The people’s exhibit: Kentucky River history

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By Cindy DiFazio

Staff writer/photographer

Though no travel has been allowed on the Kentucky River in Henry County since 1985, some of the river’s bustling past is preserved at the Henry County Historical Society.

Henry County Historical Society docent Earl “Hammer” Smith said at one time there were 14 locks and dams serving commerce on the river including the ones at Lockport. “I’m not sure if any of them are operating anymore,” he said, “but that’s the way a lot of people came to Henry County.”

A map in the exhibit is dotted by small flags that indicate where some families made their homes along the river.

Henry County Attorney Virginia Harrod’s family is one of those who farmed a parcel on Marshall’s Bottom, not far from downtown Port Royal.

“Her daddy and grandaddy lived down there,” he said.

Harrod said she recently returned to her roots. “I’ve moved back to the farm,” she said. “I’ve got me a little garden and some chickens.”

Commerce along the river helped make farms profitable.

Smith said farmers signaled river boats to transport goods, such as tobacco, to market. “Every little pig path had a stop,” he said. “They’d hang a towel on a bush.”

Captain John E. Abraham was involved in many aspects of trade along the Kentucky River in Henry County. Born in Pleasureville in August 1844, Abraham grew up in Lockport.

He ran away from home and enlisted in Breckinridge’s Battalion of the Confederate Army in 1862.

Abraham returned to Lockport after the war and ... “engaged in merchandising with his father.” He established his own retail business in Smithfield, but returned to Lockport to run his father’s business when Charles Abraham’s health failed.

Abraham supplied stone and lumber to the U.S. government for locks and dams, and then took up steamboating. He owned and operated his own steamboat on the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers.

Abraham was appointed to the position of U.S. inspector of steam vessel hulls on March 27, 1894 and was later elected to the Kentucky General Assembly. He married Bettie Vorris in Smithfield. She was the daughter of state senator, the Honorable W. L. Vorris.

Smith said an enterprising Port Royal farmer erected a three or four story stationary hay baling mechanism in a hay press barn in 1843.

“The bales weighed in excess of 300 pounds and it took 10-15 minutes to press one,” he said. “Those also were shipped down the Kentucky River.”

Lead also was transported along the river route. Hammer Smith said that industry shut down when the mine in Gratz closed in 1938.

The Kentucky River also had a fun side in Henry County.

Smith said Zelma Leitch was a woman ahead of her time, piloting her own boat.  “She just run it up and around these parts,” he said. Her Department of Commerce license from 1941 is proudly displayed at the historical society.

Showboats were a popular attraction until the 1930s. Although they sported lofty monikers such as the Princess and the Majestic, they were really little more than barges being pushed along by small towboats.

Smith said Henry County resident Thelma Moody Clark remembered going to one of Bryant’s Showboats in Gratz.

According to the book The Kentucky River by William E. Ellis Captain Billy Bryant’s showboat the Princess made trips to the area into the 1930s. People knew it was coming when they heard “I’m Looking Over a 4-Leaf Clover” coming from its calliope as it made its way on the river.

The Princess made stops in both Gratz and Lockport, staging such dramas as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Heart of Kentucky as well as vaudeville and minstrel shows. A seat for a performance cost between 15 and 35 cents.

Another boat, The Majestic, went to Drennon Springs.

Even large boats were seen along the river.

The steamer Hibernia advertised “Travel Fast & Easy” and offered passenger pick-up at both Lockport and Drennon Springs. Its schedule is posted as part of the exhibit.

There are no longer any boats along the Henry County shoreline of the Kentucky River. It is not navigable above Lock 4 at Frankfort.  Concrete bulkheads were poured to strengthen Locks 5-14 and all are now under the management of state-run Kentucky River Authority.

“They used to open for pleasure boaters, but they don’t even do that now,” Smith said.

The function of the locks today is to maintain a pool from which Lexington draws its drinking water. As a matter of fact, more than 700,000 people depend on the Kentucky River for their water supplies, about one sixth of Kentucky’s population.

A mounted steamboat wheel offers proof of days long gone on the Kentucky River, with E. T. Smith a guide to its past. “I believe Zelda gave that to us,” he said.

For more information or to schedule a tour of the Henry County Historical Society, call 845-0999.


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