseback as a child.

Lower Howard’s Creek is dotted with ruins of the old stone buildings, as well as the stone fences, earthworks and remnants of the Salt Springs Trace. The Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund purchased much of the preserve’s land, which is now owned by Clark County Fiscal Court. A 228-acre tract was dedicated as a state nature preserve in 2001.

130508HowardsCreek0130Some of the most significant stone ruins are Jonathan Bush’s mill, which had four levels and a 20-foot mill wheel, and his home. Both have been ravaged by time and vandals, who a few years ago smashed the detailed inscription on the 1855 tomb of Diana Bush, his second wife of 35 years, who he obviously loved very much.

The preserve’s John Holder Trail, which begins at Hall’s on the River, is open during daylight hours. Sipple leads periodic hikes through the rest of the preserve. For more information, go to

Sipple recently secured a $600,000 grant to restore some of the Salt Springs Trace road and its fences. A shelter was built over Bush’s house in 2004 to limit deterioration until money can be raised to restore it. But 200-year-old Bush’s mill is rapidly falling apart.

“Every spring I come down here I see more stones that have fallen,” she said, estimating that it would take $1 million to restore the huge mill.

“There are stone buildings all over this valley,” Sipple said. “It’s a really significant site. But we’ve always been limited by funding.”

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