Archive for September, 2010


To most of us in western West Virginia trains were an integral part of our bringing up.  The most familiar trains for us were the Norfolk and Western which is now the Norfolk Southern. A common sight on any given day at Hubbards Town was to see someone go down the track a way from the depot building and set a newspaper or oil soaked rag on fire to flag the train so it would stop and pick up passengers. Hubbards Town was not necessarily a scheduled stop unless someone or something was getting off.  Things that would be put on or taken off the trains there would consist primarily of cream cans that local farmers would ship up to Louisa to the creamery.  Empties would be returned to the depot and picked up by the farmer.  Large items and things such as baby chicks would be put off at the Prichard depot.  There was also a coaling station at Prichard and most trains stopped at the large water tank and colliery to take on coal and water to last them until the next coal and water stop.   The depot at Hubbardstown consisted of a small shed with three sides enclosed and no heat.  So to get on you had to flag the train.  Two passenger trains a day went north from Virginia ( one in the morning and one in the evening) and two went south from Cincinnati, Ohio.(one in the morning and one in the evening) You could get on the train at any depot and go to any other depot, regardless of how short the distance was.  It was kinda like a bus on rails. Farm people shipped and received goods on a regular basis by train.  Remember the railway express and the freight wagons that set at the station at the Fort Gay depot. On a damp foggy day you could hear the train whistle three or four miles away. I can remember hearing the train whistle when I lived on Queens Creek and that was at least three miles. Times have changed and the railroad rolling stock has evolved from steam to diesel-electric but they function as they have for many years. if I listen carefully and let my thoughts wonder I can still hear the distinct whistle of the N&W as it was when it served the people of West Virginia. 

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John Plymale

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Does everyone remember the Freedom Train of 1947-1948?  Does anyone remember the Freedom Train of 1947-1948?  I must admit that I had forgotten it  and the purpose for which it was created.  It has only been just over 60 years but we have let the distractions of political correctioness, pressures of the enemy from without and within our country, and leadership that places more emphasis on placating other governments detract from the history of how our country came about and the sacrifices of those that made us into a democracy.   

The 1947 – 1949 Freedom Train was conceived as an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of American citizenship at a time when the nation was finding a new and central role in world affairs. Americans had experienced a decade of pre-war economic Depression. They made sacrifices in foreign lands throughout World War II. They were entering an age of post-war prosperity with opportunities unknown in all of human history. And they were unsure of the reassurances at the sudden dawn of the nuclear age and Soviet expansion into countries just liberated from fascist oppression in Europe and Asia.  

With President Harry Truman in the lead, some in the national government believed Americans should pause and reflect, to experience a “rededication” to the principles that founded their country. (Could we ever do this again.) 

President Truman loved trains, and his use of the “whistle stop” campaign train still epitomizes this icon of the electoral process. Attorney General Tom Clark and his staff proposed a train that would travel to communities in every state of the nation, taking with it dozens of “documents of liberty.”  

The result, they hoped, would enable Americans to rediscover for themselves just how hard-won their freedoms were. Clearly, they hoped to enable personal reconciliations with the still-fresh sacrifices and human costs of war, and to impart a sense of meaning and worth to those sacrifices.  

As mentioned above, the train would travel to multiple cities in all 48 states.  At that time Alaska and Hawaii had not yet been given statehood.  The train made 6 stops in West Virginia, all in 1948.  Stops made were in Wheeling on Sept. 14, Parkersburg on Sept 23, Clarksburg on Sept 24, Charleston on Sept 25, Huntington on Sept 26 and Bluefield on Sept 28.  There was also a stop in Ashland, KY during its Kentucky circut on August 5. It would have passed through Fort Gay at some point in its travels. 

The train was painted a beautiful red, white, and blue and pulled with a diesel locomotive,  The train was repainted once during its two years of touring.   There would have been hardly a person that would not have been able to see the train and its precious cargo of freedom doocuments had they wished. 

