Established in February 3, 1958
General Burnside Island State Park has the distinction of being the only island park in the Kentucky system. The park, formerly known as Bunker Hill, joined the Kentucky Parks System on February 3, 1958. In an unusual instance, the United States Army deeded the 390-acre island to the Commonwealth of Kentucky in fee simple. Most of the state park lands that the federal government has turned over to the state involved a lease agreement. Located eight miles south of Somerset in Pulaski County, the park is surrounded by Lake Cumberland and is accessible by a causeway.
For many years the sparsely settled area did not have a name. The North Carolinians, who settled there around 1800, began to call their community Point Isabel. An old and unsubstantiated legend relates that a young woman by the name of Isabel threw herself to her death from one of the high bluffs because of an unrequited love affair.
In 1863 the Union Army under the command of General Ambrose E. Burnside established a camp and army depot at Point Isabel and fortified the site along with a major lookout point called Bunker Hill to control a portion of the Cumberland River. With lookouts posted on all the high points, Burnside’s men could watch over a large part of the surrounding countryside. The camp soon became known as Camp Burnside. Older residents still referred to their community as the Point and some began gradually calling it Point Burnside.
General Burnside’s military reputation during the Civil War had suffered extensive criticism. He had led the Union Army to defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1862 against Confederate forces led by General Robert E. Lee. Burnside somewhat redeemed himself militarily in Kentucky when he accepted the surrender of Confederate forces at Cumberland Gap, thus freeing eastern Kentucky and Tennessee from a strong Confederate presence.
After the end of the Civil War the Burnside area remained isolated. Bad roads and sparse settlements caused travelers to avoid parts of Pulaski County. Transportation by stagecoach began in 1850 and lasted through 1878. The roads remained poor and travel by coach could be a grueling experience. One traveler noted, “A man can’t drive from Stanford (Lincoln County) to Somerset and still be a Christian. The mud is so deep and the road is so long, that a Christian would lose all patience with himself and his horses before he got to Waynesboro (Lincoln County). After that, Job himself would get out of heart.” In 1878 the first train came through Pulaski County bringing with it a modern means of transportation.
Kentucky author James Lane Allen (1849-1925) wrote an extensive description of the Burnside community in 1899. In his essay he wrote of the beauty of the land. “The scenery around Burnside is beautiful and the climate bracing.” He went on to note the grandeur of the surrounding forests and above all the wonderful serenity of the place.
In the 1950s Burnside and the surrounding area would change forever. The Nashville, Tenn. District of the Corps of Engineers had started a massive project to impound the waters of the Cumberland River and create the largest lake in Kentucky. The completion of Wolf Creek Dam formed Lake Cumberland. The lake has a seasonal pool of 50,250 acres covering parts of Clinton, Laurel, Pulaski, Russell, and Wayne Counties. The rising waters of the lake eventually covered the lower portion of Burnside. The government relocated businesses and homes on a hill that is now called Upper Burnside.
The waters of Lake Cumberland also formed an island that the U.S. Corps of Engineers suggested would be an excellent site for camping. In 1958 the island was transferred to the Commonwealth of Kentucky in fee simple for a state park. Between 1958 and 1959, the Kentucky Department of Highways built a causeway to the island from the mainland. Developments on the island included a beach and an 18-hole golf course. Originally named Chandler Island State Park in honor of Kentucky governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler, the Burnside and Somerset Chambers of Commerce recommended the park be called General Burnside Island State Park. On May 28, 1960, the Kentucky parks board approved the name change.