By Danny Mayer
The Kentucky River’s twisted north-by-northwest course defined three of the original four counties that comprised the commonwealth before it separated from Virginia: Jefferson county rolled away from the river’s western banks, Lincoln from its southern banks, while Fayette sat nestled, sling-like, in the fertile, east-facing scrotum-shaped terrain squeezed between it and the Ohio Rivers.
At first glance, the river’s early cartographic importance to the state is easily explainable. Surveyors love rivers, their beds making great, mostly definite boundaries to which all parties can abide. With early surveyors like Daniel Boone using creeks and rivers to deed up property borders, determining the common boundary line for three counties must have seemed like a no-brainer. Choose the big body of water and its hundred million year old river bed that slice through the state’s interior; head to nearest tavern to work off last night’s bottle fever.
But using the Kentucky as a common boundary also held a political logic. The river’s steep banks, towering palisades and deep pools were difficult to traverse. Early Kentuckians could not expect easy passage across the Kentucky at the locations and times of their choosing. Cross-river traffic was spotty at best, and required much effort. The river could add miles and days of travel to distances that, as the crow flies, were minuscule. Ensuring political representation in early republic Kentucky, then, meant confining counties to one side of the river or the other. As Jefferson, Fayette and Lincoln counties splintered into a number of smaller counties, nearly all that abut the Kentucky use the river as a boundary rather than allow its flow inside its borders.
1785: Crossing the Commonwealth’s Great Wall of Water
By 1785 when former Revolutionary War veteran John Craig petitioned the state of Virginia to operate a ferry at Valley View nearby the mouth of Tates Creek, a handful were already in operation along the Kentucky, shuttling people, livestock and goods from one side of the river to the other.
John Filson’s 1784 map of “Kentucke,” published 8 years before the area achieved statehood, shows four ferries in operation around Lexington. To the city’s east, the ferry at Fort Boonesborough (the area’s first, chartered in 1779) secured passage over the Kentucky to/from the terminus of Boone Trace, gateway to the Cumberland Gap and the relatively settled nation east of the Appalachian mountains. To the city’s south, Hogan’s Ferry at Hickman Creek (now state Highway 27) and Curd’s Ferry at Dick’s River (near High Bridge) allowed passage to/from the vibrant frontier settlements of Danville and Harrodsburg, which sat atop the fertile high grounds rising above the Kentucky’s southern banks, and on towards the Cumberland River watershed and its growing pioneer river-town, Nashville. In 1784 Lexington’s main street, if traveled westward, literally dead-ended at the Kentucky River hamlet of Lee’s Town, now better known as Frankfort, at which point a ferry floated citizens, their products and animals across to the river’s western banks, the roads on this other side of Lees Town trending north to Port Royal or west to Clarkville, both pulling, as if by rheotaxis, toward the early republic’s great inland highway system, the Ohio River.
Fifteen years later at the close of the eighteenth century, as the region prospered a number of new ferries had begun or would soon begin operation along the palisade-lined inner-bluegrass stretch of the Kentucky River. Upstream from Valley View before Boonesborough, Cleveand’s Ferry (later re-named Clay’s Ferry) transported travelers and their wares across the river nearby Boone Creek, establishing a transportation path best represented today by the 6-lane I-75 bridge that spans the Kentucky nearly 300 feet directly above it. Downstream from Valley View, ferry operators vying for the plentiful inter-city commerce and travel that was developing between Lexington on the river’s north side and Danville/Harrodsburg on its south, opened a number of operations between Hickman Creek (Nicholasville Road) and the community of Brooklyn (Harrodsburg Road).
Where the Danville-Nicholasville Turnpike crossed the Kentucky (Nicholasville Road), Johnson’s Ferry opened on the downstream side of Hickman Creek to compete for traffic with Hogan’s Ferry. Seven miles down-current, two ferries serviced travelers of Shun Road, originally an unofficial thoroughfare cut to shun use of the then river-bound toll roads of Nicholasville and High Bridge roads. Martin’s Boatyard shuttled goods and people crossing at Jessamine Creek into Polly’s Bend. A short stretch beyond Martin’s, McQuai’s Landing would began operations in the 1820s and cross at Handy’s Bend into Bowman’s Bend. At the Dix, no fewer than three ferries, Curd’s (1786), Lewis’s (1826), and Shaker ferries, transported goods back and forth along the Pleasant Hill and Kentucky River Turnpike (High Bridge Road). A couple miles further along at the Lexington-Harrodsburg-Perryville Turnpike (Highway 68, Harrodsburg Road, Broadway), a second Shaker ferry, along with little-used Todd’s Ferry, was well-positioned to float area products downriver, to the comparatively deeper and more reliable waters of Frankfort, Louisville and ports west and south.
1800-1930: flatboats, ferry communities and working landscapes
The flatboats used in the emerging ferry trade across the Kentucky helped solve two river problems. The most immediate, of course, was ontological: the river’s fluid ability to act as a major obstacle blocking free passage across to any thing subject to the downward trending laws of gravity.