Below is listed the documents it carried:                                                            

The Beginnings
Letter by Columbus on Discovery of America
Thirteenth Century Manuscript of Magna CartaStirrings of Freedom in Colonial America
The Mayflower Compact
Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges of 1701The Struggle for Independence
Declaration of the Nine Colonies (1765)
Thomas Jefferson’s Statement on Rights of Colonists (1774)
Declaration of the People Against Governor Berkeley
Original Letter of Caesar Rodney, dated July 4, 1776, Describing the Voting of Independence
Manuscript Essay of James Iredell Stating the Rights of the Colonists
Jefferson’s Draft of the Declaration of Independence (June 11-28, 1776)
Original Letter of Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane Transmitting Certified Copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation to the King of Prussia (Feb. 14, 1777)
Copy of the Declaration of Independence Attested and Signed by Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane
A Contemporary Manuscript Copy of the Articles of Confederation Attested and Signed by Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane
Paine’s “Common Sense” (1776)Fight for Freedom
“The Crisis” by Thomas Paine (1776)
Paul Revere’s Original Commission as Official Messenger
Original Orders of the Continental Congress Increasing the Powers of General Washington
Letter of George Washington to Gouverneur Morris Describing Conditions of Winter Headquarters in 1780
The Treaty of Paris (1783)Religious Freedom
President Washington’s “To Bigotry No Sanction” Letter
Roger Williams’ Statement on Religious Freedom
Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Freedom (1784)
The Bay Psalm BookThe Achievement of The Constitution
The Federalist (1788)
John Jay’s Original Corrected Manuscript Draft of Federalist Paper No. 5
The Virginia Plan of the Constitution of the United States (1787)
Washington’s Own Copy of the Constitution (1787)
Journal of the Constitutional Convention Showing Entry for August 20, 1787, When the Habeas Corpus Clause Was Suggested for Inclusion in the Constitution
Draft Report of the Committee of Detail of the Constitutional Convention Showing Earliest Provisions for Trial by Jury as Part of the Constitution of the United States (August 1787)
Pennsylvania’s Ratification of the Federal Constitution (1789)
The Bill of Rights (1789)
George Mason’s Draft of the Declaration of Rights to Be Proposed by the Virginia Convention as Amendments to the Constitution of the United States (June 1788)
Official Manuscript List of Proposed Amendments Protecting Civil Liberties Submitted by Virginia with her Ratification of the Constitution (1789)
Congress’ Working Drafts of the First Amendments to the Constitution – The Bill of Rights (1789)
Congressional Resolution That President Submit First Proposed Amendments to States (1789)
Virginia’s Ratification of the Bill of Rights (1791)
Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to James Madison Commenting on the Proposed Constitution of the United States and His Regret at the Omission of a Bill of Rights (December 20, 1787)
James Madison’s Letter to Thomas Jefferson Noting That Madison Had Introduced Resolutions for the Amendment of the Constitution of the United States Which Would Guarantee Basic Personal Rights (June 13, 1789)
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton’s Original Manuscript Outline of Subjects of Part of “The Federalist” (1788)
Alexander Hamilton’s Original Manuscript Draft of His “Report on the Public Credit” (1790)
Alexander Hamilton’s Original Manuscript Draft of George Washington’s Farewell Address (July 1796)The Flag
William Colbreath’s Manuscript Account of the First Known Military Raising of the American Flag (August 3, 1777)
Original Manuscript of “The Star Spangled Banner”Washington’s Leadership
Washington’s Revolutionary War Account Book Written in His Own Hand (1775-83)
Washington’s Farewell Address (Sept. 1796)Emancipation and Reconciliation
Abraham Lincoln’s Draft of the Emancipation Proclamation (July 14, 1862)
The Emancipation Proclamation
