State parks worth a detour: John James Audubon in Kentucky

HENDERSON, Ky. – Famed ornithologist John James Audubon would feel right at home at the quaint, wooded state park that bears his name.

It’s likely that Audubon, who spent nearly 10 years in this Ohio River town, regularly prowled the nearby woods and waters, sketching and collecting critters and gathering information that laid the groundwork for his masterwork, “The Birds of America.”

The 724-acre John James Audubon State Park is a pretty place, scattered across a rolling, heavily wooded landscape about a half-mile south of the Ohio River. The main park grounds include 6.5 miles of trails and a 28-acre fishing lake, golf course and tennis courts. About half of the acreage is managed as a nature preserve. Birding is popular.

The park is also home to the Audubon Museum, which houses an impressive collection of the ornithologist’s work and numerous period artifacts. A nature center is adjacent.

Audubon State Park recently nearly doubled in size with the addition of a 649-acre wetland. Physical improvements for the wetland, which separates the main park property from the neighboring Ohio River, are largely still in the planning stages but will include about 5 miles of hiking trails and other access and observation points. The wetland, which is home to numerous wildlife and bird species including an active bald eagle nest, is closed to boating.

The museum, nature center and park offices are housed in a pair of 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration buildings that display a European architectural flair, reflecting Audubon’s heritage. He was born in 1785 in what is today Haiti, the illegitimate son of French sea captain/plantation owner Jean Audubon and his 27-year-old mistress. When he was 6 the boy was moved to France, where he was raised by his father and stepmother, Anne Moynet Audubon. The two formally adopted the child to erase any ambiguities regarding his resident and legal status and re-named him Jean-Jacques, which was later anglicized as John James. His father sent Audubon to America in 1803, when he was 18, partly to avoid service in Napoléon’s military campaigns.

Audubon and his wife arrived in Henderson around 1810, about the same time the community was incorporated into a town. The population was less than 200. It’s unclear why Audubon and his business partner moved their dry goods business downriver from Louisville to the rough, frontier river town.

The area wasn’t particular kind to Audubon and his wife. His dry goods business prospered but a financial investment floundered, ultimately resulting in bankruptcy. A daughter, Lucy, also died during their time in Henderson. This and more, including Audubon’s later literary successes, are reflected in the park and its exhibits.   

If you go

John James Audubon State Park is located on U. S. Highway 41 North in Henderson, about a quarter mile south of the Ohio River. The park is open year round. Some facilities are seasonal. Due to construction the campground will be closed through the 2019 season. The park’s cabins, museum, lake, trails, golf course and other facilities are open;