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Gold, Lincoln & Sluggers Tour
Campbellsville to Louisville via Fort Knox
Middle Kentucky is filled with rural scenery, historic attractions, museums, and more; the state’s largest city, Louisville, offers everything from Churchill Downs to a bustling downtown punctuated by statues, skyscrapers, and “Sluggers” – Louisville Slugger bats, to be precise. On this tour, we get a taste of small town Kentucky and big city Kentucky, with the world’s most famous gold reserve along the way.
Head to Taylor County and start in Campbellsville, a pleasant city – a college town – of 10,000 with a bustling historic Main Street known as the Campbellsville Historic Commercial District. Architecture buffs will love the Italianate and Romanesque styles along several blocks; some structures like the Merchant Tower stand out as a former hotel with unique design.
Since Campbellsville is a regional retail center with several thousand college students to boot, downtown shops do brisk business and offer everything from boutique clothing to jewelry to sporting goods and day spas. Murals and historic markers showcase items of note such as the town’s location along the old Cumberland Trace route to Nashville and the burning of its original courthouse during the Civil War.
It’s worth noting that many areas in Kentucky are “dry” in the sense you cannot drink alcoholic beverages in many restaurants; Campbellsville has fewer of those restrictions (the local tourism commission even refers to Campbellsville as a “moist” town) and quite a few restaurants. Campbellsville University is what makes this a college town, adding 3,200 students to the mix. Like nearby Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, their athletic teams – the Tigers – play in the Mid-South Conference and the two schools naturally have a bit of a rivalry. The Best Western Campbellsville Inn is just east of downtown along KY 55/U.S. 68 (Broadway) and is a great place to stay before embarking out of town on the Tour.
If you want to enjoy more of the Campbellsville area before moving northwest on the Tour, head to the south side of town and check out Green River Lake State Park. This park, named after the reservoir it abuts along the Green River, offers nearly two square miles of recreational fun. Along with great fishing, the park offers a marina, a beach, even an 18-hole mini-golf course. An outfit there called Bruce’s Boards even lets you rent paddleboards for milling around. The Green River Lake – US Army Corps of Engineers Visitor Center is located near the dam, featuring exhibits on area Native American artifacts, water safety, and an aquarium; there are even live turtles. Nearby, the Atkinson-Griffin Log House offers history in the form of a log home built in 1840; during the Civil War it served as a hospital and original bloodstains remain (hospitals were quite different back then). In the vicinity, Tebbs End Battlefield is a Civil War battle site and can be viewed on a three-mile drive tour that begins in the park.
See what we mean about historical sites? A major one lies ahead on the Tour; let’s get to it! Head northwest from Campbellsville via KY Highway 210. It’s called Hodgenville Road, which makes sense because that’s the next town we’ll hit. Along this drive you’ll enjoy sweeping farmlands, as well as some tucked into the hills and curves that help make this a very pleasant, peaceful drive. When you reach KY Highway 470 just past Jericho, follow it south to KY Highway 61 at Buffalo. Follow KY 61 north just a few miles about you’ll reach a major piece of Kentucky history. And before we go hundreds of years back in history, note that you’ve crossed from the Eastern Time Zone into the Central Time Zone, so adjust your clocks accordingly!
Illinois may claim itself as the “Land of Lincoln,” but Kentucky had him first. The 16th President was born just outside of Hodgenville at what is now the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Site. Lincoln’s ancestors reached the “New World” back in 1637 and by 1809 Thomas and Nancy Lincoln had settled in a one-room log cabin on Sinking Spring Farm, where little Abraham was born. A replica of the cabin sits on the site. It was constructed in 1911, the same year the Beaux-Arts neo-classical Memorial Building was dedicated by President Taft. The Memorial Building itself, the first constructed to honor Lincoln, is not only beautiful but symbolic. It has 16 windows, fence posts, and rosettes on its ceiling to mark Lincoln’s role as 16th President, while the 56 steps leading up to it represents his age upon his assassination in 1865. The site also has areas for hiking and picnicking.
Hodgenville (pop. 3,000) certainly celebrates its connection to this legendary individual all around town. Along with his birthplace just south of town along KY Highway 61, a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln dedicated in 1909 adorns the town square; the Lincoln Museum serves as Kentucky’s official Lincoln Museum and chronicles his life with over a dozen dioramas, Civil War memorabilia, an art gallery, and (of course) a gift shop. Furthermore, a quick trip northeast from downtown Hodgenville about six miles on U.S. 31E (part of the Old Cumberland Road, the historic main road from Louisville to Nashville) brings you to the other half of the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site: his boyhood home.
