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“Here in Kentucky … [the] past has always felt close and I’ve always felt connected to it, sprung from it, like it or not. Down the road from my house is an old family graveyard. One of the graves there is for a woman whose first name was America. Even though I live in the middle of nowhere, sometimes it feels like I live in the center of it all.”
Poet Maurice Manning, Southeast Review, 2008
Long before caravans of diesel trucks crisscrossed the nation on the interstate highway system. Long before the railroads pushed freight across America from sea to shining sea. Before the Chicago commodities exchange. Before Dow Jones became a household name. Before any of that – there were the rivers carved out by God.
The mighty Ohio forms near Pittsburgh and with its many tributaries sweeps westward until it eventually empties into the wide Mississippi at Cairo, Ill., a few miles from Paducah in far western Kentucky. In turn, the Mississippi rushes southward with its co-mingled waters to the port of New Orleans. Thus, fledgling America had a natural superhighway that stretched almost 2,000 miles from the northeast corridor to the Gulf of Mexico.
And that made all the difference. Without the rivers to move cargo from producers to markets in the 18th and 19th centuries, America might have remained a small, skinny country hunkered along the Atlantic seaboard. The rivers – and the men who navigated them – are central to America’s story of westward expansion, and their role in developing the young nation’s abundant economy cannot be overstated.
Certainly, here in Kentucky – America’s first western frontier – the Ohio River and its tributaries defined who we would become, determined where we would build our towns, and enabled us to get our agricultural products to a world market
The Ohio, of course, jigsaws Kentucky’s northern boundary east to west, and lies, interestingly enough, within Kentucky – not in the state of Ohio. But the state’s smaller Kentucky River also has played a significant role in American commerce.
The Kentucky River rambles 259 miles, commencing in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, then cutting through the lush bluegrass region of the state creating limestone palisades that are the stuff of poetry, before leveling out and flowing through flat, fertile bottoms on its journey to the sea. Forty miles of the lower Kentucky River pass through my particular place on earth – Owen County – not long before the river empties into the Ohio at Carrollton near Louisville.
As early as 1787 – only 12 years after Daniel Boone established Boonesborough in the western wilderness – Kentucky agriculture products exceeded the demands of local markets. Pork, flour and tobacco were going to waste in storage.
The market that was needed in those early days was New Orleans, which unfortunately was under the control of Spain.
In 1789, when negotiations with Spain finally opened the markets in New Orleans to Americans, historian Dr. Thomas Clark said the Kentucky River quickly became “lined with boats on their way to New Orleans.” These were still powerless flatboats, but thus began transportation of farm products on the Kentucky.
In Owen County, this early river traffic resulted in warehouses being built at locations such as Gratz and Monterey, and these became the natural points in later decades for steamboats to pick up cargo to be carried to Louisville and Cincinnati and points beyond. By mid-19th century, cities along the Ohio had become primary markets, but often the steamboats hurried cargo right on to New Orleans which could be reached in 12 days if all went well.
Owen countians of all types engaged in this chain of commerce.
My own great-grandfather – Amos Noel – was a tobacco pinhooker at Monterey, buying tobacco directly from farmers in the barn and shipping it on to market by steamboat from the Monterey warehouse and dock.
Others engaged with the river itself. Navigators straight out of a Mark Twain novel, they knew the bowels of the Kentucky River as intimately as a surgeon knows the human body.
One of the most notable river men that Owen County claims was Gratz resident, Noble Nash Hundley. Noble Nash – like Mark Twain – was a steamboat pilot. He piloted a number of boats in his lifetime, but was fondest of the time he spent on the grand Falls City II, a familiar steamboat on the Kentucky, the Ohio, and the Mississippi. His granddaughter – Owenton resident Sandra Hundley Stafford – has a drawing hanging in her home that pictures her grandfather standing by the Falls City II.
It was the premier boat on the Kentucky River at the turn of the 20th century. A large boat, it could carry 90 hogsheads of tobacco in its hold and 100 more hogsheads on its deck. It also transported all kinds of livestock to market. Remarkably, it also had room for passengers. Since it was the only way to go, the rich and the poor, the famous and the infamous, rode the Falls City II together. An overnight trip from Frankfort to Louisville cost a passenger $6 to $7 including meals, and special holiday excursions featured dancing on the deck. Often the Falls City II carried traveling shows that performed at small river towns like Monterey and Gratz.
As might be expected of a steamboat pilot, Noble Nash Hundley was a handsome man, straight out of central casting. (Picture a weathered Clark Gable.) He was born in 1863 in Port Royal, the son of Evan Hundley and Elizabeth Wilson Hundley. He married Laura Douthitt, Feb. 24 1891, in Henry County, and if family lore can be believed, he pampered her like a princess. According to her granddaughter, the pretty Laura would dress in her corsets and finery every day and then sit fanning on her porch watching for Noble Nash’s return on the river.
Noble Nash’s sister, Pearl Hawkins, also watched for him. She lived near the Kentucky River in Henry County, and often he would stop and spend a night at her house. To let her know he was coming he’d send up a special signal with the steamboat’s whistle.
The family tells other stories about Noble Nash. The one I like best occurred in the winter of 1917-18 when the rivers froze over solid leaving him stranded in Carrollton. Determined to get home to Laura and the children, he bought a pair of ice skates and skated 25 miles on the frozen Kentucky to reach his hearth at Gratz.
In his history of the river, William Ellis tells this story in which Hundley is an unnamed but certain player. The steamboat Rescue beat the The Falls City II through the lock at Monterey. Not to be outdone in the competition for freight revenue, the wily Falls City II “dispatched its deck hands overland to tobacco warehouses at Gratz. When the Rescue arrived in Gratz the Falls City’s workmen had commandeered the town and were already emptying the tobacco warehouse in anticipation of their boat’s arrival.”
In time, of course, the steamboats gave way to the railroads, which could move freight faster and cheaper and to more places. The dashing river men like Noble Nash Hundley faded into folklore and legend.
But the rivers that spawned them endure. The rivers remain, still, at the center of it all.