Ferryflats, wooden boxes on water designed to carry loaded wagons, passengers and teams of horses across deep and at times forcefully flowing water, allowed central Kentucky to cohere and intermingle. At an important yet mundane level, ferries granted settlers a wonderful thing: access to each other. At ferry crossings, the river ceased acting as a blockade to the freedom of travel and become instead a portal to it—politically, socially and economically.
Flatboats also solved the state’s great commercial question: how to capitalize on the area’s great inland waterway. The riffle-pool makeup of the Kentucky River as it existed in its unaltered eighteenth century state rendered difficult regular navigation for any vessel bigger than a canoe. As the region became more settled, central and eastern Kentucky’s immense agricultural and mineral resources lacked the markets to make such resources economically valuable. With no efficient system of transport, Kentucky products could not get to the non-Kentucky places they were needed or wanted.
Taking advantage of high tides in the winter and spring, by the 1780s Kentucky flatboats began to ride the seasonal current and deep water to the faster, deeper and thereby more efficient waters of the Ohio, in the process transporting all kinds of people and goods into and out of the region. In the absence of a developed system of roads and the fossil fuel energy required to traverse such roads, the Kentucky became the state’s first great highway, the commonwealth’s most important economic asset.
Constructed by placing sidewalls and a roof atop a ferryflat chassis, Kentucky flatboats could carry agricultural cargo like bourbon and cured pork bound for New Orleans ports, or they could carry the familial pioneer cargo of homesteaders bound for westward ports along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. One observer, writing in 1801, noted that the flatboats transporting goods and people on the Kentucky and the Ohio appeared as “floating houses,” a description echoed by more modern observations that the flatboats must have “resembled the single-wide house trailers of twentieth-century Kentucky.” (Even at its most early republic, it seems, Kentucky was still creatively white trash at heart.)
No wonder that ferry crossings like the one chartered at Valley View were vibrant sites of human energy, acting as funnels and concentrating communities along particular spots on the river. Writing in The Five Lives of the Kentucky River, the author William Grier has described such ferry crossings as “the center of activity” for the areas they served. With people and economic activity continually crossing and passing the river at these points, entire communities began to prosper. County-ordered warehouses stored tobacco, hemp, flour and other products bound for markets downriver. Taverns provided gathering places for the bottle fever, sites for socialization and libations for those travelers ferrying over or passing through the area. General stores arose to service the needs of both the agricultural-based communities growing along both river banks and the many riverine and pike-bound travelers funneling through on their way to other places. Housing provided homes for the different workers needed to operate the ferry communities.
At Clay’s Ferry, Eastern Kentucky coal floated down the Kentucky was transferred from flat boats onto horse drawn wagons and hauled 15 miles inland to supply the growing fossil energy needs of Lexingtonians, who could purchase bushels for twenty-two cents (a full eight cents more than Frankfort citizens, whose costs did not include overland horse transport). Iron and salt mined and floated from Kentucky tributaries the Red River and the South Fork also made their way down the Kentucky to nearby ferry crossings for inland shipping to the inner-bluegrass’s growing frontier city. At High Bridge as at other ferry stops on the Kentucky, lumber mills transformed old-growth Eastern Kentucky timber into construction material, much of it no doubt heading, like the iron and salt and coal (not to mention good chunks of the profit), directly toward the region’s big resource guzzler on the banks of Town Branch.
Stories abound echoing the experiences of one ferry-goer at Doylesville, a community upstream from Boonesborough not far from the mouth of the Red River where Jackson Ferry once shuttled Madison County residents across the river for shopping in Lexington. The patron used the ferry into the 1920s to take chicken, eggs and other local produce from his Doylesville home in Madison County across the river to his father’s store in Winchester.
2011: Rebuilding the Great Wall at Valley View
By the beginning of the twentieth century, railroad developments like the RNI&B (Riney B) line that crossed at Valley View on its way from Nicholasville to Richmond, Irvine and Beattyville, spelled doom for commercial river traffic plying the Kentucky’s waters. Thirty years later as the state entered the Great Depression, automobiles increasingly ferried intra-county commuter traffic across the Kentucky by way of steel and concrete bridges. Curd’s Ferry turned into Norfolk Southern’s High Bridge; Clay’s Ferry into I-75. Traffic didn’t so much leave the Kentucky as it was lifted, magic like, several hundred feet above it. Descending to the level of the river, it turns out, encountering the Kentucky from its banks, has become an act rendered inefficient by the speed and volume of our modern (carbon-fueled) world.
As any river historian will tell you, the more gravity-bound river towns have mostly been left behind in this herculean lift, creek cobble and riprap for the river to scour black and tumble smooth, one flood at a time. In our modern era, places like High Bridge, Camp Nelson, Clay’s Ferry and Doylseville, all once-industrious working landscapes, have found themselves re-isolated, the river turned once again into a stone barrier.
The recent decision by Lexington Mayer Jim Gray to de-fund the city’s contribution to the operation of Valley View Ferry, the last of the inner-bluegrass ferries, should cement the river’s return, at the level of the river banks, at least, as an isolating ribbon bisecting this part of the state.
And for we merry tourists traveling from the Fayette highlands? Well, with Valley View in funding limbo, we’re left to continue experiencing the river from above, perceiving it as one would a sunken water spigot, as we speed by overhead, in high times and low, in flood and in drought, on our way to other places.