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The Kentucky River

The Kentucky River

William E. Ellis
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Kentucky River
    Book Description:

    A sweeping cultural history,The Kentucky Riverreflects the rich tapestry of life along the banks. Flowing with tales of river ghosts and hidden treasures lying in the backwaters, the book records the myths and events the river has spawned. Bill Ellis also celebrates the Kentucky's influence on such figures as writer Wendell Berry and painter Paul Sawyier.

    Beginning with an intriguing overview of the river's formation and characteristics, Ellis shows how the stream has helped shape Kentucky's environment, economy, and political culture. In centuries past, flotillas of flatboats carried whiskey, pork, and valuable raw materials downriver to markets in Louisiana. Later, the river became a source of entertainment as showboats brought theater, movies, music, and dancing to otherwise isolated communities.

    The book describes the environmental impact of settlement, logging, mining, and industrialization, developments that have sometimes tainted the Kentucky's mighty waters with silt, sewage, and trash. In the last thirty years, however, Kentuckians have come together in major efforts to clean and preserve the Kentucky's waters and the life along its banks. Advocates for the river achieved a victory in protecting the stunning Kentucky River Palisades between Boonesborough and Frankfort, and efforts continue to preserve the irreplaceable river for future generations.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5814-3
    Subjects: History, Anthropology, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Series Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Rita Kohn and William Lynwood Montell

    The Ohio River Valley Series, conceived and published by the University Press of Kentucky, is an ongoing series of books that examine and illuminate the Ohio River and its tributaries, the lands drained by these streams, and the peoples who made this fertile and desirable area their place of residence, of refuge, of commerce and industry, of cultural development, and ultimately, of engagement with American democracy. In doing this, the series builds upon an earlier project, “Always a River: The Ohio River and the American Experience,” which was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the humanities councils...

  5. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    Thomas D. Clark

    Early in the Depression-ridden 1930s, that romanticist, Constance Lindsey Skinner, promulgated the concept that the rivers of North America were in fact streams of poetry and folk history. The rivers were the living cords which bonded the course and mores of American life. It is doubtful that she knew much about the Kentucky River. Throughout untold centuries rains have fallen on its drainage basin, and the waters have gnawed deep channels and up-hollow coves across the face of the land. The Kentucky has conquered great stone barriers and deep-seated loess levels with unrelenting force. Physiographically the Kentucky River Valley has...

  6. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  7. Chapter One The Kentucky: Time and the River
    (pp. 1-32)

    Kentucky—the very name is mysterious. Wrongly believed by many people to mean “dark and bloody ground” or a combination of “cane” and “turkey,” the name is still clouded in controversy. Could it mean “land of tomorrow” in Wyandot, or “place of meadows” in Iroquois, or the name of a river bottom in Algonquin? Part of the continuing romance of the state is that we do not know the precise origin of “Kentucke.” Contrary to a widely accepted view, native Americans such as the Cherokee, Shawnee, and Choctaw frequented the region for many generations. They left surprisingly little trace of...

  8. Chapter Two Folds, Faults, and Uplifts: The Geology of the Kentucky
    (pp. 33-52)

    There is a stillness on the flat, featureless land. Then the clouds form. The rain begins. First only a few scattered drops stain the soil. Then harder, ever harder the rain beats. It wells in pools, small at first, spilling into larger basins. Languidly it flows, muddy brown as the tropical sun appears. It meanders, not finding an easy exit. Eons pass. The river freezes in the Great Ice Age and is then warmed again. Animals that once drank its waters fade into extinction. Eons pass. The earth shudders; there are earthquakes. The river cuts deeper. Moving downhill it gathers...

  9. Chapter Three Riding the Tide: Logging and Rafting on the Kentucky
    (pp. 53-80)

    Due to a lack of capital and entrepreneurial faith, Kentucky’s economy recovered very slowly after the Civil War, even appearing to stagnate as its neighbors to the north and south became more vibrant. The few Kentuckians with money searched for ways to catch the economic boom of the late nineteenth century, while its poorest citizens eked out a living on hardscrabble farms that dominated the Commonwealth. Exploiting tremendous stands of first-growth timber offered one way for many Kentuckians to latch on to the American dream of prosperity that electrified the rest of the country in the booming national economy.¹


  10. Chapter Four Harnessing the River: Ferries, Bridges, and Dams
    (pp. 81-106)

    It sounds trite, a well-worn cliche today, but we human beings really do try to dominate nature. From their first sighting of the Kentucky, Euroamericans envisioned ways in which the river could enrich their lives. Early on these dreams included harnessing the river for its economic benefit. With its seasonal floods followed by long stretches of drought, when not enough water flowed for continual navigation, entrepreneurs plotted means of regularizing the river’s depth by canalizing the Kentucky River into individual pools. And there were other concerns as well. Wherever people settled, there was a need to cross the river for...

  11. Chapter Five The River Always Wins: Flooding, Drowning, and Drought on the Kentucky
    (pp. 107-128)

    Most of the time the Kentucky River is beneficent, providing plentiful water for the business of life. However, the river can quickly become a most dangerous place. Flooding, drowning, and drought are three of the perils that residents face if they live there for any length of time. The human quest to control nature often clashes with the whims of a river.

    “The River Always Wins,” the title of aHenderson Gleanereditorial about the great Mississippi flood of 1993, can be applied to all rivers. Can you control a river as large as the Mississippi or as small as...

  12. Chapter Six My Mind on the River: The Kentucky River as Subculture
    (pp. 129-157)

    The people who intimately know the Kentucky eloquently told their stories in the “Living and Working on the Kentucky River Oral History Project.” Their sense of place is strong, and they have no doubt about who they are or where they come from. People who do not live on the Kentucky find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to live in a capricious place where calamitous floods can be heart-rending.

    It is also a place where childhood, though harsh by modern standards, was fulfilling. Many former residents view it now with a great sense of nostalgia. In far...

  13. Chapter Seven Don’t Step in a Shadow: Working on the Kentucky
    (pp. 158-172)

    “Don’t step in a shadow,” warned longtime Kentucky River towboat captain John Donaldson in an interview. “More than one has done it.” The work lights at night throw “awful shadows.” This admonition comes from the danger of lockmen and towboat personnel being blinded by lights at night, stepping off a lock, boat, or barge into dangerous waters. “A boy walked off the lock,” the daughter of a lockmaster recalled, “the light blinded him.” Even today, “‘Don’t step in a shadow’ is probably the most important thing you can tell a new deck hand,” explained modern-day Ohio River towboat captain Butch...

  14. Chapter Eight Whither the Kentucky? The River, the People, the Future
    (pp. 173-190)

    “There is probably no more important planning item facing the region than how to use the vast resource that is the Kentucky River,”The Mountain Eagleof Whitesburg editorialized in 1989. “It is in many respects a much-maligned river,” explained an environmental advocate, “and one that has been very much taken for granted.” Who does the Kentucky River belong to? Who is responsible for it? What will happen to this vital river and watershed as we face the population, economic, cultural, and ecological crises of the twenty-first century? In microcosm and macrocosm, isn’t the fate of the Kentucky symbolic for...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 191-211)
  16. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 212-219)
  17. Index
    (pp. 220-228)