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Guest Jeffery

The Falls of the Ohio (mostly maps & diagram. For history buff only)

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Louisville is the “Falls City”. This nickname was adopted as the brand for a long-lived local brewery, which lasted into the 1970s.  Falls City beer signs are still found around the city:





But what about these falls?  They are the Falls of the Ohio, a 26 foot drop in the river over a short distance.  The Falls of the Ohio was, along with the Grand Chain (of rocks) above Cairo and a rapids near Gallipolis, the only navigational obstruction of the Ohio River, and the most significant.


The Falls are caused by the Ohio cutting over a rise in the limestone bedrock.  The highest contour in this rise (at the river) is shaded in red in this map:




The limestone bedrock reef formed a natural dam, and the river became shallow as it passed over the rock, and quickened before going over “the falls”.


The total fall is 26 feet in 2.5 miles, with the greatest vertical drop being 9 feet




But the falls was really more of a whitewater or rapids, a shallows in low water, in extreme low water largely a rock shelf…






…which became inundated and lost its whitewater character in high water.


This 1805 map of the Falls gives us a picture of what the Falls looked like in its natural state.




From upstream to downstream was a set of islands, starting with Corn Island (originally named Dunmore’s Island), then Goose Island, Rock Island, and, finally, below the Falls, Sand Island.


The river passage over the Falls was divided into three chutes.  The northern chute was Indian Chute, sometimes called Indiana Chute.  Then there was the Middle Chute, followed the Kentucky Chute.  The chutes and islands are noted in this map:





Indian Chute was the first to become passable as the water rose, followed by the Middle Chute, then the Kentucky Chute (which had the maximum 8’ vertical fall).  At maximum high water all three chutes were overflowed.  The features of Indian Chute were named; Backbone Reef, Wave Rock (since it formed a sort of bow wave in the current), Big Eddy (a whirlpool..there was also a Little Eddy), etc.


The limestone reef was exposed on the Kentucky side at low water, but continued under the water to the Indiana side.  As late as 1930 the river bottom starting midway across was the bare rock of the reef.


This reef also formed a “harbor” at the mouth of Beargrass Creek.


The Falls was one of the best documented reaches of the Ohio, starting with a British military expedition just after the French and Indian War (there may have been French delineations, too).  Later maps were made to support canal projects around the Falls.  The above 1805 map was for a canal proposal.  One of the best was this 1824 map, showing the falls at the “low water of 1819”, which was an exceptionally low water.




This map is the base for the following diagrams.


European Settlement at the Falls


The Falls were known to French and English traders and explorers, but no attempts were made to fortify or settle the location until the Revolution.  In 1778 George Rogers Clark established the Fort on Corn Island as a base for his expedition to conquer the Illinois Country and Vincennes from the British.  This fort was vacated and Fort-on-Shore established, later replaced by Fort Nelson, in the center of the Louisville townsite.  Fort Nelson itself was vacated and a fort established on the Indiana shore, which lasted until the 1793.




The first town plat was for :”The Town of Louisville at the Falls of the Ohio” in 1779, followed by “Clarkville” in 1783, on the Indiana shore, the first townsite downstream from the Falls.  A failed Kentucky townsite was Campbelltown, which was later re-founded as Shippingport.  The first town of the 19th century was Jeffersonville (1802), originally with a checkerboard plan suggested by Thomas Jefferson, an associate of the founders. 




This novel plat was later modified to a conventional block plan


The last Kentucky Falls town was Portland, founded by Cincinnati entrepreneur Robert Lytle in 1814 at what was becoming a somewhat better location than Shippingport.  The final “Falls City" on the Indiana side was New Albany (off the map to the left) on the Indiana shore, founded in 1813.


The Indiana side is often neglected in this tale.  The land here was a large military land grant to Clark and those who served under him in the Illinois campaign.  Clark received the choice land at the Falls (platted in town- and out-lots), and Jeffersonville was platted on the adjacent Tract #1. 




This grant, Clarks Grant, was one of only two parts of Indiana not laid out in the rectangular coordinate system.  The other was the land around the old French settlement of Vincennes.


