May 2, 2014

Traces of Laurel: Rockcastle Springs

By Jan Sparkman

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — The most romantic period in Laurel County’s history was during the time of the Rockcastle River resorts when visitors came from other parts of Kentucky, and from other states, to bask in the natural beauty of the forests and springs along the river. 

Picture a time when only dirt roads led to this area; think of how long it would take to make the more than twenty mile journey from London to the Laurel-Pulaski line on the Rockcastle River in a horse drawn wagon or buggy.  Then think of the rest and relaxation provided on arrival by a spacious hotel surrounded by scenic vistas of forest and river. No wonder it was a popular spot.

Rockcastle Springs Resort is often mentioned in old issues of the Mountain Echo as a recreational attraction used widely by outsiders and local residents.  Written records of this period are mostly lost in the passage of time, but a few remain.  I’ve found references in both Dyche’s and Clark’s histories of Laurel County, as well as one or two places online and in the Filson Club Quarterly, copies of which are on file at the historical society.

So when did Rockcastle Springs open and what was its connection to Sublimity Springs which I wrote about in last week’s column?  In Dyche’s “History of Laurel County” he writes that:  “An 1885 letterhead of Rockcastle Springs Hotel, F.J. Campbell, Manager, states that it was in its Forty-Fifth Season.  This places the beginning of the resort in 1841.” (And, therefore, before the establishment of Sublimity Springs).  Other sources disagree and indicate that early references to the Rockcastle Springs actually refer to Sublimity Springs or that the two existed simultaneously, which of course, for a time, they certainly did.  What we know for sure is that the heyday of Rockcastle Springs was after the Civil War.  It continued to draw tourists until it closed in 1912.

Kentucky history writer, J. Winston Coleman Jr., wrote about Rockcastle Springs in the January 1942, issue of The Filson Club Quarterly, as part of a longer essay titled “Old Kentucky Watering Places:”  “Rockcastle Springs was another of the watering places which staged a remarkable come-back after the Civil War and did a thriving business in the middle 1880s under the management of F.J. Campbell.  Here, in July of 1884, were registered over one hundred and fifty guests and the amusements consisted of ‘boating, bathing, ten-pins, fishing, deer hunting, quoits, billiards, cards, music and dancing’.  This resort was described in the papers of the period as ‘a veritable Eden for children, a sanitarium for the invalid, a paradise for lovers and a haven of rest for the tired.’” 

Dyche also quotes this same article, virtually verbatim, in his book “Laurel County History,” (1954) with credit to Coleman.

Dr. Thomas D. Clark in his book “A History of Laurel County” describes the setting for Rockcastle Springs Resort:  “It was situated amidst a rugged and wild natural area marked by a geological maze of rocky ridges and deeply eroded defiles, all cloaked in a dense growth of virgin forest.”  Clark also gives the rates of staying at the Resort:  “Gentleman or lady, seventy cents per day, five dollars per week.”  You could board your horse for fifty cents a day.  Sure sounds like a bargain to me.

The resort period is one of the most interesting in the history of the county.  It was part of an era when springs of almost any kind were touted as restorative to health, and businessmen took full advantage of this claim – plus the growing wealth of the citizenry and its desire for pleasure – to develop a thriving tourist industry. 

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The Laurel County Historical Society is located at 310 W. 3rd St., London, (formerly the Laurel County Health Department).  The library is open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. until 12 noon.    Call 606-864-0607 during those hours.  Visit the historical society’s website at 

Contact Jan Sparkman at