Old Time Boats


About our talk on happenings and old time boats on the Kentucky River, I’ll try to give you a few in my time – 1913 on. I started on boats at that time.  The first was a little steam towboat, the Reba Reeves, of the Carrollton Coal Company, Capt. Tom Meeks.  They also had another boat, the Alert, Capt. C. D. “Jinks” Wilhoite.  These boats were lost in the ice of 1917-1919.  They did general towing, coal, for J. T. Hatfield Co., of Cincinnati, Ohio; grain, to distilleries at Tyrone, Camp Nelson and barytes from Chinn’s Mine at Mundy’s Landing [in Woodford County].  An old time packet sunk about ¼ mile above the Carrollton-Prestonville bridge, on the East side of the Kentucky River, as I remember the story, she was waiting for a load of whiskey from Old Darling Distillery at Prestonville.  She had 500 kegs of nails in her hull (ballast) was all, her wreckage is still there, but the new dam at Louisville put about sixteen more feet of water over her. 

The old convict ship, Success, was at anchor at the mouth of the Kentucky River in the 1917-1918 ice.  They saved her by knocking a shackle loose in the anchor chain, leaving the anchor and chain embedded in the bottom of the river.  About that time Capt. Sam M. Carlisle had a little packet, the Alma, he would carry excursions on.  As a boy, a bunch of us would coal her up at the Carrollton Coal Co. for her trips.  He would pay us by taking us up to Lock #1 and back, four miles each way.  Carrollton was home port for a screw-wheel passenger yacht, 90 feet long, 9 feet wide, Scotch Marine boiler, if I remember.  Her name was Idlewild.  (Later, she was the Juanita, still later, the Greyhound.  Broke everybody who owned her.) She made excursions up the Kentucky River as far as Boonesboro, Lock #10, and later the round trip a day from Carrollton to Louisville.  She berthed in a floating dry-dock and was out of the water at night.  She could make about 30 miles per hour, had a wild-cat whistle, the first in this part of the country, and she sank more shanty boats and john-boats up the deep narrow Kentucky River than all other boats before or since, with her waves. 

The little single stack tow boat, the Dixie, owner, engineer, cook (cook house was in the engine room) Capt. John Stewart, did charter towing.  I worked on her, and lots of times would go back to talk to Capt. Johnny while he was cooking.  He would fry and stir potatoes in a skillet with a long handled fork, and then scratch his bald head with the point of the times, without missing a stroke.  Lots of times he would go to get stores, carrying a split basket on his arm, and wearing one red and one black boot.  I think, at one time Capt. Bill Pulliam (Henry Pulliam, Inspector at Point Pleasant, W. VA., was his son) was partners with Capt. Johnny.  There were several of the Pulliam boys, of Madison, Indiana, that were steamboat engineers.  The Major Slack, a towboat of the elevated Coal Company of Frankfort, did their towing.  They were connected with the Barrett Line of Cincinnati, Ohio.  John Hackett was mate of her in 1913.  She was laying at Atkinson’s saw-mill above the bridge at Carrollton, and a log caught on her rudders.  He went back to get it loose, her wheel rolled over, the pitman caught him and pulled him through the pitman hole, crushing him.  They sold her to an oil company in Pampico, Mexico, and a tug cut her in two there.  Seems to me there were eleven men killed when she sank.

 The Park City, a packet, sank at lower Mussel Shoals (between Locks #1 and #2) loaded with barrels of whiskey.  Farmers from far and near hooked onto the barrels with teams, and dragged them thru the river bottom cornfields to their homes.  The corn had reached its growth and they broke it down in all directions.  They broke in the head of one barrel on the bank for a little drinking while this was going on, with the result that one man drank so much that he died at the barrel’s side. 