Shippingport & the Tarascon Brothers



Shippingport became the largest town below the falls.  It was founded by Louis and Jean (John) Tarascon and their business associate John Berthoud.




All were refugees from the French Revolution (the Tarascons where merchants from Marseilles and Berthoud a minor nobleman).  They first set-up in Philadelphia, but then became interested in trade beyond the Alleghenies, setting up a trading an boatbuilding operation at Redstone (a traditional jumping-off point for river trade),


The difficulties of navigating the Falls convinced the Tarascons to relocate.  Their business associate Berthoud purchased the Campbelltown site, and replatted it as Shippingport.


Shippingport was located in bottomland and was flood-prone, but long remained the largest settlement below the falls (larger than Portland as late as 1830).  This enlargement of the 1805 map shows the town and surroundings, including the proposed route of a canal in a ravine or slough




Shippingport itself had a large mill, a wharf along a natural harbor (20 feet deep), a shipyard for the Tarascons’ boatbuilding business, and a rope-walk, needed for the rigging.  Rigging was essential since these boats were to be ocean-going sailing ships once they reached the Gulf at New Orleans. 




The Tarascons continued to develop their town, as noted by this ad or broadside of 1819




By this time Shippingport was feeling the competition from Portland.  Changes in the river were causing the Shippingport harbor to silt up, which was supposedly exacerbated by canal approach walls and the mill races.  But perhaps also by increasing loads of sediment as the Ohio River watershed went under the plow, increasing erosion.  Portland’s deeper anchorage was also better for the new steamboat trade.


By the 1880s Shippingport had shrunk.




A black plan of the surviving houses shows how settlement clustered around the canal locks and the old turnpike to Louisville. 




By this time the residents all worked at the mill, which had been converted into a cement factory. 




This structure was remarkable.  Completed in 1819 it incorporated automated milling machinery based on the designs of Philadelphia “mechanic” Oliver Evans.




The Tarascon Mill and a mill across the river in Indiana were the only attempts to harness the Falls for industrial water power.  There was no intensive development as at the St Anthony Falls at Minneapolis.


The mill as a cement factory.  It burned in the 1890s.




Shippingport was intimately connected to Louisville due to the portage business around the Falls.  The connection was somewhat evident in this old song, which I first heard on an album by Cincinnati musicians Malcolm Dagleish and Gary Larson (“First of Autumn”, June Appal Records) 



I woke up one morning in 1845

I thought myself quite lucky to find myself alive

Hitched up my haul team, my business to pursue

And went to hauling coal as I used for to do.


Now the ale-house being open and the whisky running free

As soon as I had one glass, another stood by me

I only hauled but one load instead of hauling four

And got so drunk in Shippingport that I couldn’t haul no more.


I took my saddle on my back and I staggered from the barn

I saddled up my old grey mare thinking it no harm

I climbed upon her back and I rode away so still

I scarcely stopped for breath ‘till I came to Louisville.


My father fast pursued me, he rode both night and day

He must have had a pilot or else he’d a-lost his way

He looked in every hole and corner where ‘ere he saw the light

‘Till his old grey head was wet from the dews of the night.


I have a bold companion whose name I will not tell

Invited me to go downtown with him to cut a swell

After much persuasion, with him I did agree

And we went down to the tailor shop a fiddler for to see.


Up stepped two young ladies all ready for to dance

Up stepped two young gentleman all in advance

The fiddler being willing and his arm a-being strong

We danced the night at Louisville at least six hours long.


…though another version puts the events further east on the Ohio, in Shippensport PA, and Laurel Hill, not Louis Ville.  But it works either way.  And also shows Louisville, even back then, was a  bon temps roulez kind of place.


The Falls of the Ohio and Trade on Western Waters


The tale here is one of commerce, the interplay of trade, commerce and the Falls. 


The first trade to Louisville was opened by two French merchants from Vincennes.  And this French connection would continue as the downstream ocean port of New Orleans was French (or, officially, Spanish). 


The first attempt to send goods downstream was in 1782 by two French traders, from Redstone to New Orleans.  These apparently were lost en-route.  The second attempt was in 1787, by Kentucky notable James Wilkinson (secretly an agent of Spain).  After this shipping increased so that by 1797 Louisville was declared a port-of-entry and a customs house established to collect duty on goods coming up-river. 


