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By Sam Perry
The mid-day sun drilled down upon the foam-flecked backs of wheezing mules as they leaned against the leather collars tethering them to the wagon. The wagon was heavy and they struggled to pull it through the sandy bottoms and rocky inclines of a road that seemed to have no end. They had been pulling obediently all morning and they were tired. Now, the halfway point of their journey was in sight and they were anxious to rest for a few minutes and quench their thirst in the water trough at Vinegar Hill.
The mules were not the only ones looking forward to getting to Vinegar Hill. Seated on splint-bottomed chairs in the wagon were men and women whose casual traveling attire came from the finest millinery shops in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Chicago. All were drenched in perspiration by the heat and humidity of a southern Kentucky summer day. The maroon and navy blue of the long dresses worn by the women absorbed heat from the sun like a flat iron on a hot stove. The bright colors contrasted with the seer black of the business suits worn by the gentlemen sitting opposite them. As those men tugged at their white celluloid collars and fanned themselves with derby hats, they looked enviously at the women whose silk parasols, at least, shielded their faces from the sun. All of them sat precariously in the wagon, hanging on to the sideboards, and bracing themselves with their feet against the erratic motion of a conveyance that threatened to toss them from their seats. Moreover, the thin pillows provided by the driver had proved useless in softening the blows rendered to their backsides by the hickory bark splints of the chairs. All of them, male and female, were of one accord. The trip, so far, was not what they had anticipated and they could hardly wait to climb down and stretch their legs.
The men and women in the wagon were nearing the end of a long journey that had taken them from their homes and businesses in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. After having read glowing reports in their hometown newspapers, they were on their way to spend leisurely days in the shadow of Kentucky’s fabled Cumberland Falls. There, they planned to relax at the elegant Brunson Inn, wade in the shallow backwaters of Cumberland River, refresh their lungs with clean mountain air, and sip glasses of healing water from the many natural springs that were common in the area. Most importantly, though, they hoped to see for themselves a mystical phenomenon that, they had been told, occurred in only two places on Earth.
The long hours spent in the Pullman car on the Cincinnati Southern Railroad had been pleasant, but that had come to an end when they stepped off the train at Parkers Lake, the small community that had grown up beside the water tank there. From the railroad station, they had been escorted to a small general store operated by a rotund gentleman named Pleasant Patrick Walker, who would deliver them to their final destination. However, instead of being lifted onto covered carriages bolted to leaf springs, they had found a simple farm wagon awaiting them. Mr. Walker had apologized for having nothing better to offer them, but he had assured them that the ride would be a comfortable one. Before the first mile had been covered, the men and women on the wagon had become convinced that Mr. Walker was a man given to exaggeration.
Pleasant Patrick Walker was that, and more. As one always looking for ways to make a dime, Walker had recognized an opportunity to increase his bottom line when he met an equally opportunistic business man named Henry C. Brunson, who had recently purchased a hotel from Socrates Owens. This hotel was situated almost directly above the cataract known as the Great Falls of the Cumberland. The completion of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad had opened the doors of opportunity for entrepreneurs throughout the Big South Fork River region and Henry C. Brunson was not one to pass up an opportunity. Neither was Pleasant Patrick Walker. He lost little time in cultivating a friendship between himself and Brunson.
Kindred spirits, both men sought to capitalize upon the beauty and potential of the Great Falls of the Cumberland, but something more than scenic beauty was needed to bring in visitors to the hotel. At some point in time, both men agreed that a thin filament of light that arced over the waterfall in the light of the full moon had the potential to put money in both of their pockets. This band of bluish-grey light that danced among the flumes of flowing water bore a striking resemblance to a common rainbow, absent the bright colors. It could be seen only during those few days when the full moon illuminated the river bottom. Over sips of Kentucky bourbon and pulls on Cuban cigars, Brunson and Walker agreed that the rainbow that could be seen only in the light of the full moon would be called the Moonbow and that they would use it to attract visitors to the hotel. Brunson would change the name of the hotel to the Brunson Inn and begin turning it into a magnificent resort, complete with all the amenities desired by upper class vacationers. Walker would promote it heavily from his position of influence at the railroad station. Walker would, also, establish a taxi service from the station to the hotel. In one moment of historic foresight, Pleasant Patrick Walker and Henry C. Brunson became the first tourism promoters in southern Kentucky.
While Brunson set about to hire tour guides, river boatmen, cooks, and musicians for the entertainment of his guests, Walker began building his taxi service to transport them to the Inn. He broke the arduous ten mile journey from the railroad station to the Inn into three parts and established two way stations, one at the home of Pete Childers at Vinegar Hill and another at the home of J.H. Davis, some three miles west of the Falls. He contracted with both men to provide water for the mules and refreshments for the guests who, by the time they arrived at the way stations, would be clamoring for relief from the dust and the heat.
The result of the cooperative effort between Walker and Brunson was a business enterprise that flourished for almost forty years, not diminishing until an eastern route to the Inn was opened by the Corbin Kiwanis Club in 1927. At first by farm wagon and then by Ford Model T automobile, Pleasant Patrick Walker took hundreds of visitors to see the magical Moonbow. He talked about it to whoever would lend an ear, promoting it with the zeal of an evangelist, and the word spread. Soon, going to see the Moonbow became an essential item on one’s travel itinerary and a requirement for bragging rights in polite society. It remains so to this day.
Henry C. Brunson eventually retired and moved to Burnside to live out the remainder of his days. Walker remained in Parkers Lake and founded a dynasty of politicians that included a county sheriff and three Judge/Executives, one of which became the longest serving Judge/Executive in Kentucky history. A great-grandson serves in that office today. Yet, Pleasant Patrick Walker is best remembered for being the Father of the Moonbow, the man who put that unique and rare quirk of nature on the register of natural wonders of North America.