A beaver tale
By Northrupp Centre
“Paint what I see, simply.”
Harlan Hubbard, November 1959
Looked at from the perspective of the heavens, as one would look at a map, Camp Nelson lies just above the southernmost point of the Kentucky River’s 60 mile long southwest detour around southern Fayette and Jessamine Counties, a sort of convex riverine parabolic arc that begins near Winchester at Lock 10, turns and pivots north and west at Lock 8 a couple miles from here, and ends somewhere around Brooklyn Bridge just past Lock 7 as the river paces itself toward Frankfort and the wide, flat lower stretches beyond.
Here at Camp Nelson, the Cincinnati Arch, an uplifted spine of Ordivician rock 500 million years old running north by northeast from Tennessee through Kentucky and Ohio, peaks, creating a sort of geological land-shed that rolls back at an average terrestrial drop of 10 feet per mile toward the Ohio River. The Kentucky will twist and turn through the arch another 135 miles before its terminus at Carrollton, somewhere between Cincinnati and Louisville. Sitting on the water at Camp Nelson, more than a football field below the Highway 27 bridge that runs south from Nicholasville, looking downriver one can almost feel the entire river bed easing back into its ancestral, northwesterly route.
The twenty mile run from Camp Nelson to High Bridge, roughly the entirety of pool eight, is the jewel run of the inner bluegrass stretch of the Kentucky River. Today the trip is a quiet float beneath 300 foot palisades and overgrown river bottoms. Paddling there, one is more likely to see blue herons than people.
Over two hundred years ago, when the area served as the region’s centralized highway system, the river bustled with commerce and people. Early European settlement in Kentucky centered itself around the fertile lands and plentiful water of the inner bluegrass that surrounded the towns of Lexington, Danville and Harrodsburg. Camp Nelson and High Bridge (or more accurately, Hickman Creek and Dix River) were some of the biggest king shit spots on a big king shit river in backwoods America.
Lacking bridges, ferry crossings established trade routes between the newly established towns, allowing business and other connections to pass from one side of the river to the other. Between Camp Nelson and Jessamine Creek, roughly the halfway point on the trip to High Bridge, an early 1800 map of the area shows three river crossings (Hogan’s and Johnson’s Ferry nearby Hickman Creek, and Martin’s Boatyard at the mouth of Jessamine), and in the area around High Bridge, no fewer than four ferries (two owned by the Shakers) competed to ferry supplies and people from Danville and Harrodsburg north to Lexington (and vice versa).
By the end of the eighteenth century, farms along the Kentucky River and inland were producing plenty of goods for sale, but they lacked ways to bring their products to a larger market. Overland routes could not carry the volume of cargo—pork, beef, flour, tobacco; later coal and timber—produced in the area. With no industrial energy, river power proved more efficient than horse and ox. Led by a crafty and apparently highly persuasive Revolutionary War vet, a General James Wilkerson, Kentuckians pushed to gain access to New Orleans ports, by way of the Kentucky, and then the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Wilkerson’s success in persuading the Spanish government of New Orleans to take Kentucky Proud cargo loaded on flat boats—glorified single-wide wooden trailers on water—for sale to European markets drastically increased the Kentucky’s importance to the state’s economic welfare.
In this story of early Kentucky development, the importance of the Camp Nelson to High Bridge float is perhaps best attested to by the fact that, of the flatboats General Wilkerson commanded during his first commercial trip to New Orleans, nearly all departed from Hickman Creek at Camp Nelson and from the Dix River at High Bridge.
A call for help
In early November, I was occasioned back to the bluegrass by a disconcerting telegram delivered to my hill-side home in the outer suburbs of Rio De Janeiro. From NoC editor Danny Mayer, the dispatch read:
“Rupp—you lazy bastard. Must finish promised WEG story. stop. Manuscript is rubbish. Needs massive editing. stop. NoC travel funds diminishing. Benton demanding paper $ to hang with world socialists in Dakar. stop. Losing it. Must come NOW—d.”
Eager to both help a friend and fulfill any contractual obligations to the paper, I immediately canceled my graduate-level journalism ethics class for the month and caught the next flight to Lexington. Unbeknownst to Mayer, I had arranged for Gortimer T. Spotts to pick me up at the airport. I had phoned my old friend enroute, somewhere over the middle south Atlantic, and together we hastily sketched a quick getaway before I checked into NoC headquarters and set myself to the tedium of revising my WEG manuscript.
I was still hazy on most of the details of our trip when Gortimer picked me up in his white 1968 Thunderbird. In his backseat, an assortment of camping gear, paddles and tarps sat atop a thick loam of empty Ale-8-One and Laphroig bottles, dry yellowed newspapers and crusted Blistex containers. On the Thunderbird’s hardtop roof, two one-man canoes were cinched tightly, their bows protruding nearly to the grill.
Citing space issues, Gortimer secured my two pieces of luggage to the tops of the canoes. “I guess we’re going paddling,” I said.
“Get in,” Gortimer replied. “I’ve taken care of everything. We’re heading to Camp Nelson for a night on the river, Jessamine Creek.”
Send off from Camp Nelson
An hour later, the car unloaded and the canoes packed, we shove off from the boat ramp at the Camp Nelson Trailer Park, not far from the spot where Hogan’s Ferry once operated.
In the 220 years since General Wilkerson departed Hickman Creek with goods bound for New Orleans, commercial and human traffic on the river has all but left. All the action has moved up, about 400 vertical feet up, to overland road systems that in the early 1800s had yet to support significant trade. As we take our first eager strokes, above us vehicles travel across the Highway 27 bridge at speeds between 50 and 70 miles per hour, their size and pace knowable by the muted pitches thrown from their engines, which filter down to us on the water.