Trade was by flatboat, AKA the broadhorn.  They were built along the Monongahela, in Pittsburgh and Redstone.  “Kentucky boats” went no further than the Falls.  Others attempted to shoot the Falls in high water.  In low water a portage was required. 


In the 1790s, as trade quickened, the keelboat came into use as the upstream trading vessel.  Keels were a French Louisiana innovation, developed out of the bateaux, and were sailed or poled upriver.  To get beyond the Falls they had to be warped over the Kentucky Chute by ropes attached to trees or ringbolts driven into the rock.  Times to do this varied; in one case it took half a day to warp a keel over the Falls (using an 18-man crew).  By 1804 there were four keels in regular service between Louisville and New Orleans.  By 1811 there were 300 keels on the Ohio.


This water trade led to a genre of folk music.  Probably the most famous is the haunting Shenandoah (a “sea chanty”, but originating on the western waters, perhaps from French sources).  Another well-known tune about keel- and flat- boating mentions Louisville and New Orleans, though its named after an early Illinois town (and containing an oblique mention of a nearby saline):


Some rows up, but we floats down

Way down the Ohio to Shawnee Town



And it's hard on the beach oar, she moves too slow

Way down to Shawneetown on the Ohio


Now the current's got her, And we'll take up the slack

Float her down to Shawneetown and we'll bushwhack her back


Whiskey's in the jug, boys; wheat is in the sack

We'll trade them down in Shawneetown and bring the rock salt back


I got a wife in Louisville, and one in New Orleans

And when I get to Shawnee Town gonna see my Indian Queen


The water's might warm boys, the air is cold and dank

And the cursed fog it gets so thick you cannot see the bank


Some rows up, but we floats down

Way down the Ohio to Shawnee Town



Falls Pilots & Shooting the Chutes


As trade increased wrecks became more frequent at the Falls, with drownings and loss of goods.  Explorers of the rock shelfs during low water would sometimes discover skeletal remains of the victims.  In 1797 Kentucky established the post of Falls Pilot, who was to navigate boats around the Falls.  Falls Pilots had to post bond, could charge fees, and were licensed by the county court.  In 1803 Indiana Territory also started to license pilots. 


As an example of volume during the 6 months of high water in 1811, Kentucky pilots guided 743 boats across the Falls, Indiana pilots 106 boats.  The trade was seasonal, resulting in gluts of flatboats (and presumably keels) during limited periods of high water.


The Pilots were indispensable to commerce on western waters. During the War of 1812 Falls Pilots were exempt from military service.  Boats not engaging a Pilot would not be insured.


Falls Pilots sometimes brought their own small crews on board to help row & steer the 13 MPH current.  They communicated to their crew via hand signals and shouts.  They embarked in Jeffersonville or Louisville and disembarked at Clarksville or Shippingport (later Portland), returning by land to Jeff or Louisville.


An example of a Louisville piloting, showing how boats had to be rowed upriver to be in position to run, in this example, the Indian Chute




So at maximum high water, when the Kentucky and Middle Chutes were open, Louisville was in a better position, due to less upstream rowing.


Running the Indian Chute was easier from Jeffersonville, where a boat just had to cast off the shore and be quickly in position to shoot the chute.  Jeff could see river trade for longer periods as the Indian Chute was the last to close as waters receded.




With the advent of steamboat traffic Jeffersonville pilots specialized in the remaining flatboat traffic (which eventually included coal boats of various types) and the Louisville pilots specialized in steamboat traffic.


Steamboats and the Falls


The first steamboat service on western waters was between New Orleans and Natchez under a monopoly held by the  Fulton & Livingston interests.  The first steamboat upriver to Louisville was the Enterprise,  in 1815, part of a successful attempt to break the monopoly.  The courts ruled against the monopoly, resulting in a boom in boatbuilding.  This era marked the true start of steamboat navigation of the Ohio. 


The first boat built in Louisville was the Governor Shelby, of 1816,  the 15th steamboat on western waters.  All of the Falls towns engaged in boatbuilding, but New Albany and Jeffersonville eventually specialized in the business.