Senate Version of Joint Resolution Proposing Amendment to Abolish Slavery (1864)
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863)
Letter of Henry Laurens of South Carolina Attacking Slavery (August 14, 1776)
General Robert E. Lee’s Letter Accepting the Presidency of Washington College (August 24, 1865)
Abraham Lincoln’s Baltimore Address (April 18, 1864)Women’s Rights
Petition of the National Women’s Suffrage Association to Congress (1873)
Petition of Matilda Hindman Asking Congress Not to Disenfranchise Utah Woman (1874)
The Nineteenth Amendment – The Joint Resolution of Congress Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution Extending the Right of Suffrage to Women (1919)Freedom Follows The Flag
The Northwest Ordinance (1787)
Letter from president McKinley to William Howard Taft, President of the Philippine Commission (1900)
Proclamation of the Independence of the Philippines, Signed by President Harry S. Truman (1946)
Letter of President Theodore Roosevelt to Secretary of War William Howard Taft in Regard to Keeping Our Promise to Get Out of Cuba (1907)
Proclamation of Richard P. Leary, Naval Governor of the Isle of Guam, Abolishing Slavery and Peonage (1900)American Memorabilia
Deborah Gannett’s Deposition in Her Claim for a Pension for Revolutionary War Service (1818)
Benjamin Franklin’s Own Epitaph in His Own Hand
Mirabeau’s Tribute to Franklin (June 11, 1790)
The Thanks of the Congress of the United States to the French Nation (March 2, 1791)
Jefferson’s Letter of June 17, 1785, from Paris to James Monroe Praising America
Letter of John Jay to John Trumbull in Which Is Coined the Word “Americanize” (October 1797)
Original Letter in Siamese from King Mongkut of Siam Offering to Send a Gift of Elephants to the President of the United States (1861)
Andrew Jackson’s Letter to the Secretary of War Describing the Battle of New Orleans (1815)
Logbook of the U. S. Frigate “Constitution” (1815)
Eleven Original Treasury Bonds Dating from 1779 Through 1947
Letter of December 28, 1908, from Secretary of State Elihu Root to President Theodore Roosevelt and the President’s Message to Congress on January 4, 1909, Regarding the Remission of Boxer Indemnity Funds
Land Script Issued to New York for the Establishment of a College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (1862)Freedom of the Press
John Peter Zenger’s New-York Weekly Journal, Issue No. 48 (September 1734)
John Peter Zenger’s New-York Weekly Journal No. 55 (November 25, 1734)
John Peter Zenger’s New-York Weekly Journal No. 93 (August 18, 1735)
Benjamin Franklin’s Editorial on Zenger Printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 1737
The North Briton, No. 45 (April 23, 1763)
Alton Trials (New York, 1838)
An Essay on the Liberty of the Press by George Hay (Philadelphia, 1799)
John Milton’s “Areopagitica” (1644)
Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to Thomas Seymour (February 11, 1807)
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington (January 16, 1787)The Nations United
Original Typescript Draft of the Covenant of the League of Nations (1918)
Declaration by the United Nations (1942)
The United Nations Charter (1945)Fight for Freedom – World War II
Proclamation of an Unlimited National Emergency (May 27, 1941)
The Selection of General Eisenhower as Supreme Commander of the Allied Invasion of Western Europe
Agreement for the Invasion of Western Europe
Congratulations from the Secretary of War to the Supreme Commander
Last Message from Corregidor
“Merry Christmas” from Bastogne
Admiral Spruance Reports on Operations at Iwo Jima
Admiral Halsey’s Report on Naval Action in Philippine Waters
Admiral Nimitz’ Battle Report of Midway
Personal Report of General Stilwell to General Marshall (January 28, 1944)
Secretary of the Navy Knox Praises The United States Marine Corps
President Roosevelt’s Tribute to Captain Colin KellyFreedom Triumphs
General Clark’s Victory Message
Instrument of Surrender of Japanese Forces in the Philippine Islands
Surrender of Japanese Forces on Truk
Germany Surrenders Unconditionally
Surrender of Japanese Forces on Wake Island
Surrender of Japanese Forces in The Ryukyus
Log of the “U.S.S. Missouri” – Japanese Surrender 