Turning our attention down river, a sudden burst of paddling takes us to Johnson’s Ferry, long since vanished and replaced by a low slung bridge that connects the two river bottoms. A relic of the old Danville-Lancaster-Nicholasville Turnpike (Highway 27), which since Johnson Ferry was in operation had crossed the Kentucky here, the bridge once connected the small bottom communities that had sprung up on both the Jessamine and Garrard County sides of the river. Decommissioned, it now mostly functions as a footbridge for amorous trailer park guests and the residents of the several houses lining the Jessamine County side, their very own Ponte Vecchio on the Kentucky.
We muddle past, fight the stiff headwind, and bend left with the river, finally out of view of all bridges, ghost ferries and the trailer park. We will not see another house on the water for 18 miles, until coming upon the edges of High Bridge downriver, just before the Dix. To celebrate our official evacuation from the chaotic commercial world above, Gortimer and I alternate pulls from a bottle of Laphroig Quarter Cask and a bowl of Kentucky Damn Proud home grown. We have paddled a half mile.
A diverting story: J.R. Shaw
Like most things in this state, the Kentucky travels a very great distance to go a very short way. The limestone palisades here prove tough buggers. The river must wind a circuitous route through and around them: in total, in 2 days we paddle 3 bends and 20 miles to travel maybe 6.
Taking our time, we spend the day rounding Polly’s Bend, on our way to Jessamine Creek. As we alternate floating and paddling, Gortimer drinks liberally from the Quarter Cask, occasionally passing some my way. The day passes pleasantly, with Gortimer unfolding to me his story of the river here, much of which I’ve detailed earlier. Often as we paddle, he points out key landmarks from the stories along the banks or upon the palisades. A native of Garrard County, Gortimer has roots in the area that reach back to the days of General Wilkerson; his ancester, a John Robert (J.R.) Shaw, arrived in Kentucky in the early 1790s.
Though he came to the bluegrass from the greater Cincinnati area, J.R. Shaw, originally, was from England. He arrived in America during the 1770s to quell the revolution as a member of the King’s army. Captured by the insurgents in Carolina, J.R. later escaped imprisonment in Pennsylvania, a British subject in colonial America. After kicking around the state and working odd jobs, Shaw saw the light, signed up for the rebel army and, forthwith, was dispatched along with a Colonel Harmar and a General St. Clair, to Fort Hamilton near Cincinnati. Here he became a digger of wells (a well digger).
“He dug Cincinnati’s first!”
Spotts was insistent on this point. By this time in the story, Spotts was halfway through the Laphroig, and I had smoked most of my allotment of Local First harvest. Spotts had stopped paddling and pulled out a leather-bound booklet. I couldn’t understand why. He began to wave the book around, as evidence apparently, to some point he was trying to make.
“Goddam it…I’m telling you the truth…It’s in here, all of it.” He tossed the book over four feet of dark river water, landing it snug in my lap. I didn’t know what to look for. I opened the rotting diary and began to read.
Sure enough, the journal front page read, “Property of J.R. Shaw.” Stoned, I lost myself in the story and followed idly behind Spotts, thumbing through the faded pages.
Shaw spent his first Kentucky years here on the river as a jack of trades, a digger of wells, a quarrier of stone, a burner of lime and a blower of many mill seats. Eventually, J.R. moved on to quasi-respectability in Lexington, where he continued work as a tinker until his death, losing one (1) eye, four (4) fingers, one (1) thumb and seven (7) toes in the process.
I found much of this out later, as the diary only covered Shaw’s Hickman Creek years, stopping at the exact time Shaw left the river bottom for Lexington. From the at-times wildly fantastic scrawlings, I managed to jot down some passages from the diary, most of which concerned Shaw’s earliest days at Camp Nelson and Hickman Creek:
After crossing Steel’s Ferry, I traveled along the north side of the Kentucky River until I came to Joseph M’Lains, where I blew some rocks for him…I proceeded to the mouth of Hickman…Mr. Ballenger the ferryman, observing my intoxication, would not admit me into the boat, consequently, returned to ferry house where I spent the remainder of my hard-earned money; the result of which was a violent attack of the bottle fever.
After recovering fro my indisposition I commenced digging a well for John Biswell, four miles back to the ferry; a storm coming on prevented me from progressing, therefore turned to my old trade of frolicking, the result as usual (the bottle fever). Afflicted with it, I was one night lying in the tavern before the fire, when I was disturbed by a parcel of ruffians, consisting of major Mastin Clay, Lieutenant Spence, and a–
“We’re where?” I looked up at Gortimer from J.R.’s life.
“Jessamine Creek. We’ll set up camp, then a hike to Fraggle Rock.”
I followed behind Spotts. Together we entered the Jessamine cutting right, then quickly angled back left. Jessamine’s overgrown bottoms inched in on us, swallowing slowly the open spaces of the Kentucky behind us.
To be continued….
Dear readers, Since I was forced to rely upon my flimsy memory of Gortimer’s narratives about the river and some hastily scribbled and nearly indecipherable notes, and since I was participating in events that would lead me, too, to catch a bad case of the bottle feaver, I hope you can excuse my reliance on outside research. In doing such research (to verify Gortimer’s claims), I came across a wonderful book, Billy Jackson Brewer’s Rails, Rivers, Roads and early years in Jessamine County, Kentucky (available at Morris Book Shop), which told much the same story as Gortimer recounted to me. In places where Gortimer’s story did not hold up, I used Brewer’s account, though to be honest, who’s to say who’s version is correct?. To tell the story as I experienced it, I did not distinguish between the two accounts.. I hope you will grant me this leeway in “fact” for the sake of the storyline. Sincerely, Northrupp.