Steamboat navigation was limited by the same high & low water seasons and inability to pass the Falls, resulting in an upstream (to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh) and downstream (to New Orleans) trade.  Only in 1818 did a steamboat pass upstream to Cincinnati from New Orleans.  Before 1830 3/4 of all steamboats arriving in Pittsburgh originated in Louisville.  It has been said that the trade between New Orleans and the upper Ohio was more in goods than in ships.


And this trade had to be shipped around the Falls.  The preferred portage was on the Kentucky side as the route was more direct and less rugged (the Indiana side had multiple stream crossings with their associated up- and down-grades). 


The following diagram illustrates the portage trade, which was conducted by drays (for cargo) and hacks (for passengers) to & from the Louisville and Portland and Shippingport wharfs, eventually more the Portland wharf.  Presumably there were also forwarding agents at the wharfs, making arrangements for loading & passage on upstream and downstream boats.




The Indiana towns were left out of this trade.  In 1851 a plank road was built between New Albany and Jeffersonville to try to capture some of the transshipment.  Louisville and Portland countered with a plank road paralleling the original road to Portland and Shippingport (which was also turned into a plank road).  Eventually a horse railroad was built (1854) from the Portland wharf, as part of a larger scheme to connect to Lexington.  Instead this railroad ended just short of the Louisville wharf area.   


The result was multiple routes around the Falls, providing the framework for the modern street system in this part of Louisville




…and a closer look at the Falls, at the start of the steamboat era.  It is said “the map is not the territory”, but this one takes great pains to be almost an aeriel view, showing the whitewater over the limestone reef, different kinds of rock and riverbed surface conditions, etc. 




The canal had locks on the Shippingport end, an elevated stone bridge for the Shippingport turnpike (avoiding the need for a drawbridge) and was cut across the low water limestone shelf to the harbor a the Louisville wharf.


Some details of the canal, including the stone arch bridge




..note that the canal had levees protecting it from high water.


Close-up of the locks, which also had a dry-dock to permit the canal company to get into the ship-repair business.  The locks were the largest in the US when built




The canal was initially funded by Philadelphia investors, but was gifted to the Federal Government in an interesting arrangement.  The canal corporation used toll revenue to self-liquidate.  After turning ownership to the Feds the shareholders each retained one share and acted as an operating board, using the tolls to subsidize canal improvements.  So the canal operated as non-profit government owned, privately operated corporation


One of the players and facilitators involved in the canal was James Guthrie, a local attorney and businessman, and promoter, protégé of Kentucky notable John Rowan,  Guthrie was the president of the canal corporation. 




Guthrie was also Secretary of the Treasury at the time the canal was coming into Federal ownership and acted as a protector and political godfather, ensuring tolls stayed were reduced and improvements were made.


Eventually the canal was turned over to the Army Engineers, today’s Corps of Engineers.


The canal was periodically being widened but the locks could not handle the increasing size of steamboats, driving a revival of the portage business.  So new locks were planned, creating an angled channel to the Portland wharf,  The locks were completed and opened in 1872.




An example of widening during the Guthrie era.  Note the turnout for boat passing.  Amazingly enough there was no traffic-control on the canal.  Boats entering from Louisville didn’t know if another boat was already in the canal heading upstream.  If there was a meet, one boat had to back-out. 




The modern canal and turning basin at the Shippingport town site:




John Rowan Buys the Falls:  Cement Mining


John Rowan already received a mention in an early post as tradition held that he owned the Old House on Fifth Street.  Lawyer, judge, congressman, senator, and plantation owner, Rowan was also a land speculator.  Rowan speculated in land between Portland and Louisville. platting one of the first western additions to the city. 




Political connections paid off.  Rowan also purchased the bed of the Ohio River at a very reasonable price under an obscure Kentucky law permitting the governor to sell waste or vacant land.  After purchase Rowan commenced quarrying on the limestone bed of the Kentucky Chute in the vicinity of Corn Island, much to the chagrin of the Falls Pilots, who were concerned about changes in the river current. 


This quarrying business eventually turned into a cement business when it was discovered that the limestone was excellent for hydraulic cement.  By the 1880s the operation had assumed industrial scale, with a narrow gauge railroad running out onto the limestone reef to connect the quarries to the old Tarascon Mill, which had been converted to cement making.




