John Tierney: “Carter Caves and I were born the same year …”

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Naturalist John Tierney will be laid to rest today, January 18, 2020.

The following are excerpts from a 2017 interview with Community Journalist Tim Preston:

Tierney,  who was 70 at the time, reported he was born in Ashland and grew up in Olive Hill, where he graduated from high school in 1964.

“Carter Caves and I were born the same year – 1946. I graduated from high school and the next day I started working there,” he said, relaxing in the lobby at Lewis Caveland Lodge at Carter Caves State Resort Park, where the dining room is named in his honor.

“I only ever ate lunch there, but I was honored they decided to name the dining room in my honor,” he said, shrugging slightly as he grinned and added he did help bus one or two tables when large crowds challenged capacities. “I was honored they felt there was a legacy to what I did.”

Tierney recalled his early days at Carter Caves.

“I was involved with original programming. Myself and others were asked to come up with ideas, especially for what they call the off season, to attract visitors. Park facilities are expensive to operate, and if they are sitting empty they are a financial burden,” he said.

The first “Crawlathon,” which preceded today’s Winter Adventure Weekend, was originally scheduled at “the very worst weather period of the year.”

“We had 700 to 800 people toward the end of the run, at a time when the park would have been empty.”

All of Tierney’s attention weren’t focused underground, however, as he was also instrumental in another unusual event.

“The International Strange Music Weekend – making music with things that were not meant to be musical,” he said, laughing softly.

“It was a real hoot! We played jugs and toilet seats … A musician once listened to all of the automobile horns in the parking lot and composed a symphony of automobile horns. It was like a calliope of sorts,” he said, later adding he played “autoharp, snoot flute, slide whistle and jaw harp. Things most people would just as soon not hear!”

Tierney said Carter Caves remains a largely untouched land.

 “To say any one human being has walked over every portion of that … I don’t know. I have spent a lot of time here, that’s for sure – above and below ground!”

He did have a personal favorite place at Carter Caves State Resort Park..

“This may be strange but the place that’s interested me the most is Saltpeter Cave. There’s no stalactites or stalagmites or scenery down there, but it is historic to this area. The more time I spent down there, the more I appreciated it,” he said, adding he once noticed the name “Fanny Dugan” on a wall within the cave and later connected the name and local to a piece from a riverboat named for Dugan.

“Every place is special in some way,” he said, citing the park’s natural stone bridges, caves, plants and scenes.

“Places like Carter Caves … you could be having a bad day and your whole spirit is renewed if you get out among nature. At least that’s what happens to me.”

At that time, Tierney confirmed he had been diagnosed with myeloma, “a blood cancer that is fairly common is this part of the world,” and that he had been taking treatments at a facility in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Asked to reflect upon his years in the park and efforts to document every aspect of the property, Tierney has a somewhat surprising reply.

“I am really disappointed digital photography did not come sooner,” he said.

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