Situated on the 30 acres the Lincoln family had as a farm, the site features a tidy cluster of log structures nestled in a valley. One log structure sits on the site of Lincoln’s original boyhood home from age two to seven, another is a former tavern that operated on the location into the 1930s. Some of the logs in these structures are original; some are rumored to be from the home of Austin Gollaher, the boyhood friend who rescued Lincoln from drowning in Knob Creek. (And yes, the bourbon known as Knob Creek took its name from Lincoln’s boyhood home site). This peaceful, pleasant site has plenty of historic plaques giving you the detailed history the area and Lincoln’s childhood years there.
From Hodgenville, we head to Elizabethtown. Follow via KY 61 if you want to fly down an expressway or KY 210 if you want to cruise the two-lane road; it’s about ten miles either way. With 30,000 residents, Elizabethtown is one of Kentucky’s ten largest cities and anchors an area of around 110,000 just south of the Louisville area. Elizabethtown was established in 1797, named for the wife of early founder Andrew Hynes (yes, if her name was Melba, it would have likely been named “Melbatown.”) The name has shown up in places like movies (Elizabethtown, 2005) and regionally as “E-town.”
Downtown “E-town” centers around the Hardin County Courthouse (which sits in a traffic circle marking the exact center of town) and features a several historic buildings. During the Civil War, Elizabethtown was attacked due to its key location along the railroad; a cannonball fired into one of the buildings just off the town square during the battle is embedded in the wall (the building was replaced, but the original cannonball was re-embedded in its former location).
The Brown-Pusey House on Main Street went up in 1825; this Federal and Georgian style home offers tours featuring a museum and the Cunningham Garden. A cottage in back housed General Custer during the Reconstruction Era, where he and his battalion were assigned to break up illegal distilleries (quite common in Kentucky during this time) before Custer’s ill-fated 1876 trip to the Battle of Little Bighorn. The house also features a theatre where live performances regularly take place.
Around the circle, follow U.S. 31W north, which is Dixie Avenue and part of the Historic Dixie Highway. Just two blocks from the encircled courthouse, you’ll easily spot the Historic State Theater. The State went up in 1942 and remains the prime example of Art Deco architecture in town, complete with its original marquee sign. Like so many historic theaters, it closed down for a while; a restoration gave it new life and today the State Theater hosts movies, concerts, and other performances.
Next door, the Hardin County History Museum chronicles everything from Civil War battles and military history (remember, Fort Knox is just up the road) to Native American, European pioneer and frontier life and the town’s early 20th century development, all with a series of permanent and rotating exhibits.
Heading north out of Elizabethtown on U.S. 31W, a car lover’s delight can be found at Swope’s Cars of Yesteryear Museum, housed in the midst of dealerships the Swope family has owned or over sixty years. You’ll find a fantastic variety of autos form the early 1900s through the early 1970s here, including Packards, Model Ts, Corvettes, Roadsters, a ’55 T-Bird, and much more. The museum is free and a true car buff could easily spend few hours perusing what’s on display. Also of note is a photocopy of the original letter Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde fame) sent to Henry Ford to compliment him on his vehicles, which were the favorites of the famous pair.
Beyond Elizabethtown on U.S. 31, we head north into Radcliffe and Fort Knox, legendary military installation and famously home to the United States Bullion Depository since 1937. The base, which covers 170 square miles across parts of Hardin and Bullitt, and Meade Counties, is home to the Army Human Resource Center of Excellence, the United States Army Cadet Command, and the United States Army Accessions Command. The U.S. Army Armor Center and U.S. Army Armor School were located at Fort Knox for six decades before relocating to Fort Benning, Georgia.
You can enter the grounds of Fort Knox by going through security. One place that is a must-see is the General George Patton Museum of Leadership, which is accessible both from within the Fort and also directly off U.S. 31W. The Museum focuses on the life and career of General Patton and leadership qualities that enabled him – and can enable or inspire anyone – to strong and successful leadership. Included are exhibits of Patton’s personal effects and items from various U.S. wars, all flanked by powerful quotes from General Patton and many other successful military leaders.
Among the exhibits are Patton’s touring car, his office van, an 1864 wallet from his grandfather, items from the Iraq War, and more. The gift shop offers a variety of fascinating items, but fans of the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger will especially appreciate the model of the U.S. Bullion Depository – it was the actual model used in the film when villain Auric Goldfinger revealed his plan for “Operation Grand Slam” (if you haven’t seen the movie, you should).
