Geologists estimate that the rock over which the Cumberland River plunges is about 250 million years old. The falls is 65 feet high and is 125 feet wide. When the Cumberland River is at flood stage the width of the falls can quickly expand to 300 feet. Long known to Native Americans of the area, Cumberland Falls received its name from Dr. Thomas Walker during his 1750 exploration of Kentucky. The Duke of Cumberland was a son of England’s King George II.
Kentucky historian Richard Henry Collins, in his 1874 History of Kentucky, wrote that the surrounding countryside “presents to the eye of the traveler a succession of scenery as romantic and picturesque as any in the state.” Beauty can contain treachery, however, and 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.
The first official record of the falls ownership appeared 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. Ownership of Cumberland Falls also included one 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.
Socrates Owens constructed Cumberland Falls Hotel at the falls in 1875. 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. In 1888 the proprietors of the facility, Owens and Boswell, advertised their hotel as “Kentucky’s Popular Resort.”
Visitors traveled from Cumberland Falls Station at Parkers Lake in joltwagons pulled by mules, a four hour journey. Upon reaching the Falls, they crossed the river by wading, rafting, or fording in the wagons. When Owens died in 1890, his widow, Nannie William Owens, and his son, Edward F. Owens, took over the hotel. The Owens family later sold the hotel and 400 acres to the Cumberland Falls Company who in turn sold it to J.C. Brunson, who renamed the hotel the Brunson Inn.
The area was a favorite vacation destination for T. Coleman du Pont, a Kentucky native and U.S. Senator from Delaware. Disturbed by plans to build a hydroelectric dam at the site, Louisville Times editor and conservationist Tom Wallace spearheaded a campaign to save the Falls from 1926-1931. In 1930, Wallace and other conservationists persuaded DuPont to purchase and donate 600 acres surrounding the falls to Kentucky, urging the commonwealth to set aside the property as a state park.
Despite DuPont’s death later that year, additional land was purchased, and in 1933 the state legislature designated the property as Kentucky’s third state park. Much of the early work at the park, including construction of DuPont Lodge and cabins for guests, was undertaken during the Great Depression by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) employees.