Note the first bridge across the Ohio here, the 14th Street Bridge, and the long “US Dam”, a crib dam built to protect the canal.  The dam left an opening for downstream traffic to shoot the Indiana Chute.


A close-up of the quarrying operations, and the barrel factory associated with the cement works




Quarrying, combined with floods, eventually removed Corn Island from the landscape.


The cement company came under control of  J.B. Speed, a member of the Speed family, local plantation owners.  The widow and heiress donated the Speed art museum to the city in his memory.


The Falls in the later 19th Century


The river was coming under increasing control via postbellum projects of the Army Engineers, as illustrated by this map showing a dam system cross the river, with a mix of permanent and moveable structures. 





The map also shows the 14th Street Bridge (the first bridge across at Louisville), another project of James Guthrie, and the two commercial waterpower operations with their millraces protruding into the river (which were navigation hazards).  Presumably the Falls was not developed for waterpower was because the chutes remained in use for navigation.


The Falls Pilots had periodic efforts to widen the Indian Chute, at first via chiseling away the rocks, then receiving assistance from the Army Engineers, which continued into the steamboat era.


The reason why was the downstream coal boat trade, unpowered flats loaded with coal, floated and rowed down the river in pairs.  This trade started in earnest in the 1850s and continued into the later 19th century.  In the high water season coal boats were a major business for the Falls Pilots, one of whom guided 12 pairs across the Falls in one day, by having a servant and hack wait for the pilot in New Albany and then race back to Jeffersonville to engage a another pair.


Eventually towboats came into use in conjunction with the coal trade, and these needed guiding as well.


The treacherous waters of the chutes led to continued wrecks and capsizing, resulting in an inland branch of the US Lifesaving Service being established, using men of the Louisville wharf as the first staff.  This was later turned into a Coast Guard station, which still stands as the wharf boat for the Belle of Louisville steamer:




From the National Park Service historic site nomination:


On November 7, 1881, the station performed its first rescue. The two lifeboats of the station removed the passengers and crew of the new steamboat Baton Rouge, stranded while trying to descend the falls. The next day, only the fourth that the station had been in operation, the crew continued to assist Baton Rouge and rescued three more people. The log of Keeper William McDevan describes the second rescue performed by the station.


“  At about 4 PM went to the relief of a boat containing a man and two ladies of a rather cozy virtue, who had drifted into the strong current and were being carried over the Falls. Took the boat in tow and brought them out of their paid labors into still water.”


The station performed invaluable services to the communities lining the Ohio River near the station well into the next century. The boats of the station assisted stranded vessels; rescued recreational boaters in danger from the Falls; grappled for the bodies of drowned swimmers; fought fires ashore and afloat; and saved several towboats, with barges in tow, from imminent destruction.




In the 1890s a major project was completed to finally open the Indian Chute.  The major obstruction of Wave Rock was dynamited away and  dikes constructed to channel the high water through the chute.  This was the death knell of the institution of Falls Pilot, as the channel was safe enough at high water without special assistance in piloting.


A map showing the 1890s improvements of the Falls




And a close-up of the dam arrangement at the wharf.  These were moveable “Boule Dams”, developed in France.  They were manually operated and dangerous to work, resulting in occasional loss in life. 





The bridge here had a drawbridge, a swing span to permit unhindered steamboat passage of the Portland canal (stacks didn’t have to be dropped)




Eventually, during one of the rebuilds of the 14th Street Bridge, the draw was replaced by the modern lift bridge, which is still with us. 




The  Falls of the Ohio Today


By the early years of the 20th Century the Falls had undergone its final changes, with the dams controlling water flow, leaving most of the bed dry in low water (apparently this map followed the tradition of depicting the Falls in low water). 




This situation was to drastically change.  A project of the 1920s finally harnessed the waterpower at the Falls, for a hydroelectric plant.


A concrete dam with moveable upper and lower floodgates was built across the Falls, concentrating the current and creating sufficient head to power turbines and generators,  generally following the Middle and Kentucky Chutes.  Indiana Chute was left mostly bare, to be overflowed in high water.