The Bullion Depository itself is easily seen from U.S. 31W and the main West entrance to Fort Knox. However, it is completely off-limits to any visitors for obvious reasons. One shouldn’t even slow down too much to try and snap a picture of the building, as people in the area will tell you. It is one of the most watched and protected places in the country. So check it out as you drive past – and it’s neat to see in person and you continue to the next destination.
Further north along U.S. 31W, an earlier fort you can explore pops up. Shortly after U.S. 60 joins 31W and heads into West Point, the Ohio River is a few blocks away to the west and Pearman Hill – through the trees – is to the east. The hill serves as a beautiful overlook to the town and river below; back in 1861, it was considered an excellent site for military fortifications as the Civil War began. General William Tecumseh Sherman sent regiments to West Point to construct what became Fort Duffield and by 1862 it was ready to serve as a Union supply base and to protect Louisville from Confederate forces.
Abandoned shortly thereafter due to a (turns out perceived) lack of need, it remains the largest and best-preserved earthen fortification in Kentucky. The park itself is a beautiful setting for recreation, picnics, and the like while mountain biking and hiking trails – some nationally-recognized – wind a total of 10 miles through the area. A .25-mile path up the 300-foot hill takes you up to the top where Fort Duffield’s remains are today. The view from the clearings atop the hill reveal West Point below, along with the Salt River as it meets with the Ohio and the hills of southern Indiana across the way. Plenty of historic markers take you through the Fort’s history and showcases the buildings and exhibits, from log cabins to fire pits. There are Civil War re-enactment events at various times throughout the year.
Continuing north on U.S. 31W/60, past the KY 841 Bypass, brings you into Kentucky’s largest city, a thriving metropolis with plenty to see and do.
Louisville is a bustling place, filled with energy and industry. The city sprouted up in 1778, making it one of the oldest cities in the country west of the Appalachian Mountains. Its location along the Falls of the Ohio, the only major natural obstruction for river traffic on the Ohio River, made Louisville a natural portage site. Today, it is famous for the Kentucky Derby, Louisville Slugger bats, pronouncing its own name differently than everyone else (“LOO-vull” vs. “Louie-ville”). Cars and trucks are built here, as are 90% of all disco balls in the country (which was probably a bigger industry in the late 1970s). Louisville is home to Yum! Brands (which includes the iconic Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant chain) and with Louisville International Airport serving as the main hub for UPS the city has the 10th busiest airport in the world. The city has about 650,000 residents and anchors a metro area of 1.2 million.
Entering city on U.S. 31W/60, get to Central Avenue (shortly after the junction with I-264, one of the Louisville bypass freeways) and head east a few miles to Churchill Downs, the legendary host to the oldest continuously held sporting event in America and “the fastest two minutes in sports.” The Kentucky Derby ran its first race in 1875; it was named and modeled after a similar English derby by the grandson of explorer William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame. The Kentucky Derby Museum offers an interactive experience and tours of the race course, which includes checking out the Winners’ Circle. The history of the Derby, the horses and jockeys who have participated, and much more are offered in what is a must-see if you visit Louisville, whether you’re a fan of the sport or not. Feel free to wear a fancy hat if you’d like.
Within sight of Churchill Downs along Brook Street is Jim Patterson Stadium, home to the University of Louisville Cardinals baseball team and over 4,000 spectators on a busy day. Literally across the tracks towers Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, home for Cardinals football. The stadium hosts over 55,000 fans on a busy football Saturday and of course concerts and other major events. Both of these facilities are a clear sign you’re about to enter the main University of Louisville campus. Follow 3rd Street/KY 1020 north and you’ll go through this lovely campus, which is framed essentially by Churchill Downs to the south, I-65 to the east, 4th Street to the west, and Cardinal Boulevard to the north.
U of Louisville was the first city-owned public university in the United States when it was established back in 1798. Today, over 22,000 students do their learnin’ there; the university is one of the fastest-growing research facilities in the United States, too. The University of Louisville’s University Hospital helped pioneer civilian ambulance service, early development of ER’s, and created one of the nation’s first blood banks. Their Health Sciences Center has participated in the first successful hand transplant, development of the Pap test, and the first fully self-contained artificial heart transplant surgery.
