News and Tribune

October 22, 2012

HIKING THROUGH HISTORY: Charlestown celebrates its past with visit to Rose Island, Work House


CHARLESTOWN — Once upon a time, Charlestown was the area’s summer entertainment hub, thanks to the genius of David B.G. Rose.

It was Rose who turned the small peninsula on the south end of Charlestown into Rose Island, a vacation resort and amusement park that saw thousands at a time come and go to and from Jeffersonville and Louisville via steamboat. For 5 cents, a child could enjoy a pony ride. Just $16 was enough to rent a cabin on the island for an entire week.

But the flood of 1937 caused irreparable damage to the island’s lodging and attractions. After the flood, the amusement park was chalked up as a loss, and what mankind neglects, nature reclaims.

On Saturday, about 100 people turned up at Charlestown State Park for a Charlestown Chamber of Commerce-hosted tour to see what is left of Rose’s getaway. The evidence that it was ever there is scant.

“The site is less than 100 years old, yet there’s very little to be found in terms of photographs or even stories,” said Jeremy Beavin, an interpretive naturalist with the Department of Natural Resources. “People know it, but they don’t know about it.”

The island has only been accessible on foot for just more than a year, thanks to the installation of a restored 100-year-old bridge from Portersville. But it’s still a tough walk. To reach the bridge, one must hike down an incredibly steep one-lane path with 180-degree switchbacks. It’s definitely not a hike for everyone.

“The park really is underutilized, and we’d like to give it some exposure,” said Tamsie Meurer, with the Charlestown Chamber of Commerce. “We’d like to provide transportation for people who can’t do the hill, because it’s pretty brutal.”

The Chamber bused visitors down across the bridge for a hike through Rose Island. One of the buses had to limit the number of people it could take back because it couldn’t make the steep climb with a full complement of passengers. As visitors traveled a freshly cut path through the woods, members of the Charlestown High School Key Club were on hand at important sites, using visual aids to explain what was once there.

“It’s pretty cool just to see what it actually used to be, and to see the pictures and all of the history that actually was behind it,” said Marcus Schaeffer, Key Club president. “It kind of enriches Charlestown’s history even more, just by showing just how much this town had to offer back in the day.”

Where the island’s 20 cabins once stood, now there are only saplings and young-forest growth. All that remains of the iconic landing site for steamboats are the three stone columns that supported the island’s iconic signage. Rumor has it the sign was taken by a scrap scavenger in the 1970s. It hasn’t been seen since.

“I had the history to prepare me, but I was amazed at what wasn’t left,” Meurer said.

Today, Rose Island is considered a nature preserve, so the likelihood of buildings anywhere near the scope built by Rose will ever be constructed there again is nil.

And the roller-coaster once built into the massive bluff known as Devil’s Backbone? Forget it. But Beavin said the island will soon have modest signage to explain the place’s history.

Though Rose Island may never returned to its original state, restoration is the goal at another nearby historic site. The John Work house, located along Tunnel Mill Road, received visitors from Rose Island after the tours were over, greeting them with 19th-Century hospitality.

Built in 1811, the John Work house was home to a wealthy Pennsylvania transplant with profitable stakes in grain and saw mills along a nearby creek. Work oversaw the construction of Tunnel Mill.

Today, the home hosts Taylor-Rose Historical Outfitters, owned by internationally renowned period costumer Nathan Logsdon. Logsdon struck a deal with the Lincoln Heritage Boy Scout Council — which owns the Work house — to restore the home two years ago.

Historical re-enactors showed visitors how the frontiersmen made tools, weapons and food. The Boy Scouts treated guests to a delicious meal of roasted pig. A bit later in the evening, re-enactors brought the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to life with the ride of the Headless Horseman.

Meurer said the Chamber knows that Charlestown residents are hungry to learn more about their city’s history. Tours like this will happen again soon, she said.