By Tammie Beasley
Recently, my husband and I went to the campground area at Otter Creek Outdoor Recreation Area (formerly Otter Creek Park) to attend a birthday celebration for our granddaughters. When we left the campground, we took a trip down memory lane and drove through the park. In its heyday, the park was always a bustle of activity, especially on the weekends. Now it seemed to us that it was a far cry from its glory days.
The area for Otter Creek Park was selected in 1934 by the Federal government as a recreational demonstration area. Much of the land was purchased in 1935 and consisted of approximately 2,600 acres. The Van Buren Estate, overlooking the Ohio River, was added to the area. The park’s namesake, Otter Creek, winds along the eastern side of the park. A scenic bend in the Ohio River can be seen from the northern overlook area where the now defunct restaurant/conference center is located. A historic piece of the park is Morgan’s Cave, a cave with an actively flowing stream that was reputed to be a hideaway for Morgan’s Raiders during the Civil War. Many teenagers and adults explored the cave until it was barred from entry several years ago. The park was given to the City of Louisville by the U. S. Government in 1947.
For over 30 years the park was managed by Mr. John Rowe, Superintendent, and Mr. DeWayne Trent, Assistant Superintendent. Under their leadership, the park was booming and there were many employment opportunities for teenagers and adults alike at the park facilities. When they retired, it seemed to me that the park began its gradual downhill slide.
The park played a major role in my life and the lives of many people. My earliest memory of the park is having family picnics at the numerous picnic areas down by the river. I don’t remember fees being charged to get into the park when I was a charge but I know that eventually there was a fee of $1.00 per car to get into the picnic areas by the river. Now you can’t even drive through the park without paying $3.00 per person at the entrance gate.
I attended swimming lessons as a child provided by the American Red Cross at the first public pool which was then located where the parking lot of the restaurant/conference center is now. That pool was destroyed and a new public pool built later closer to the entrance of the park. That public pool also eventually closed and a water park was constructed there. In recent years, the water park closed as well. There were also two private pools that I knew of, one at Camp Tall Trees and one at Camp Piomingo. Camp Piomingo was first opened by the Y.M.C.A in 1938 and hosted many camps over the years. I attended camp at Twin Ridges, the Girl Scout Camp. As well as Girl Scout and Boy Scout camps, there were various day camps held every summer for children of all ages.
I swam at the public pools, played in the creek, had picnics with family, friends and schoolmates, walked the trails, and as a teenager, spent many lazy Sunday afternoons driving around Otter Creek Park.
I also visited the nature center numerous times, which was a staple of family trips and school field trips. The nature center was home to different animals found in the park, and the nature center personnel were knowledgeable about the park and animals. I accompanied my daughter’s class there once on a school field trip. The attendant brought out a snake which he discussed and brought into the audience for everyone to touch. It took everything I had not to jump up and run out screaming! I had touched a snake before, quite by accident, and had no desire to do so again, but I did not want to let the kids know that I did not want to be anywhere near that snake. When the attendant got to my row, I just shook my head and he went on to the row behind me. Fortunately for me, none of the kids in my row fussed because they didn’t get to touch the snake!
I attended weddings, family reunions, and picnics at the pavilions and the restaurant/conference center. I also attended luncheons, training, meetings, and dinners with Fort Knox personnel there. Cabins were open to the public to rent. Later, there was lodging accommodations built next to the restaurant/conference center. The lodging accommodations were torn down in 2004.
The last time I attended an event at the conference center was at our daughter’s wedding and reception there in 2004. The restaurant had long been closed but there was a kitchen with all the amenities available for use. Unfortunately for us, the lodging accommodations next to the Conference Center were demolished a month before the wedding. Six days before the wedding, a major storm hit the area and damaged five of the seven cabins that were still available to rent (the only two cabins that were not damaged were the two we had rented), and the conference center itself was without electricity until the day before the wedding. Fortunately it all turned out fine and was certainly a beautiful place to hold a wedding.
There were festivals and events being held all the time at the park. There were trails for hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking. There was a shooting range and archery range. In later years, a disc golf course was added. And of course, you could always fish at Otter Creek or in the Ohio River.
A master plan for the park to include the removal of outdated facilities and the development of new amenities was adopted in 2001. The entrance and roadways in Otter Creek Park were completely changed. Many of the pavilions, picnic areas and camp cabins were demolished or closed. The City of Louisville (which merged with Jefferson County and became Louisville Metro Government in 2003) attempted to give or sell the park to Meade County and the Commonwealth of Kentucky at various times over the years. On December 1, 2008, Louisville Metro Government announced that the park lost $500,000 annually and would be closed to the public due to budget cuts. The closing date was 1 January 2009 but events booked at the conference center were honored through June 2009.
On June 16, 2010, Governor Steve Beshear and Louisville Metro Government Mayor Jerry Abramson announced that Otter Creek Park would reopen in 2011 as an outdoor recreational area operated by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. It officially opened on May 11, 2011, but several facilities including the Nature Center, Conference Center, and cabins remained closed.
Now the only things that remain at Otter Creek Outdoor Recreation Area are the campground, the shooting and archery ranges, the disc golf course, and Camp Piomingo. I have not heard of any camps being held at Camp Piomingo but the sign to the camp was still standing and the gate was open. I believe they still have hiking, horseback and mountain bike trails as well as the opportunities to fish and hunt. Probably the park’s biggest claim to fame now is Nightmare Forest which has been held there annually in October for many years. I have not seen any advertisements for it this year so I assume it may not be held due to COVID-19.
We have often discussed the park and its downfall. The conference center with the restaurant could have thrived because of its location and beautiful view of the Ohio River. The cabins and lodging accommodations could have been full. Events such as reunions, weddings, family reunions, class reunions, conferences, and training could have kept the conference center booking full. Contracted business with Fort Knox organizations for training and events at the conference center and lodging for temporary duty personnel could have helped the park to prosper.
Personally I believe that the City of Louisville’s lost interest in the park, mismanagement of the park, and lack of advertising and promotion led to its demise. It is a shame that no one has been able to rejuvenate and restore Otter Creek Park to its former glory. But we will always have the memories!