On the north side of campus along 3rd Street is the Speed Art Museum (locally called “The Speed”) which serves as Kentucky’s largest and most comprehensive art museum. But slow down: The Speed is under renovation and will be closed until 2016; their satellite museum is downtown, at 822 East Market Street, in an area called the East Market District (also known as “NuLu”, for “New Louisville”).
Speaking of, let’s check out downtown!
So 3rd Street/KY 1020 forks into two one-way streets; follow 2nd Street north for a more relaxed and better look at the city streets and buildings than the nearby and parallel I-65. It’s only a few miles and 2nd Street goes through some of the most popular districts in town, with tall trees lining numerous blocks. At Broadway, a few blocks to the west is the iconic Brown Hotel, where the famous Hot Brown sandwich was created in the 1920’s. If you want to try it at the source, check it out! The Brown is in Louisville’s Theater District, and just up 4th Street the Louisville Palace Theater opened in 1928 and shows off its Spanish Baroque motif with plenty of elegant touches. Movies, concerts, and plenty of other performances are showcased here, as well as other, smaller venues in the district.
Old Louisville is also a historic district in the area, centering more along 4th Street; you’ll find plenty of Victorian-style homes and features what is probably the highest concentration of homes with stained glass windows in the country as well as the nation’s largest collection of “pedestrian-only” streets in a residential neighborhood. The renowned St. James Court Art Show takes place in the district every October, and on St. James Court a tour of the historic Conrad-Caldwell House Museum is worth a stop to our an 1895 mansion and learn about the 1893 Louisville Exposition, which took place on the site where this home was eventually built.
Up & Down Main Street
To reach the heart of downtown, continue on 2nd Street north to the main drag in downtown Louisville: the aptly named Main Street. A whole slew of sights, landmarks, and attractions line Main Street; the Ohio River runs parallel one block to the north. Along the river, parks like Riverfront Plaza provide walkways and beautiful views of the water, the bridges, Indiana to the north, and the office towers of downtown just to the south. The statue of early city leader George Rogers Clark, older brother to William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame, commemorates the spot where Clark proposed the canal around the Falls of the Ohio that would help give rise to Louisville as a major city. He made the proposal in 1804 and the canal was completed in 1830, proving that construction projects took forever to get done back then, too. You can enjoy a ride on the Belle of Louisville, the oldest operating Mississippi-style steamboat in existence at over 100 years old!
Along Main you’ll find the KFC Yum! Center, the city’s primary arena for concerts, events, and games for the University of Louisville Cardinals basketball team. The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts is within eyeshot, hosting performances from organizations like the Louisville Ballet, Kentucky Opera, Louisville Orchestra, and more. From here west, this section of Main – in the West Main District – is also known as “Museum Row.” Major attractions within blocks of each other include the Muhammad Ali Center, named for iconic boxer and native son Muhammad Ali, neé Cassius Clay. The massive museum is six stories high and features an amphitheater and plaza providing access to both downtown and the riverfront. Inside, the museum and cultural center focuses on the boxer’s life, his quite interesting history, core values, success strategies, and more. Other exhibits include a mock boxing ring, an orientation theater, “Hope and Dream,” “Global Voices,” and more.
Two art galleries also complement the Ali Center. Back along Main just to the west, the Frazier History Museum takes you through more than 1,000 years. An affiliate of the Smithsonian, it’s the only place in the world outside Great Britain to permanently house and display Royal Armories artifacts. The Kentucky Science Center is the largest hands-on science museum in the state; it features a natural history area, “hands on” science exhibits, and a digital theater. Nearby the Kentucky Museum of Art & Craft (often called the “Kay-Mac”) follows the state’s rich art and craft resources, which include a lot of unique techniques developed from around the state over the years. The museum was originally founded by former Miss America, sportscaster, and First Lady of Kentucky Phyllis George in 1981. Several art galleries along Main recently opened to complement the museum.
Speaking of art, on West Main at 7th Street you literally can’t miss the giant 30-foot golden statue of David. Towering over the sidewalk and standing out (in several ways), this remarkable replica of the famous Michelangelo work was unveiled in 2012 and immediately became a favorite photo-op location.
Another favorite photo-op “leans” against the most widely-known of all the museums on Museum Row: the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory. Billed as the “World’s Largest Bat” (though it’s not made of wood, it’s made of steel), it towers 120 feet with its handle rising above the five-story building. Inside, you’ll find 16,000 square feet of exhibits that will delight any baseball fan. Bats on display include the one Babe Ruth used to hit his final home run and a Pete Browning bat from the 1880s; you can actually hold bats used in actual games by legendary players like Mickey Mantle and Cal Ripken, Jr., then get a tour of the production facility where bats are actually made.
