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By Sam Perry
Early Sumner scraped the match on the sole of his shoe and touched the flame to the fuse of the blasting cap. Then, he walked away and waited. The explosion was small, but it was big enough to do the job. With a roar, the impounded waters of the lake came rushing through the chasm the dynamite had created in the dam. The churning water filled the creek channel and carried away the debris lying below the mass of earth that had held the water back. Satisfied in knowing he had done what he had set out to do, Sumner picked up the kerosene lantern and headed back home, leaving behind a crumbling earthen dam and the shattered plans of a Lexington businessman named John Ambrose Geary.
John A. Geary was an Irishman. He was a devout Roman Catholic and hated the English whom he saw as the cause of the violence in his homeland. In 1854, at the age of thirteen, he immigrated to the United States, settling in Lexington, Kentucky. After a brief stint as a laborer, he apprenticed himself to a plumber and learned enough to start his own business.
The advent of the Civil War interrupted Geary’s plumbing work and he volunteered to serve the Confederacy as a member of the 11th Mississippi Infantry Regiment. A spent bullet at First Bull Run ended his military service and he returned to Kentucky in April 1862 to resume work as a plumber. This, too, was short-lived, as he found himself caught up in an organization of expatriate Irishmen who were intent upon ridding their homeland of the English overlords. He became a Captain in the Fenian Brotherhood, a quasi-military unit, and was a participant in the Battle of Ridgeway, in Canada, in 1866.
Back in Kentucky, Geary partnered with James M. Roche and founded the Kentucky Water Heating and Illuminating Company. The business prospered, turning each of them into wealthy and influential men. By 1878, Geary had acquired enough money to start looking around for investment opportunities. He found plenty of them in southern Kentucky in the form of cheap land lying along the newly opened Cincinnati Southern Railroad.
Between 1879 and 1921, Geary purchased more than twenty thousand acres of land in what is now northern and central McCreary County. Primarily, he purchased patents, not knowing, exactly, where the boundaries of the patents lay, or who was living on the land at the time of purchase. Never a cold-hearted landlord, he was generous to those who had settled on the patented land, without acquiring legal title to it, and returned their farms to them for a nominal fee, or by taking, in trade, livestock or farm produce. Among his many purchases was the George Smith patent, which had been sold at auction to Thomas Z. Morrow and Middleton B. Holloway. With this purchase, Geary had enough prime real estate to start work on a dream of his which was to create a Kingdom of Geary in the region drained by the Big South Fork River. To accomplish this, he established the Geary Land Development Company.
With money and property available to transform his dream into a reality, Geary focused upon the community of Coolidge, a small cluster of homes and businesses situated at the Dripping Spring on the old Jacksboro Road. The Cincinnati Southern Railroad had built a depot there, calling it Whitley Station, after the legendary hero of the War of 1812. Where others saw only an insignificant stop on the railroad, Geary looked at Coolidge with the eyes of a visionary. In his mind, he saw a model community, complete with well-engineered streets, state of the art gas lighting, telephone service, and an abundant supply of public water. He saw a progressive city, replete with good schools and medical facilities, and commercial enterprises the equal of any found in Lexington. He saw a planned city that would become the most important stop on the Cincinnati Southern Railroad. He saw a rail yard that would become the nerve center of the Big South Fork River region. There, flat cars would fill up with lumber from the sawmills he would build, box cars would bring in exotic food and clothing from distant lands, and carry away locally grown produce, sorghum molasses, cured hams, slabs of bacon, and barrels of oil from the wells he would drill along the river.
John A. Geary knew that building his Kingdom of Geary would take time. It would not happen overnight. But, with resources and determination, he was confident that it could be done. His first task was to build a lake.
Northeast of Coolidge, the waters of Jenny’s Branch emerge from a spring on the side of the ridge. It was on Jenny’s Branch that Geary built his dam. The resulting lake exceeded Geary’s expectations. Confined between steep walls, it was deep enough for cold-water fish, yet expansive enough for rowboats and docks. But, John A. Geary was not interested in fishing or swimming, or just having a lake for public entertainment. He needed the lake in order to accomplish his next objective, which was to bring clean water, and plenty of it, to the city of Coolidge.
While construction of the lake was ongoing, Geary started work on a home in Coolidge. Atop the highest hill in town, he built a large house from lumber cut in his sawmills. This would serve as his manor and, from it, he could watch the development of his planned community, sip bourbon whiskey, and contemplate the future. Or, so he thought.
The timeless prophecy by Robert Burns regarding the best-laid plans of mice and men was fulfilled when Early Sumner placed his stick of dynamite in John Geary’s earthen dam and lit the fuse. The ensuing explosion destroyed more than an impoundment of water. It destroyed a man’s dream and a city’s future. Like a man who, suddenly, learns that his wife has been unfaithful to him, Geary felt betrayed, unloved, and unwanted. He abandoned his plans for bringing modernity to Coolidge and stopped working on his dream. There would be no modern plumbing in the city, no gas lighting along the streets, and no telephone service. There would be no concrete sidewalks for his adopted people to walk on when they came into town. If the people of the Big South Fork River region did not want him, he would move on to greener pastures, and he did.
Geary returned to Lexington and became an absentee landlord. His home on the hill overlooking Coolidge remained, for many years, the most modern house in town, but he never turned it into a palatial mansion, as planned. He continued to speculate in real estate, but his sole motivation in doing so was to make money for his family. His business required that he visit Coolidge frequently, but he did not remain there long and he seldom reconnected with people he had, once, regarded as friends. Eventually, most of the property he owned in town was sold to the Whitley City Improvement Company, a corporation that was instrumental in the selection of Whitley City as the seat of government for McCreary County.
Early Sumner never, fully, explained why he had blown up the dam holding back Geary Lake. He only said that he had done it to prevent accidental drowning in the lake. The public reaction to his act of vandalism was muted, if not completely absent. The silence, however, roared in John Geary’s ears, and an opportunity to turn a sleepy stop on the Cincinnati Southern Railroad into a thriving metropolis faded away, like the morning fog that rises over the Big South Fork River.