Thursday, October 13, 2011

Shippingport Island and Steve Holcombe

Shippingport Island by paynehollow
Shippingport Island, a photo by paynehollow on Flickr.

STEVE P. HOLCOMBE, known in former years as a gambler and doer of all evil, no less known in these latter days as a preacher of the Gospel and doer of all good, was born at Shippingsport, Kentucky, in 1835.

The place, as well as the man, has an interesting history. An odd, straggling, tired, little old town, it looks as if it had been left behind and had long ago given up all hope of ever catching up. It is in this and other respects in striking contrast with its surroundings. The triangular island, upon which it is situated, lies lazily between the Ohio river, which flows like a torrent around two sides of it, and the Louisville canal, which stretches straight as an arrow along the third. On its northeast side it commands a view of the most picturesque part of La Belle Riviere.

This part embraces the rapids, or “Falls,” opposite the city of Louisville, which gets its surname of “Falls City” from this circumstance. In the midst of the rapids a lone, little island of bare rocks rises sheer out of the dashing waters to the height of several feet, and across the wide expanse, on the other side of the river, loom up - the wooded banks of the Indiana side, indented with many a romantic cove, and sweeping around with a graceful curve, while the chimneys and towers and spires of Jeffersonville and New Albany rise in the distance, with the blue Indiana “Knobs” in the deep background beyond.

From this same point on the island, and forming part of the same extensive view, one may see the two majestic bridges, each a mile in length, one of which spans the river directly over the Falls and connects the city of Louisville with Jeffersonville, Indiana, while the other joins the western portion of Louisville with the thriving city of New Albany. Across the canal from the island, on the south, lies the city of Louisville with its near 200,000 population, its broad avenues, its palatial buildings.

In the very midst of all this profusion of beauty and all this hum and buzz and rush of commercial and social life, lies the dingy, sleepy old town of Shippingsport with its three hundred or four hundred people, all unheeded and unheeding, uncared for and uncaring.

There are five or six fairly good houses, and all the rest are poor. There is a good brick schoolhouse, built and kept up by the city of Louisville, of which, since 1842, Shippingsport is an incorporated part. There is one dilapidated, sad looking, little old brick church, which seldom suffers any sort of disturbance. On the north-east shore of the island directly over the rushing waters stands the picturesque old mill built by Tarascon in the early part of the century.

It utilizes the fine water-power of the “Falls” in making the famous Louisville cement. Part of the inhabitants are employed as laborers in this mill, and part of them derive their support from fishing in the river, for which there are exceptional opportunities all the year around in the shallows, where the rushing waters dash, with eddying whirl, against the rocky shores of their island.

There are, at this time, some excellent people in Shippingsport, who faithfully maintain spiritual life and good moral character amid surrounding apathy and immorality. “For except the Lord had left unto them a very small remnant, they should have been as Sodom, and they should have been like unto Gomorrah.”

And yet, Shippingsport was not always what it is now. Time was when it boasted the aristocracy of the Falls. “The house is still standing,” says a recent writer in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, “where in the early part of the century the Frenchman, Tarascon, offered border hospitality to many distinguished guests, among whom were Aaron Burr and Blennerhasset, and General Wilkinson, then in command of the armies of the United States.”

He might have added that Shippingsport was once honored with a visit from LaFayette, and later also from President Jackson. But in other respects also Shippingsport was, in former years, far different from what it is today. In business importance it rivaled the city of Louisville itself. In that early day, before the building of the canal, steamboats could not, on account of the Falls, pass up the river except during high water, so that for about nine months in the year Shippingsport was the head of navigation. Naturally, it became a place of considerable commercial importance, as the shrewd Frenchman who first settled there saw it was bound to be.

Very soon it attracted a population of some hundreds, and grew into a very busy little mart. “Every day,” says one of the old citizens still living, “steamboats were landing with products and passengers from the South, or leaving with products and passengers from Kentucky and the upper country.”

The freight which was landed at Shippingsport was carried by wagons and drays to Louisville, Lexington and other places in Kentucky and Indiana. This same old citizen, Mr. Alex Folwell, declares that he has seen as many as five hundred wagons in one day in and around the place. There were three large warehouses and several stores, and what seems hard to believe, land sold in some instances for $100 per foot.

The canal was begun in 1824, the first spadeful of dirt being taken out by DeWitt Clinton, of New York. During the next six years from five hundred to a thousand men were employed on it. They were, as a general thing, a rough set. Sometimes, while steamboats were lying at the place, the unemployed hands would annoy the workmen on the canal so that gradually there grew up a feeling of enmity between the two classes which broke out occasionally in regular battles.

In 1830, when the canal was finished, the days of Shippingsport’s prosperity were numbered. Thenceforth steamboats, independent of obstructions in the river, passed on up through the canal, and Shippingsport found her occupation was gone. The better classes lost no time in removing to other places, and only the poorer and rougher classes remained.

Many of the workmen who had been engaged in building the canal settled down there to live; unemployed and broken-down steamboatmen gravitated to the place where they always had such good times; shiftless and thriftless poor people from other places came flocking in as to a poor man’s paradise.

Within easy reach of Louisville, the place became a resort for the immoral young men, the gamblers and all the rough characters of that growing city.

Such was the place to which Steve Holcombe’s parents removed from Central Kentucky in 1835, the year of his birth; and, though coming into the midst of surroundings so full of moral perils, they did not bring that strength of moral character, that fixedness of moral habit and that steadfastness of moral purpose which were necessary to guard against the temptations of every sort which were awaiting them.

The father, though an honest and well disposed sort of man and very kind to his family, was already a drunkard. His son says of him: “My poor father had gotten to be a confirmed drunkard before I was born, and after he had settled at Shippingsport, my mother would not let him stay about the house, so that most of his time was spent in lying around bar-rooms or out on the commons, where he usually slept all times of the year.”

It is not surprising that as a consequence of such dissipation and such exposure he died at the early age of thirty-three, when his son Steve was eleven years old.

Dead, he sleeps in an unmarked grave on the commons where formerly he slept when drunk and shut out by his wife from his home...

From Steve P. Holcombe, the Converted Gambler: His Life and Work, published in 1888 by the Press of the Courier Journal Job Printing Company. Reprints available here

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