The company, Hillerich & Bradsby, also makes golf clubs there; the fact that not too many active factories remain in downtown areas in this country makes this interesting. Also in the museum you can explore the history of the Louisville Slugger bat, experience a fastball whizzing toward you at 90mph (though you won’t have to duck, you might anyway), check out a replica dugout, and marvel at a massive baseball glove made of 17 tons of Kentucky limestone.
This district of West Main Street in Louisville offers the largest concentration of iron façade buildings in the U.S. outside of New York City. One block-long stretch from 101-133 West Main is known as “Whiskey Row,” a group of Revivalist and Chicago School-style buildings that went up in stages from 1852 to 1905. These structures were considered ground zero for the bourbon industry, the place where distilling companies from all over Kentucky could showcase and sell their wares to a large audience and ship their product via the Ohio River to customers all over.
Today, Whiskey Row and the area around it is an emerging mix of restaurants, residences, and of course establishments where bourbon and whiskey are available. Brown-Forman, maker of Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve, is a key investor in Whiskey Row and is in the process of opening a distillery there for Old Forester, their original brand and the first bottled whiskey in America. Check it out when you go and see what’s new!
Also on Main (528 West) is the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is an impressive artisanal distillery where tours immerse you into the process and then let you enjoy the product. The distillery celebrates Evan Williams, who was the first commercial distiller in Kentucky when he opened up shop across the street in 1783. His name lives on as the flagship Bourbon brand for Heaven Hill, and an historic marker across the street marks the spot where his distillery stood. For beer lovers, Main Street offers craft breweries such as Against the Grain (401 E. Main) and Bluegrass Brewing Company (300 W. Main).
Against the Grain is a recent addition to the scene, having opened in 2011. Bluegrass opened their brewery in 1993, making it Kentucky’s longest continuously-operating brewery (as opposed to many distilleries in Kentucky that have been in continuous operation for centuries)! Their Tap Room as at 636 East Main. Other craft breweries and distilleries are popping up all over town; East Main also features a variety of emerging restaurants focusing on local ingredients.
Louisville has its ‘AAA’ baseball team in a downtown stadium; it’s only fitting that the Louisville Bats play at Louisville Slugger Field along East Main right near the junction of I-64 and I-65. This International League team in the farm system of the nearby Cincinnati Reds draw large summer crowds, and the stadium offers views of the Ohio River and Indiana from higher level seats. A portion of it was built into a former train depot, giving it a unique design.
Downtown Louisville is a very attraction-filled, walkable place. It’s definitely worth a day or two if you can make that much time.
Elsewhere in the city, you can enjoy the Louisville Zoo, which features over 1,300 animals across 134 acres of naturalistic and mixed settings. A major piece of the city’s history can be explored at Locust Grove, a 55-acre estate with a mansion dating back to 1792 where many of the city’s early founders and leaders met; it is a National Historic Landmark. On Louisville’s east side, Whitehall House & Gardens offers beautiful gardens and a mansion to tour; it’s probably the city’s most coveted spot for weddings. You can also find something unique nearby with the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind. The museum chronicles the educational history of blind people and features exhibits on braille, printing, and other tools for helping the visually impaired.
The Thomas Edison Butchertown House was home for the famous inventor Edison during a few years he spent as a Western Union telegrapher. Almost torn down a number of years back, the House was eventually restored and stands as a comprehensive museum about Edison’s life and inventions. If the kids (and grownups) want something fun with “world exclusive” features, check out the Louisville Mega Cavern. The Mega Cavern features the world’s first and only underground bike park, the world’s only fully underground zip line, and 17 miles of natural corridors running underneath the city. Tram Tours are a fun way to explore the caves, and during the holidays its light show puts on displays that earn high rankings in national publications. You’ll never find so much to do underground!
Whatever you choose to do in Louisville, the Best Western Airport East/Expo Center and Best Western Louisville East are ready to give you a comfortable stay as you take in all the action around town.
So there you have it: a nice little slice of Kentucky, from Campbellsville through Hodgenville’s Lincoln history, Elizabethtown’s charm, the golden appeal of Fort Knox, the history of Fort Duffield, and the dynamic city of Louisville. Enjoy the Tour, and stay with people who care!