The packet Falls City carried freight from Louisville to Frankfort and return, and in the summer made excursion trips, usually up as far as Valley View (Lock #9).  At that time, with no roads and no loose leaf tobacco markets, farmers put their tobacco in hogsheads and shipped it to the Louisville market; so the Falls City was a very busy boat.  The Turner Brothers of Madison, Ind., had a packet, gas engine, named White Dove in the same trade at that time and later.  They also in later years ran the Hanover and Revonah (Hanover spelled backwards) up the Kentucky River.

 The steam packet Sonoma hit a snag and sank, June 27, 1913, at Marshall’s Landing, about three miles above the mouth of Drennon Creek.  I think 4 were drowned. The U.S. dredge Carrollton, while getting her wreck cleared up, got her safe on the dipper, but it fell off into water too deep for them to reach it again, so it’s still there.  But in the early 1940’s, the U.S. fleet wrecked all old sunken boats for their scrap, engines, boilers, etc. 

The towboat Onward, with four barges, crude oil in tow, burned and sank about two miles above the mouth of the Dix River (at High Bridge).  This was in May of 1919; it was an Aetna Oil Co. boat. No loss of life.  Farmers who lived on the hills several miles from the river said flames went a hundred or so feet high into the air above the tops of the river cliffs, which are about 500 feet high at that point.

 The towboat Sea Lion burned and sank at Hunter’s Ferry, [Jessamine Co], with no loss of life but some of the crew escaped only in their night clothes, and there was snow on the ground.  Farmers in that vicinity gave the crew shelter and clothing, but one of the Negro firemen had to go barefoot until the U.S. towboat Gregory got there, and then, by cutting the tops off a pair of rubber work boots, the largest they had, they got him shod. 

The old U. S. snagboat General O. M. Poe was before my time. She was replaced by the U. S. snagboat Kentucky, whose wooden hull was replaced by a steel hull about 1920 – at the Government ways in Frankfort (Lock #4).  The U. S. Gregory was also in use as a towboat by the government at that time.  I think the Kentucky was sold at Louisville to Pete Zublick [sp?] from Pittsburg who made a towboat of her.  The Kentucky River was then in the Cincinnati District, but is now in the Louisville District.  After W.W. I, in 1920, the U.S. Engineer Dept built an electric boat at the Frankfort ways, and named it the Chenoka, which is an Indian name for Kentucky.  She was a small but powerful little towboat.  At that time they were finishing the locks on the Kentucky River, the U.S. Eng., had a motor launch, the Pearl, which was used to take army officers, engineers, and supplies to different jobs.  Quite a few of the locks were hard to get in those days – no roads.  The Pearl was replaced by another motor launch, the Monroe, until roads were built.

There were numerous gas boats that did charter towing, or backed down with rafts of logs, to the Point Lumber Co., at Louisville; Atkinson Brothers Saw Mill (an A in a circle was their mark); Bellepoint, now apart of Frankfort, to the mill at East Frankfort – High Bridge, Valley View, and Ford. One of these gas boats, the Carolyn W, belonged to a man at Rising Sun, Indiana, who got caught in her drive shaft belt and killed.  His widow, in the bill of sale stated this boat was never to come up by her home town.

 A gas boat, this same Carolyn W, went through Lock #7 (High Bridge) got caught in the draw at the upper entrance, went over the dam, back into the lower entrance, locked through again, and with better luck, went happily on her way.

 A small steam tug, with only pilot and engineer aboard, went over Lock #6 (Salvisa) her engine never stopped running and got out below with only minor damage to the boat, but the crew’s nerves were a wreck. 

The Cincinnati Mound, the limestone formation, first shows at Gratz and reaches its highest point about High Bridge, then tapers back down.  The Irvine Sand Stone, where they first struck oil, starts at Dog Rock, above Irvine.  This is a porous sand stone.  About 1 mile above Dog Rock they drilled and struck oil at 50 feet, at the mouth of Cow Creek, which was so named, they tell me, because a man took his cows down to water, and one of them was bitten by a cotton mouth snake and died.  At Monterey (Lock #3) the new highway runs along what used to be the bed of the river [not so, says someone who wrote on the typescript, it’s the old bed of Cedar Creek].  The river is now on the opposite side of a short range of hills.  Lock #1, 4 miles S. E. of Carrollton, was finished in the late 1830’s; the first five locks were built by the State.  The U. S. Eng. Took over those and built nine more, larger in size, the last one, Lock #14, at Heidelberg, 6 miles below Beattyville, which is where the North, South, and Middle forks join to form the Kentucky River.

