Good vs. Evil: How Angel Falls and Devils Jump got their names
The whitewater paddling season is rapidly approaching in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. And, invariably, as first-time visitors venture to the Big South Fork, they’ll ask how the river’s two most notorious rapids — Angel Falls and Devils Jump — got their name.
Neither of those two are destinations for most whitewater paddlers, of course. There’s too much flat water on that part of the river, which is between Leatherwood Ford and Blue Heron. That stretch of river is mostly utilized by recreational paddlers, who should always portage those two rapids. Whitewater paddlers are much more likely to be found upstream, along the upper reaches of the Big South Fork and the Clear Fork, where they’ll tackle rapids with names like The Ell, Double Drop, and Washing Machine.
Most people who visit Angel Falls do so by hiking the Angel Falls hiking trail, an easy, 4.0-mile out-and-back from Leatherwood Ford. And a lot of them are expecting to find an actual waterfall at the end of the trail. They’re disappointed to discover that Angel Falls is actually just a whitewater rapid — a powerful one, but just a rapid nonetheless — instead of a waterfall. It used to be a small waterfall, but the falls was dynamited in the mid 20th century to make way for a canoe race.
Anyway, the story of how Angel Falls got its name is easy enough: it was named Angel Falls by early settlers of the region to off-set the more ominous sounding name of Devils Jump a day’s paddle to the north, further downstream.
As for Devils Jump, how it got its name is a more complicated — and much more interesting — story.
A little more than 200 years ago, a couple of prospectors named Marcus Huling and Anrew Zimmerman were drilling along the Big South Fork River near Bear Creek when they accidentally discovered oil.
It was an “accident” because Huling and Zimmerman weren’t drilling for oil. In 1818, when they pedaled their drill deep into the earth, few people in America even knew what oil was. Instead, Huling and Zimmerman were looking for salt brine — which, ironically, was much more valuable than oil in those days.
In fact, the two men were likely dismayed when they struck oil instead of salt brine, because oil was virtually worthless. No one drilled for oil. In fact, it is said by some that the Beaty Well, as it came to be known, was the first commercial oil well in the history of the United States.
To understand what sent the two men into the rugged Big South Fork river gorge, you must first understand how important salt was as a commodity in the early 19th century. Those were the days before refrigeration, and salt was used as a preservative. It was so important that state governments issued land grants for the purpose of finding it. Salt exploration is what drove many early settlers to the Big South Fork region, when the Commonwealth of Kentucky began issuing land grants to settlers to encourage salt production. Settlers were granted the land for just 10 cents an acre, and they didn’t have to pay for it until they had produced 1,000 bushels of salt.
Among them were a group of four brothers: Alexander, James, Martin and William Beaty. Martin Beaty was the land baron of the group, acquiring a total of about 123,000 acres. In 1817, he established Beaty Salt Works, a salt-mining operation that extended from Roaring Paunch Creek just north of modern-day Blue Heron to south of Bear Creek.
Using foot-powered drills with wooden bits, Beaty’s crews would drill deep into the earth to reach the salt brine below the surface. The salt was then extracted from the water and taken to market.
Huling and Zimmerman were working a spring-pole drilling rig in 1818. When they reached a depth of 200 ft., they started to become concerned that they were going to “drill straight into hell,” as legend tells it. So, imagine their surprise when, instead of salt brine bubbling to the surface, a black, smelly, sticky substance bubbled up instead.
For some reason or another, someone held a fire to the black liquid that was oozing from the ground, and it ignited. When they realized it burned, the men were more convinced than ever that they had accidentally drilled into hell. They called the stuff “Devil’s Tar.”
Settlers in the pioneer era let nothing go to waste; they had a use for everything. So it was no surprise that the men along the Big South Fork found a use for their “Devil’s Tar.” They discovered it had curative qualities, and began using it as a cure-all medicine. In fact, oil was becoming popular as a medicine throughout the United States and abroad. So, oil from the Beaty Well began to be packaged into flasks and carried from the river gorge by mule, where it would then be sold to patent medicine companies both domestically and in Europe. It is estimated that 2,000 gallons of the Beaty oil was shipped to Europe for medicinal purposes.
That’s where things get interesting. You see, before the Beaty oil began to be hauled from the river gorge on horseback, the great puzzle was how to move it. Huling initially hired a man with a dugout canoe to lash two barrels of the Devil’s Tar to his boat and head downstream with it.
After several miles, as the man neared the mouth of Roaring Paunch Creek, he came upon a dangerous rapid in the river. The raging whitewater wrecked his boat, smashing the barrels of oil against the rocks.
But when the man returned back to Huling, empty-handed, he told it like this: his trip had gone well, until he reached the rapid. There, the Devil himself had jumped from the large rocks, sank the boat, and was last seen running up the west side of the river with a barrel of the oil under each arm. The Devil had reclaimed his “tar.”
And that rapid has been known as Devils Jump ever since.