Visiting Somerset

A Day Away By Mike Steely

Somerset, Kentucky, is one of those small southeastern towns in the Blue Grass State that is worth an afternoon visit this summer. Its history is a bit different than other rural towns in our neighboring state and a day trip there is interesting and educational for the entire family.

Located west of London, Ky., along Highway 80, Somerset is about two hours from Knoxville. The quickest day to get there is by going north on I-75 to London and then heading west. Somerset is where Highway 80 meets the Cumberland Parkway, a four-lane highway that eventually leads to Bowling Green and western Kentucky.

When you enter Somerset take Highway 27 south to explore the downtown. Every fourth Saturday the city hosts the “Somernites Car Cruise Car Show” there with classic cars in a family-friendly atmosphere with music from noon until 6 p.m.

Somerset was named for Somerset County, New Jersey, and founded in 1798 by Thomas Hansford. Some of the early settlers moved from that New Jersey area. The town became the county seat of Pulaski County in 1801. The county was named for Polish patriot Count Casimir Pulaski who is credited as the father of the American Cavalry. He was a Union Civil War commander.

Two important Civil War sites are near Somerset which have a connection to Knoxville. One resulted in the death of Knoxville’s Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer at the Battle of Mill Springs near Nancy, Ky. The National Monument Park recalls that battle where the Union Army defeated the Confederate force.

Just south of Somerset is the General Burnside Island State Park, where Ambrose Burnside assembled Union troops prior to marching through our region and capturing Cumberland Gap and East Tennessee for the Union, the area that Zollicoffer had once commanded for the South.

Burnside marched into Knoxville in victory to an enthusiastic and supporting crowd. He went on to create the National Cemetery here.

Somerset is a friendly community with a Peddler’s Mall, a paranormal museum, a visitors bureau and the nearby Lake Cumberland.  Somerset was the hometown of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Sr., father of the late U.S. Senator.

Anytime my family visits or passes through the community we always stop at Gold Star Chili, a franchised restaurant on Highway 27. There we dine on one of our favorite things, Cincinnati-style hotdogs with a special cinnamon touch. It’s always something to look forward to when we’re up that way.

If you want to make a day of it you might consider stopping by Cumberland Falls near Corbin, Ky. or the original KFC restaurant between London and Corbin. Coming back from Somerset you might take Highway 27 south instead of the interstate. That route takes you by the Burnside Island Park, the Big South Scenic Railroad near Whitley City and Sterns, Ky., or Huntsville, Tn., the home of Senator Baker and a historic jail.

You could also loop back through Historic Rugby on a little side trip.

More information about Somerset and Pulaski County can be found on the internet or by calling the Lake Cumberland Tourism- Somerset-Pulaski Co. Convention and Visitors Bureau at 606-679-6394.