This aerial sketch shows how the river was changed.  It also shows a sketch of operating a Boule Dam, which were removed when this project was built  Navigation was now limited to the Portland Canal.




A close up showing enlarged locks at the Portland Canal, the old 18th Street Bridge to Shippingport.  This was the site of that big stone arch bridge, which was replaced with a drawbridge during subsequent canal widening. It was probably removed sometime after WWII.  The two long spans on the 14th Street Bridge are noted, one to permit steamship passage through the Indiana and the other for the Kentucky & Middle Chutes.




Shippingport survived until the 1937 flood.  After that it was finally evacuated and the structures removed.  The land between the Portland Canal and the Kentucky Chute is still called Shippingport Island.


The modern Falls of the Ohio at maybe medium water, probably in the mid 1980s.  The Wave Rock dike is clearly visible, and Goose Island survives as a wooded area.




The 14th Street Bridge at the Indian Chute, showing two different high water levels.  One can sort of see the whitewater effect in one pix.






The Indian Chute looking downstream, woods of Goose Island across the channel




Below the Falls.  Sand Island is the woods across the river to the left, and in the far distance is the K & I Bridge.





Envoi:  La Belle Riviere






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Wonderfully researched and laid out! That area was an important staging area for much of the development of Southern Indiana.


The canals had their own culture. At congested points like locks, contested right-of-way often was mediated by out-and-out brawls. Passengers of packet boats, once on board and under way, had no recourse for their displeasure. First-person narratives from the era tell of awful food, beds of bare planks set up at night, and merciless, relentless hordes of mosquitoes.


Canal travel was brutal by today's standards, but then it was much preferred to overland travel where roads sometimes passed through nearly-endless marshlands, swamps, and dense forests whose only human residents were criminals and renegade Indians who preyed upon unlucky travelers.

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Canal travel was brutal by today's standards, but then it was much preferred to overland travel where roads sometimes passed through nearly-endless marshlands, swamps, and dense forests whose only human residents were criminals and renegade Indians who preyed upon unlucky travelers.


One of those areas being the Wet Woods...


Again, Jeffrey, thanks for your wonderful research of Louisville.  I have some pictures of the falls from 1997 that you may enjoy.  They were taken at low water from the river bed.  I will try to find and scan in a reasonable amount of time.

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this is excellent and particularly timely for me as the ohio river there looks exactly like its mississippi cousin does winding around minneapolis, including the old st. anthony falls and the river "islands." too bad the islands around l'ville are not put to use as they are in minny.

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I should note the canal here was not the kind we had in Ohio and Indiana, with horse or mule drawn canal boats. Though there was a connection between the builders involved in this canal and the ones in Ohio.  Some of the same people worked on both.


The Mexican stand-off situation between steamboats on the canal led to some colorfull incidents, too.  Eventually a telegraph was set up between the Louisville wharf, the locks, and Portland, so canal transit could be coordinated.  This telegraph line was eventualy extended downriver to Evansville.


too bad the islands around l'ville are not put to use as they are in minny.


The big new public use is the the Falls of the Ohio State Park, which has a visitors center, and premits you to walk out on that limestone reef. Getting to the islands is probably not possible except by boat.  There is also a local park on the site of the old "Clarkville" plat with a boat launch and the reconstructed log cabin of GR Clark. The last two pix were taken from that location.


A part of Shippingport Island is accesssible via a bridge over the locks,  for a boat launch and a fishing area, where you can fish in the river off of woodland trail.  The rest of that island is used by the Corps of Engineers for stuff, like dumping dredge waste , storage, etc. Most of the Indiana side at the Falls somewhat underdeveloped, actually fairly wooded, with some low-density residential things.


But it hasnt been used much other than that.  I recall my old boss used to say that they should turn Shippingport Island into a Sin City, with legalized gambling and prositution, connected with the downtown riverfront via a Roosvelt Island style cable car.  Sort of tongue in cheek but I think people do see this as an underutilized resource. 



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thx jeffery -- maybe if the corps keeps dumping dredgings there long enough shippingport island can be built up and put to better use at some point. the minneapolis islands would certainly be a model & selling point for what could be done in louisville.

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