Cherokee Park opened in 1891, has always been a major draw, and was a key factor in sparking development in nearby parts of town.
The land comprising Cherokee Park was originally part of a 4,000-acre (16 km2) military land grant in 1773 to James Southall and Richard Charlton.
A 43-acre (170,000 m2) portion of the land passed to Judge Joshua Fry Bullitt, who sold it in 1868 to foundry magnate Archibald P. Cochran. Cochran established an estate there called Fern Cliff, which operated as a museum for a while but has since been demolished.
As the land was located around Beargrass Creek, it was hilly and ill suited to farming. Prior to its conversion as a park, the land was used primarily for animal grazing, although much of it was wooded. By 1893 the land was carved into six estates, including Cochran's (which was sold to the city after his death in 1889). The other estates belonged to the Bonnycastle 63 acres (250,000 m2), Barret 20 acres (81,000 m2), Morton & Griswold 106 acres (0.43 km2), Alexander 25 acres (100,000 m2) families, respectively. Those and two small lots under 1-acre (4,000 m2) were bought by 1891. Additional land from the Longest, Barringer and Belknap families would be added to expand the park to its modern size.
In 1887, a city park system was proposed with three large suburban parks: east, west and south. The initial name of the eastern park was to be Beargrass Park, but in 1891, as was fashionable in the late 19th century, a name that evoked the romantic imagery of native Americans was chosen.
Cochran's name lives on in Cochran Hill, which became notable in the late 1960s when two tunnels were dug under it at a cost of $1.9 million so that I-64 would not have as extreme an impact on the park as it was run through it. The twin tunnels remain, running for about 425 feet (130 m) in length under the hill. Various groups, including one called Save Our Parks, formed as early as the 1940s to oppose running highways through the parks, and were largely responsible for forcing a tunnel as a compromise.
The tunnels, which opened in 1970, are one of three sites in Kentucky deemed "exceptionally significant" by the Federal Highway Administration. This designation, in turn, means it will be very difficult for the stretch of interstate running through the park ever to be widened.
In 2010, a proposal by the city to replace the Hogan's Fountain Pavilion with two smaller structures created public opposition that led to a citizen fundraising effort to repair the existing structure, rather than replace it.
Much of the park was heavily damaged in the April 3, 1974 tornado Super Outbreak. The tornado was an F4 on the Fujita scale. A city forester surveying the aftermath said, "I don't believe that anyone alive today will see Cherokee Park as it was before the storm."
Because of the loss of thousands of mature trees, a massive re-planting effort was undertaken, financed in large part by a grant from the United States government under the Disaster Relief Act of 1974. However, to qualify for these funds, the park had to be restored to its pre-tornado design as faithfully as possible. The original Olmsted plans were consulted for the park's "rebirth" (as it was called at the time), with 2,500 trees and 4,600 shrubs planted in the restoration effort.
Vandalism and petty crime has long plagued Cherokee Park. Vandalism was reported as early as 1936. In the 1950s into the mid-1960s newspapers reported with amusement on the serial theft of elements of the Hogan's Fountain monument - especially a bronze turtle - with headlines such as "Cherokee Park Turtle on the Loose Again" and "Bronze Turtle Steps Lively - Flees Cherokee Park Nest". According to a park commissioner, after the vandals saw the stories in print, they would always deposit the stolen pieces, which weighed about 100 pounds, somewhere in the park. Eventually they were all bolted down from beneath such that vandals were unable to remove them. More seriously, the Daniel Boone statue at the park's Eastern Parkway entrance was toppled on May 21, 1962, causing severe damage to it. Park officials claimed police had seen but not arrested a crowd of youths drinking openly near the statue earlier in the day, police denied the charge.
A 1970 newspaper article looked back on the tradition of turtle thievery with nostalgia, reporting that Hogan's Fountain had by the 1970s become a nightly gathering place for hundreds of teenagers, who openly sold and used drugs, despite an increasing police presence, usually arresting youths on loitering charges and chasing out dealers of more serious drugs such as heroin.
Portions of the park were redesigned both to remove popular loitering locations and to increase the park's usability to families and individuals for recreation. Combined with an increased police presence, these tactics greatly deterred drug use and gay cruising, however vandalism remains a minor problem. During periods of good weather, the park is invariably full of local residents engaged in a wide range of fitness activities as well as leisurely strolling or picnicking. On those rare occasions that two or more inches of snow fall, hundreds of locals take to the parks hills for informal sledding and snowboarding.
Cherokee Park contains many landmarks and points of interest. Many are self-contained areas within the larger park, set apart from each other by the natural terrain and creative use of landscaping. Because of the size and design of the park, many events can occur at the same time without interrupting each other.
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