Rivers gave Paducah life. George Rogers Clark noted the site at the confluence of the Tennessee with the Ohio as a promising location for a future city while trying to oust the British from the Ohio Valley during the American Revolution.
Disappointment, drink, and debt forced Clark to delay settlement. It fell to his younger brother, William of Lewis and Clark fame, to found the community after the Chickasaw claim had been extinguished by treaty in 1818. In 1805, the United States had promised the Chickasaw that they would never again ask them for land in either Kentucky or Tennessee "as long as the sun shines and the grass grows." Still, the promise of gain from new towns such as Memphis caused Andrew Jackson and Isaac Shelby, acting as representatives of the United States, to force the Chickasaw to concede their claims to all land in Kentucky and Tennessee between the Tennessee and the Mississippi rivers. This was reluctantly granted for the Indian had long valued the great rivers. To them, the main river in America was the Ohio and the lower Mississippi and all other streams were tributaries. Anyone looking at the merger of the Ohio with the upper Mississippi at Cairo can see the Indian point of view. The Ohio dwarfs the sluggish upper Mississippi and pushes that puny stream far over toward the western bank. This view also recognized that the site of Paducah was more important than that of Cairo as the Tennessee River could be navigated as far south as Muscle Shoals in Alabama while the Cairo site was low and unpromising for permanent settlement and lacked access to another major river.
In addition to the Ohio and Tennessee, Paducah and McCracken County have numerous smaller streams. Clark's River and Island Creek empty into the Tennessee River; Mayfield Creek flows into the Mississippi in Ballard County; Massac, Willow, Newtons', and Perkin's creeks and Spring Bayou empty into the Ohio.
Rivers were the king of transport until the 1870's when railroads replaced them. Its fortunate location made Paducah one hub of river traffic on the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi rivers and the community became a break-in-bulk point and the center of merchandising for a four state area. The development of tobacco enhanced the trade between Paducah and New Orleans and brought slave labor into the Purchase region. The opening of the canal connecting the Tennessee with the Tombigbee in 1985 gave inland river traffic a short cut to salt water via Mobile and the Gulf of Mexico.
River front property was highly valued by Paducahans. The Paducah Marine Ways became a pioneering industry in Paducah. This project was initiated as early as 1843 but did not materialize until 1854 when the ways were opened for business. Eight sections were each capable of holding river craft up to 350 feet in length. During the summer months when the water level was too low for traffic, the ways at Paducah would be crowded with steamboats under repairs or renovation. This tradition continues today with firms such as Walker Boat yard that builds boats for use on the inland waterways.
It was Paducah's strategic location on the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio river and as the northern terminus of the New Orleans and Ohio Railroad that persuaded U.S. Grant to seize the city in early 1861 after learning that the Confederate troops had broken the tenuous neutrality of Kentucky by advancing and occupying the high ground on the Mississippi River at Hickman and Columbus. Grant was quick to realize the significance of the rivers as avenues leading deep into the heart of the enemy; therefore, in 1862 he set out from Paducah and gave the South the first of many defeats by reducing Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. The post was defended by Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, recently of Paducah. Grant's command came back down the Tennessee, up the Ohio to Smithland, and down the Cumberland to attack Fort Donelson. The fall of this barrier to the use of the rivers caused the South to retreat from Kentucky and opened the way for the North to take Nashville and force the rebels out of Tennessee. Grant and Don Carlos Buell united to drive the forces of Albert Sidney Johnston ever southward until he turned and lashed back at Pittsburgh Landing (Shiloh). This was the greatest battle of the war to that date. Thousands of wounded floated back to Paducah on transports and the entire city was converted into a temporary hospital. Seats were removed from the churches, such as Grace Episcopal, to make room for the wounded. For some reason, army mules delighted in the pews. Perhaps it was the accumulated sweat from sinners that caused the animals to gnaw the backs. For years, traces of teeth were visible to Sunday worshipers at Grace church.
The rich lore of the river permeated the psyche of Paducahans. Irvin S. Cobb's vivid portrait of a steamboat captain in the movie Steamboat 'Round the Bend may have been influenced by the fact that his father and other family members were involved in the river trade. Moreover, Cobb's maternal grandfather, Dr. Reuben Saunders, received national recognition for dealing with an annual problem associated with the rivers. Cholera arrived in America periodically and gradually move up the rivers, bring death in its wake. A woman got off a boat late one evening in 1873 and took residence in a rooming house. The next morning she was dead and the dread pestilence she brought decimated the city. Saunders was called to treat a young black woman in the last stages of the disease. He sought to ease her last moments by injecting her with morphine. By chance, the drug he used contained atropia in addition to the morphine and, to his great surprise, the woman recovered. Five of six patients getting the new treatment recovered.
Not only did the rivers bring trade and commerce, they also offered entertainment and luxuries from distant lands. Paducah became a regular port of call for traveling troupes of players and the majestic showboats, a tradition that continues today with the frequent appearance of the Delta and Mississippi Queens.
Rivers blessed Paducah with economic gain, cultural diversity, and recreational opportunities. Frequently, events proved that rivers could be deadly foes as well.
In 1917, the severe winter caused the Ohio and other streams to freeze. Families of riverboat crews suffered greatly in Paducah. Cut off from their husbands, families were unable to pay their bills and were turned out and were forced to huddle in wretched shacks along the riverfront. They often lacked both heat and food for their families. The community responded to the distress of these families by creating a service organization to see to their needs. Thus, the Paducah Family Service organization came into being and still sees to the plight of distressed citizens of the community. Today, this group acts as a clearing house to avoid duplication of services by the various charitable organizations in the city.
Generally, it was believed that Paducah was high enough to be free from most danger from flooding. Still, floods did occur in 1832, 1867, 1884, 1913, and 1937. Each event seemed to cause increasing anxiety and greater damage. The 1937 flood came during the coldest days of winter and forced the evacuation of over 20,000. Refugees fanned out over the region seeking sanctuary from the roiling waters. One account reports that Mayfield had a sign saying "Paducahans, Don't Stop Here!" It was not that they were inhospitable, the community had no room to spare.
Trade and commerce today has migrated westward from the river to the automobile malls. Nevertheless, Paducahans continue to turn to the rivers, particularly for recreation and entertainment. The annual summer festival on the river front attracts thousands to the city. The location of the Quilt Museum and the annual Quilt Show at the riverfront Executive Inn draws other thousands from communities around the world. The character of the riverfront stores is changing. Today, quaint antique shops, bed and breakfast accommodations, and a revived farmer's market continue to lure people to return to the river.