 Drennon Springs, about 2 miles up Drennon Creek from the river was once a noted resort, with hotels, etc., but was burned by some of the natives, so they say, when cholera broke out there after the Civil War.  There are still traces of the buffalo trails; the buffalo came to these springs to get salt.  One of these trails crossed from the West to the East bank of the river at Mussel Shoals, about 2 miles below Gratz; another at Leestown, about 2 miles below Frankfort.  The magnificent Marshall home, Casa Bianca, was about 1 ½  miles above the mouth of Drennon on the west bank of the river.  He was at one time Ambassador to Spain.  This house, full of beautiful antiques, was destroyed in the 1937 flood.  Steamboat Hollow, below Frankfort, was at one time a boatyard.  The Quakers built flatboats at Shakertown Ferry (High Bridge) and sent them to New Orleans, loaded with salt pork and other products.  Iron ore was brought out of Red River by flat boats and rafts of ship timber - white oak logs hand hewed square and up to 80 feet long without a knot – were floated to New Orleans and trans-shipped to Liverpool, England.  These rafts were floated with big poplar logs.  One of these rafts broke up on the cliff in the bend above Clays Ferry, 6 miles below Boonesboro, and these timbers were never recovered.  Shot Factory Cliff, 6 miles below Boonesboro, was where the old timers made drop shot, and at the foot of the cliff, by digging in the ground, you can still find handfuls of shot.  I’ve talked to old people who remember when the big timbers were still at the top of the cliff, but no one could ever tell me where they mined the lead.

 My great-grandfather had a map showing Swift’s Silver Mine near Drennon Creek, but that was probably just another map.  My father, when a boy, and some other boys went swimming in Twin Creek, Owen County, Ball’s Landing (now Perry Park) and found some big bones in the bank.  I think the Smithsonian Institute sent a crew, and this mastodon is now in their museum.  This was also a good place to find Indian relics, arrow heads, tomahawks, etc.  Elk Horn Creek was at one time considered the best bass fishing in the world, and there is still good fishing in it.

Contrary Creek, below Heidelberg, Lock #14, runs from North to South.  Bee Cliff is filled with wild bees and their honey is safe enough – no way to get it out.  Bull Hell, a cliff so named because a bull they were trying to catch fell over it.  Jessamine Creek, named after the daughter of an early Scotch settler.  Frankfort, named after a man named Frank, who ran a ferry there, Frank’s Ford.  The covered bridge that used to be at Camp Nelson was made up in the mountains, floated down as a raft, erected, and put together with wooden pins, with the exception of one piece, which was lost somewhere along the way.  Not a nail or bolt in it.  This bridge was torn down in 1933.  A steel and concrete bridge crosses there now.  A man jumped off the Southern R.R. Bridge at Tyrone, as the packet Falls City was going under it.  His parachute was a big old umbrella like they used to use over the driver of wagons.  It turned inside out, he went through the roof of the boat, landing on the table right in the middle of the noon meal.  He got a broken leg, and the dinner was plumb ruined.

 I wrote this hurriedly for the old Doctor [J. Winston Coleman, Jr.] who suddenly decided he wanted to make a trip up the Kentucky River.  Don’t know if he did.  On fishing trips, he has met some river rats.


This is taken from a transcript found in the Kentucky Historical Library in Frankfort, and is signed Charles Johnson, Frankfort, Kentucky. We’ve made some very minor grammatical changes.  It’s undated, but the reference to the “new dam in Louisville” tells us it’s likely from the late 1960’s or early 1970’s.  If you know, drop us a note, please.