The Freedom Train of the 1940s is not to be confused with the Freedom Train of 1976 that was in celebration of our country’s 200th birthday.  Could this ever be done again without the protesters throwing themselves on the railroad tracks or the ACLU suing in the courts.  Probably not, but wouldn’t it be a wonderful experience to do it all over again. 




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     When Jenny Wiley was rafted across the Big Sandy River by Henry Skaggs in 1790, the main means of transportation in the Big Sandy Valley  was by saddle horse over Indian trails or pushboat on the river.  Kentucky historian Lewis Collins says that the Big Sandy welcomed its first steamboat on May 20th, 1837.  The new-fangled contraption traveled from Catlettsburg to Prestonsburg carrying goods ordered by local merchants.  The reporter covering the event noted that coal of the finest quality was visible in the sandstone along the riverbanks.

     One of the most prominent Big Sandy steamboat operators during the early days was Captain Archibald Borders, who owned a farm near Whitehouse, KY.  In 1860 he built and began operating a steamboat called the Sandy Valley.  During the Winter of 1861-62 the vessel was requisitioned by Colonel James A. Garfield and use to convey military supplies from Catlettsburg to Pikeville.  Since the river was a flood stage, Judge Borders and the boat’s captain protested that the trip was too dangerous to undertake.  Garfield had been a canal boat pilot before the war, so he placed the captain under arrest and piloted the boat up the river himself.

     Records at the Ashland Public Library indicate that dozens of steamers operated on the Big Sandy during the 1860s and 1870s.  Among these were the Tom Hackney, named for the ugliest man in Pike County, and the Jerry Osborn, both of which were built by Captain Orlando C. Bowles of Pikeville.  The Tome Scott and Major O’Drain were built by Captain Daniel Vaughan of Louisa and were piloted by Captain W. Fuse Davidson.  Records show that Captain Vaughan built five large steamers for use on the Ohio and four smaller boats for use on the Big Sandy. 

     During the 1880-1899 period, a completely different fleet of steamer traveled the river.  According to Altina Waller, the steamboat Andy Hatcher regularly plied the Levisa Fork as far as Pikeville.  A very pretty sternwheeler, it was often used as a showboat.  Occasionally it even carried riverboat gamblers.

     The Andy Hatcher was owned and operated by Captain John Hopkins, a native of Tazewell County, Virginia.  The boat ran in direct competition with the Frank Preston, a craft built in Paintsville, KY and owned and operated by Captain Green Meek. 

     Captain Meek also owned the steamer Argand, a coal-burning three-decker and the largest steamboat on the river.  The best-known of Captain Meek’s fleet of boats was the little batwing steamer, Thealka. It was named for his daughter, Alice Jane Meek, whose nickname was Alka.  Unfortunately, when the name was painted on the boat, the painter forgot to leave a space between “The” and “Alka.”

     Thealka was classified as a batwing boat due to the position of her paddle wheels.  Instead of a single stern paddle wheel, she was equipped with two smaller side wheels, set well towards the stern of the boat.  The expression “batwing steamer” originated in the following way.  Small steamers like the Thealka were lightweight, shallow-draught vessels with thin hulls.  People liked to say that they were “thin as a bat’s wing,” and hence the expression.

     On February 15th, 1900 the Thealka broke the Big Sandy’s speed record by completing the round trip between Catlettsburg and Pikeville, a distance of 240 miles, in twenty-four hours.

     Water levels in the Big Sandy varied so much that steamboats couldn’t ascend the river more than six or seven months out of the year.  When Hell’s Gare Shoal near Paintsville became difficult to cross, seasoned pilots knew that the summer steamboat lull was approaching. 

     Old-timers recall that the Thealka had a whistle that sent shivers up ;your spine.  The last batwing steamer to operate on the river, she was lost near Whitehouse when her hull was crushed by ice. 

     Although the Thealka came to an unhappy end, the girl for whom she was named lived a happy life.  Everyone knows the story of John C.C. Mayo, the Paintsville school teacher who became a millionaire coal tycoon.  During his early years as a school teacher, Mr. Mayo became acquainted with Captain Green Meek’s pretty daughter Alka.  In early 1895, following a business trip through the region, Mayo developed pneumonia and took to his bed.  After returning to Paintsville, his place of residence, he obtained lodging in the Alger House Hotel, which was owned and operated by Captain Meek.  Mayo convalesced at the Alger House for more than a year.  During his stay, his friendship with Alka blossomed into a full-fledged romance.  They were married on February 21st, 1897 in the parlor of her father’s Paintsville home.

     During the 1890-1910 period, no less than eighty-eight steamboats operated on the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy.  They included boats like Miles H., Lena Leota, Mountain Boy, Mountain Girl, Beulah Brown, Ingomar, Ada, Maxie Yost, Fanny Freese, Sonoma, Mary L. Hatcher, Guyandotte, Dewdrop, Sandy Valley, Sea Gull and Cricket.

