Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hometown History

It's funny that you can live in a town almost all your life, and not know much about the local history and heroes. Fortunately, Dick and I both love history, so this week we took a walk at George Rogers Clark Park, the site of Mulberry Hill, John and Ann Clark's original home here in Louisville. George Rogers Clark was the founder of Louisville, and a Revolutionary War general and hero at age 25. After the war, his entire family moved here from Virginia, and Mulberry Hill was built several miles outside of town in 1785. The entire family played a prominent role in Louisville, and the western frontier. George's youngest brother was William, of Lewis & Clark fame. The family married into other pioneer families, so their family tree resembles a street map of Louisville! George is the original American tragedy, since he gave personal IOU's to finance his western campaign during the war, and the Virginia government refused to honor them, so he was hounded by creditors the rest of his life. The actual house passed through the Clark family for several generations, but deteriorated. The small photo above was taken about 1890. The property was sold to become part of WWI Camp Taylor. Eventually, another heir repurchased it and deeded it to the city to be used as a park. Although none of the original structures remain, the old cypress tree that was near the spring house remains, bigger and more beautiful than it must have been 225 years ago.
The park is, indeed, full of mulberry trees, and a fine stand of crab apples. We wondered if any of these fruit trees had been harvested by the family and made into jelly.

It struck me as odd that this house, home of a founding family, was not improved at any time. Louisville has other old historic homes that have been preserved. Locust Grove, home of George Rogers Clark's sister Lucy Croghan, was made of brick in 1790, but still fell into disrepair and was used as a barn for some years until a historical group saved it. As we walked the park, I thought what a hard trip it would have been for Ann Clark to visit her daughter at Locust Grove, about 10.5 miles away. What we can now drive in about 20 minutes probably took all day in the 1790's.
Creasey Mahan Manor was built around 1803 or so in nearby Oldham County, and the original logs were covered with wooden siding, then aluminum siding. I guess one difference is that this home was lived in continuously since its construction.
This morning I joined a group of volunteers from the Falls of the Ohio and some other local historians for a hike on Shippingport Island, which also played a part in the history of Louisville. The Falls of the Ohio, a cascade of rapids and small waterfalls on the Ohio and the biggest impediment to river travel for many years, is the reason Louisville even exists. Everyone traveling on the river had to stop at the Falls, either to unload and portage, or to shoot the rapids if there was enough water and they were brave enough.
From the very beginning, everyone knew a canal and locks were needed to bypass the dangerous rapids. We learned about the ongoing improvements to the canal and locks since the first were built in 1830. As volunteers, we often need to explain this history to our visitors at the State Park. The most recent additions are now completed, and we were allowed onto Shippingport Island, which is still restricted to public access. The island used to be a separate town, with businesses and farms for about 600 residents. After the great flood of 1937, the last people remaining left. The Army Corps of Engineers is now in charge of the canal, the locks and about 1400 acres protected as a National Wildlife Conservation Area. As we arrived, the sky was dark and smelled of smoke. There is a fire burning at Ft. Knox, and the smoke blew all the way to Louisville. Our historian guide says that the island was stripped to bare rock and sand during construction in the 1960's, and dredged rock was deposited to raise the level of the island 5-10 feet, so all the trees now seen have grown since that time. We saw a Kestrel, Red Shouldered Hawk and Cooper's Hawk by the parking lot, but not a lot else. Turkey feathers lined the service road, and deer trails led into the brush. The Osprey nest has been torn down from the cell tower. I hope they will rebuild- maybe somewhere else - when they return.
This structure looks like a hotel of some kind, but it is actually spare gates for the locks. If there should be some large accident that damages the gates, these can be lifted into place by a giant crane built for that purpose in a fairly short time. I'm sure they are thinking not only of accident, but also attack. If these locks are unusable, it would stop all traffic on the Ohio, including coal transport to power plants in many states.
The first bridge over the Ohio was a railroad bridge built in 1870. They replaced the bridge trestles, but still use the original stone supports for it and trains cross several times each day. In order for the tall tow boats to get under, the bridge has a section that raises straight up, so you can always tell what kind of traffic last passed through, a train or a barge.
The modern tow boats are loaded with technology - radar, radio, etc. - so they can communicate with the gatekeepers in any kind of weather. Other arrangements are made for small craft using the locks. The lighted sign above goes on to tell them to proceed down the canal and pull the line to ring a bell and advise the gatekeeper that they want to lock through. A small boat would be unable to lock through with a barge, since the barge fills the entire 1200' length and any small craft would be smashed.
We don't often get to see the Louisville skyline from downstream.
The Belle of Louisville is another piece of history - a 95 year old steam powered stern wheeler designated as a National Historic Landmark. On Saturday mornings I like to listen to the pre-cruise concert on the steam calliope. There aren't many places where you can do that any more!

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