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Kentucky by Heart: The Kentucky River’s history proves as colorful as those living along its banks

This is the second of a two-part look at The Kentucky River, a book published in 2000 by William E. Ellis (University Press of Kentucky, 2000). My hope is that readers will see the river as I do, as part of the heart and soul of our state’s heritage, as well as being vitally important today.

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

For sure, the building of a network of locks and dams on the Kentucky River has not been without controversy. Ellis reported that longtime Corps of Engineers employee James C. Thomas described the Kentucky as having “too many locks and you can’t lock but one barge at a time.”

A lockkeeper explained that it sometimes would take “three hours to lock through a towboat and two barges in the narrow and short locks.” Historically, many political battles have been fought over the efficacy of establishing locks and dams on the Kentucky. Working against the whole of harnessing the waterway, Ellis noted that the river “often appears to have a mind of its own,” which takes us into the fifth chapter of The Kentucky River, “The River Always Wins.”

Flowing Jessamine Creek, a tributary of the Kentucky River (Photo courtesy Peter BRackney)

A separate and long book could be written about the history of flooding, drowning, and drought over the course of the Kentucky River and its tributaries. There is a small irony about flooding, however. Ellis mentioned that flooding is often beneficial when the flood-borne soil leaves settlings. A Lee Countian remarked: “I’ve seen the settlings eighteen inches deep,” which eliminated the need for spreading fertilizer on those occasions. Obviously, most have not and would not want to see the rampaging waters. Great damage has been wrought. Kentucky’s capital, Frankfort, has been hit hard many times.

One of the most memorable floods at Frankfort occurred in 1937 when waters reached the Kentucky State Reformatory, causing prisoners to be moved to the second floor. There was no drinking water and electric power, so the twenty-nine hundred inmates were transferred to the “Feeble-Minded Institute” nearby but on higher ground. With the tension and proximity of people together, racial issues nearly exploded until National Guardsmen gained control. Interestingly, Gov. Happy Chandler used the flood-originated event to push for completion of the new prison at LaGrange, in Oldham County.

Also in 1937, Madison County took the biggest flooding hit when communities like Doylesville, College Hill, Valley View, Clay’s Ferry and Boonesborough suffered damage and loss of life. Other counties were hit hard over the years, also. At Mundy’s Landing, in Woodford County, George Chinn said of his home area: “We used to say we spent six months on the river, six months under.” In 1939, a lockkeeper further south mentioned that his wife and he had to use a rowboat to go to their outhouse. Flooding in 1957 on the Middle Fork saw the homeplace of the iconic Frontier Nursing Service, at Wendover, where a nurse Jane Furnas woke up in the middle of the night and saw “nothing but water.”

The Kentucky River in Frankfort (Photo by Steve Flairty)

The Corps of Engineers has been involved with both the building of dams and discussions about building them on the Kentucky for many years. One project discussed was for damming Jessamine Creek, a large tributary a few miles from the Dix River and High Bridge. Several influential groups voiced strong disapproval, citing “the lost beauty of the gorge of the Kentucky River Palisades as well as the necessity of keeping the river open for future transportation of coal on the river,” wrote Ellis. Others were approved and built, however, such as a Buckhorn on the Middle Fork, completed in 1960 at a cost of eleven million. The Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet website includes more information about the many dams/locks along the Kentucky.

Ellis calls the Kentucky River a “subculture” in his chapter called “My Mind is on the River.” That idea comes from the stories told of life on the Kentucky from an oral history project carried out. The interviews revealed a strong sense of place by the river folk. Claude “Buck” Horn was one of eleven siblings who lived on a shanty boat during the depression. He did what he could to help his family survive, wrote Ellis, including “hunting and fishing, killing ducks for their meat and feathers, and renting out johnboats to customers who often did not pay.”

At Monterey, in Owen County, an interviewee remembered diving off the dam and swimming underwater beneath the apron. “I dived off that dam and got in under it and sat down. I did that once when my dad was fishing and like to have scared him to death. He didn’t know where I went.”

Then there were the “buried gold” stories. One was told about three kegs of gold hidden around the Brooklyn Bridge, in Mercer County. At Drennon Springs, in Henry County, it was told that there was a cache of gold at the old site of the Western Military Institute when a cholera epidemic hit in 1854. Valley View supposedly had a stash of the glittering stuff buried under her hearth, and someone’s grandfather hid $700 worth of gold somewhere in Oregon, in Mercer County.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

Excursion and showboats, anyone? That’s a part of Kentucky River lore, too. In the 1930s, one called Princess, operated by Billy Bryant, had a signature song, I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover. The craft had a stage equipped with oil-burning lights and featured such plays as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, and the Heart of Kentucky. There were also trade or store boats, sometimes called “huckster” boats, and they were known to give free candy to attract crowds.

Some river people talked about fishing, hoping to catch the “100-pound catfish,” often on a trotline. When a fire struck a distillery at Camp Nelson, fish could be scooped up on top of the water. One person said of the fish, surely in jest, “I’ve heard it said they came to the top of the water grinning. They put them in landlocked pools of clear water to sober them up.”

The subject of building and working at the Kentucky’s locks and dams is covered in the seventh chapter, called “Don’t Step in a Shadow.” The title refers to the dangers of lockmen and towboat personnel being blinded by bright lights, presenting a dangerous problem. Ellis also writes about and includes pictures of “old” and “new” methods of construction. And, too, he describes the challenges of uprooting community and farm life—always a struggle—in the process of adding locks and dams, including the purchasing of property.

Struggles aside, the Kentucky also brings invigoration to the people who work it. After sitting in his car on the bank of the river and seeing a towboat go by hauling a load of sand to Frankfort, Ellis wrote: “The pilot had the most joyous look on his face, the smile of a man who was not only working but completely enjoying every minute of it.” Similar comments could be written about many others covered in the book.

Ellis’s last chapter, “Whither the Kentucky,” deals with the river itself, the people, and the future. Since the book was written in 2000, it might prove interesting for readers to compare thoughts then to the current thinking about the Kentucky; twenty-two years later, have things changed much? I had a chance to talk via email with Ellis briefly recently. He commented this way.

“Everyone needs to be concerned about the water quality as so many people get their ‘drinking’ water from the river,” he said. “Flooding is also a big concern. After reading recent articles in the (news)paper, I would suggest that people move out of flood plains, even if it (be) a beloved community. There should be more use of the river, more adjacent parks, more efforts locally to clean it up annually, (and) more articles about the various parts of the river.”

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One Comment

  1. Eric Frugé says:

    Excellent story, Steve. Thanks for sharing Dr. Ellis’ scholarship with us about a River dear to our stat’s identity.

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