      Another sternwheeler steamboat, The Cando, was a fairly large, triple-deck boat built originally for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.  The boat acquired her name in the following way.  Then workmen were putting the finishing touches on the boat, a local painter was hired to paint the C & O logo on the side of the superstructure.  Whether by accident or intent, the painter spelled out the word “and” and failed to leave spaces between the three elements.  As a result, the logo became CANDO.

     The CANDO enjoyed a long and useful life.  She was still in service in the early 1920s, when the C & O Railroad used her to deliver supplies to miners engaged in a strike at Auxier Coal Camp.  Although Auxier had rail service by that time, the supplies were shipped the last leg of the trip by steamboat. 

     After the railroad was extended upriver, steamboat usage decreased at a rapid pace and eventually stopped altogether.  There is no record of when exactly when the last steamboat made its final trip to Pikeville, but it was probably sometime in the early 1930s.

     The steamboat season lasted about seven months of the year.  During this period, the crews lived aboard their boats and operated them twenty-four hours a day, six days per week, and stood six-hour watches, which we would call work shifts.  Every twelve hours they spent six hours on duty and six hours off, for a total of twelve hours every twenty-four period.

     While there were a long list of steamboats that saw service on the Big Sandy River and the Levisa Fork, I was unable to find any reference of river traffic beyond Fort Gay on the Tug River.

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Born in Cecil County, Maryland, at the head of the Bohemia River in 1743, James Rumsey did not receive a great deal of formal education, though he was considered to be quite adept at the natural and physical sciences. In addition, he was a skilled cabinet-maker, blacksmith and millwright.


Little is known about Rumsey until he was living in Bath, Virginia (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia) in 1782. There he became a partner in a mercantile business, and with another partner was running a boarding house and tavern called the “Sign of the Liberty Pole and Flag.” He was also a builder of houses, and in September of 1784, when George Washington was staying at the inn, Washington contracted with Rumsey to build a house and stable for him on property he owned there at Bath.


It was during this same stay that Rumsey showed Washington a model of a mechanical boat which he had designed. This was a boat which could propel itself upstream by means of grapples on the bottom. Washington must have liked what he saw, for he wrote a certificate of commendation for Rumsey, that Rumsey would then be able to use when trying to get some financial backing for his endeavors. 

In July 1785, recommended by both Washington, and Revolutionary War hero General Horatio Gates of Shepherdstown, Rumsey was appointed the superintendent of the newly formed Patowmack Company. This company, a precursor of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company, had as its goal making the Potomac River navigable. However, Rumsey requested release from the position after a year. He had had nothing but difficulties getting proper supplies, securing the pay for the workers, and trying to keep the workers under control. 

No longer working as Patowmack Company superintendent, Rumsey was then able to devote his time to his dream of steam navigation which he had been thinking about since 1783. Work on a hull for a steamboat had begun in 1785 in Bath by Joseph Barnes, brother-in-law of Rumsey. The boat was brought that fall to Shepherdstown where Rumsey was living at the time. Machinery which had been made in Baltimore and Frederick was installed that December, and the boat was taken downriver to Shenandoah Falls for a test. However, bad weather postponed testing until the following spring.

When Rumsey finally tested the boat in April 1786, it proved very unsatisfactory. He continued experiments with a second boiler. On December 3, 1787, the boat finally made a very successful public demonstration on the Potomac at Shepherdstown.

Constantly plagued by money problems, he left Shepherdstown in March of 1788 in order to seek funding for his projects, little knowing that he would never return. A couple of months later in Philadelphia the Rumseian Society was formed by men who hoped to publicize what he was doing. One if its members was Ben Franklin. They decided he should go to England to secure patents for his inventions and seek further financial backing.

He spent four years there, and on December 20, 1792, on the eve of the demonstration of his new steamboat, the Columbia Maid, he had just finished delivering a lecture to the Society of Mechanic Arts. Suddenly he was stricken with a severe pain in his head and died the next morning. At the time, his death was attributed to overstraining his brain. He was buried there in London at Saint Margaret’s Church.

In 1906 a second Rumseyan Society was formed in Shepherdstown and though its efforts, a monument to Rumsey was constructed in a park overlooking the Potomac. Another Rumseian Society was formed in Shepherdstown in the 1980’s in order to construct a replica of the successful Rumsey steamboat and celebrate the boat’s bicentennial in 1787. Construction of the boat took place in the machine and blacksmith shop in the back of O’Hurley’s Store. The replica is currently housed in a small building behind the Entler Hotel. For a time, there was an annual regatta Shepherdstown in early October in honor of Rumsey.In addition, the bridge across the Potomac to Maryland is name in honor of Rumsey, as is the James Rumsey Technical Institute in Hedgesville, WV.


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There are several things that I would like to add about the Big Sandy River subject but can’t get my thoughts together properly.  For example, I had heard many years ago that the farthermost navigable point on the Levisa River was a town called Thealka in Johnson County.  I want to believe that I can recall seeing small riverboats on the river but the specific types and purposes are beyond me now.  I have distinct memories of seeing boats tied up below the bridge at what I think was a landing for the town.  Access to the landing was through Charlie VanHoose’s property, then along the bank and skirting the corn field to near the bridge pier.  I hope I am not allowing later viewing of photos to intrude into my real memories.

I recall hearing people speak of having the wickets of the dam being put up or down, depending on what was going on.  I also recall visiting the locks and being given a tour through the work shop.  The shop was filled (to me as a small child, it was ‘filled’) with fascinating machines and tools.  The building was made of stone as I recall and I thought through the years that the Lock Master or lock tender’s house was made of stone also but I was mistaken on that point.  I also recall hearing the name of the Lock Master along that time and I believe his name was Jake Workman.  I think everyone referred to him as Uncle Jake.   I have some pictures taken around 1920 showing the stone paved bank leading from the locks up to the lock tender’s house.

            I believe I also recall hearing when they were going to dismantle the working weir and wickets, leaving just the foundation of the dam.  The doors to the lock chamber were left in a partial open state but if I recall correctly, we could jump across the gap to gain access to the river side of the chamber.  On alternate floods and low water, there were large fish trapped inside the chamber and they could be caught but I was never so lucky.  I think there were some very large carp trapped that way.

            And another bit of Big Sandy trivia for me is the fact that my grandfather Wellman was a working crew member on river boats that traveled the Big Sandy.  What his specific duties were are not now known but it could have been timber related because he also was reported to have been a timber man.  But we have no photos or other corroborating data on the subject.

            I wish I had something worthy of printing but this is about all I have for now.

Regards, Bill W.

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     I received an email from Bill Wellman with additional information and trivia regarding the accounts of Okie Ratliff’s while an officer of the law at Fort Gay.  Bill relates the following:

     “There was a physical characteristic about Okie that I had almost forgotten.  And there was a story behind it if you can believe it.  Hed had one ear that had been clipped, a notch out of the top of his left ear,  I believe.  It was almost like the marking on some livestock nowadays.  I distinctly recall hearing two stories as to how the notch came to be.  One was in line with Okie’s sporting career in the Golden Gloves as a boxer.  I believe I heard Okie say that during one of his boxing bouts, his opponent had forced a clinch and in the frustration of the match bit Okie,s ear.  I think it was a complete separating bite and his ear was forever changed.  I do not recall hearing if it affected the bout and in what way, or if it went to  a decision or if Okie won by foul or default.  Seems like that should have been a deciding factor in Okie.s favor.

     The second version of how the loss occurred indicated that Okie was in a gun fight and in the fray, a bullet found the tip of his ear.  That version of the ear notch I cannot attribute to anyone, and most of all, not to Okie.  I believe it was something that was just going around at one time.  From what I hear, one version of the loss could be just as likely  as the other, neither carrying any more weight than the other.

     One more aspect of the gun fight, mentioned in an earlier post,that occurred when Okie and another man, one which he had arrested earlier in the day, shot it out with each other.  The handles on Okie’s revolver were destroyed by the shotgun blast.  I think the handles were either mother-of-pearl or engraved bone or antler material.”

Bill W.

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At left is an early picture of the lock and dam that was built at the confluence of the Levisa Fork and the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy river.  It was completed in 1897 at river mile 26.8, that being the distance from the point where the Big Sandy enters the Ohio River. 

After earlier improvements by snagging and blasting narrow chutes through shoals, a start was made on canalization of the river in 1883.  Remember, rail service would not have been available to the Big Sandy Valley at that time.  There were to be 21 dams and locks, to extend navigation up to Pikeville on the Levisa Fork and Pond Creek on the Tug Fork. 

The first five locks completed were Big Sandy lock and dam #1 at river mile 0.3 in 1905;   Big Sandy lock and dam #2 at river mile 12.7;  Big Sandy lock and dam #3 at river mile 26.2: Levisa Fork lock and dam #1 at river mile 35.1;  Tug Fork lock and dam #1 at river mile 30.7.  Head of navigation would have been Levisa Fork, river mile 44.3 and Tug Fork, river mile 39.3.

By the time the above locks had been completed in 1909, the railroad had been opened to Pikeville and works were stopped.  Lock dimensions were 160 feet by 55 feet throughout with the exception of lock #3 which was 158 feet by 52 feet.  Despite public protests, all lock operation was discontinued in 1947 except lock #1 which remained in use until 1952.  Ten years later, the new Greenup Dam on the Ohio rendered this lock obsolete, and it was demolished except for the land wall.  Thus ended a period of romantic river history.

I can recall as a child traveling with my parents to Kenova or Huntington using the Big Sandy River road.  It was not designated U. S. 52 then but probably had some county road designation.  It was gravel, and as with most roads like that, after a period of time would become a “wash board” like surface with lots of dust, and you only have to imagine the ride in automobiles with leaf springs and few shock absorbers, to become uncomfortable.  There were several covered bridges, underpasses, and narrow bridges where it was necessary to blow ones horn or stop because of the inability to see what might be coming through from the other end, and then proceed cautiously before going on.  A trip today which takes 20 minutes, would have taken at least an hour back then.

There was a steep hill just outside Prichard which took one or two downshifts to get  the old Whippet to the top.  I recall my Dad telling me that when he owned a T Model Ford, that it was necessary many times to turn the car around and go up the hill in reverse due to the gravity fuel feed of the car.  The hill had more than one curve in it and this also added to the difficulty the old car faced.  The hill was known as Lock Hill due to its proximity to Big Sand River lock #2.  From the hill one had a full view of the lock in all of its splendor.  I can remember how the water sparkled in the sun on a warm summers day and of the workers moving around on the lock.  My imagination would carry me to a wish to be journeying on the river to distant towns and places I could only dream of.  I never had the opportunity to visit one of the Big Sandy locks and I have been saddened by that.

For those ou you that lived at Fort Gay, you must have had some interaction with the lock there as part of your growing up.  Of course at that time pleasure boating had not arrived for a lot of reasons, money not being the least.  Can you not imagine that if today the locks had been left in operation on all of our many rivers throughout America what a change it might have made in our way of life today.  The opportunities for leisure travel, for water sports, pools of water for industrial development, and all of the many industries that would have developed around them. 

Can anyone remember the Tug River lock and dam at river mile 30.7?  That would have about four miles upriver from the Louisa lock and dam.  Was it in operation until the shutdown in 1947?  I don’t recall anything about it while going to school at FGHS.  I would imagine there would have been gainful employment at the lock sites for local people.  Does anyone remember what part the locks and dams and the river played in Fort Gay’s history and development?

I can remember my father relating how my grandfather would go on perhaps semi-annual buying trips to Catlettsburg, KY for supplies for the farm.  His trips would take several days and the supplies would be brought upriver from Catlettsburg and put off the steamboat at the landing that that then existed at Hubbardstown.  He then would have them hauled by ox and wagon or horse and wagon to the farm.  No convenience stores then so you better plan your shopping lists pretty good.

I subscribe to a magazine titled “The Kentucky Explorer” and it has wonderful stories about early Kentucky settlers and settlements.  There have been article in it regarding river travel on the Big Sandy.  There were in the late 1800s or early 1900s steam boats going upriver to Pikeville.  They were apparently shallow draft and not really large boats.  I would think that there were might have also  been “show boats” that would have brought entertainment to the area.  And of course there was lots of log rafting going on carrying timber from the Big Sandy Valley to the markets in Catlettsburg, Ashland, and Ironton.  These stories are all very interesting and serve to pique ones interest and imagination into– WHAT IF?

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