Old Leavenworth still lives like a lost cause defying
those who sought
to kill it and the river's swirling floodwaters.
By Carl Lewis
Appeared in the Courier Journal
December 10, 1950
THE KINKS IN the road that leads form new Leavenworth on the bluff in old Leavenworth on the Ohio River below are a driver's nightmare. Chuck holes are axle deep and horseweeds tall as trees grow to the road's edge. Now and then a blue trail of wood smoke curls above the tangled growth and the sound of voices can be heard. Old Leavenworth still lives like a lost cause, defying those who sought to kill it off after the great Ohio River flood of 1937. Some 400 feet above the gaunt remains of the old town, high on the bluff safe from swirling brown floodwaters, lies new Leavenworth, a product of cold calculation instead of love for a river and a strip of valley land.
The old town was born in 1818 because the river was the trade route south and west. But when traffic on it declined, so did the health and prosperity of the town. Finally, only a few hundred people lived there. They and their town survived floods every spring, but none compared to the flood of 1937. It washed away business, houses and homes and touched in some way, every family in town.
When the waters receded and the damage could be surveyed, agencies of the Federal and state governments as well as the Red Cross, urged that the old town be abandoned and that Leavenworth be rebuilt on the high bluff immediately above. Most residents concurred they'd had enough. In December, 1938, just 11 months after the disastrous flood, the new town was dedicated.
It consisted of neat houses in twin rows. Everything was spanking new, as different from the original as floodwaters from placid. The state highway was rerouted to miss the old town.
BUT BELOW WERE a few families who would not leave. They cleaned the mud and silt out of what was left of their homes and swore they would not go to live "on the hill." During this period of a town being torn apart feuds were born which have not subsided to this day. Now almost a dozen years after the big move, about 40 families still make their homes below the bluff. Some live in desolation, some reside in what appears to be a typical small town neighborhood with carefully clipped lawns, newly painted houses, potted plants, porch swings and lawn furniture.
The people who live in these homes have hung onto them with grim, proud tenacity. Many have refused even to go to church in the new town.
Two places of business still operate below the bluff. Mr. and Mrs. D.E. Richardson have a small but adequately stocked grocery store in their home and Chuck Melton, who owns much of what is left of the old town, has a restaurant in what was once the bank at the upper end of Main Street.
Main Street once was lined from bank corner to river's edge with two restaurants, post office, five stores, hardware store, funeral parlor and drugstore. In addition, there was a lodge hall and several residences.
Today tall horseweeds and waving willows all but hide the ruined building which once housed these business establishments. Many of the original structures have been dismantled. Higher, up on the back streets where the water often does not reach, are the better kept homes and one new one, built last year by Arthur Gibson, a lock and dam worker. Back there, too, is the only church "below the cliff." It is a Wesleyan Methodist Church and is housed in what was one the high school gymnasium.
For 10 years there was no church below. One went on the hill to the Presbyterian Church, to neighboring towns or not at all. But those families below the bluff, many deeply religious felt they needed a place of their own to worship. They took up contributions, raising $400 to buy the old building and paint the outside pure white. They also obtained a piano cheap. Now a belfry is being built for a bell yet to be obtained. The minister comes from English, a few miles away, to conduct services on Wednesday and Sunday nights and Sunday school on Sunday morning.
DESPITE THE FACT that many persons on the hill are inclined to "look down" in more ways that one on the folk living in the old town, those men and women in their flood warped houses have very real and well filled pocketbooks. Per family income is relatively high, for many of the wage earners are civil service employees on lock and dam No. 44, two miles up river.
Stephenson's General Store was rebuilt on the bluff after the 1937 flood. This is the main store room. The back room served as the post office. The east room served as the funeral parlor. The Stephenson's brought out the D. Lyon Skiff shop in 1937 which fully operated in Old Leavenworth and skiff building continued in this basement. You may see a typical skiff in the basement as well as antiques and pottery.
Contributor for this information: Jayne Dunn (Source: Copied
from Stevenson & Co General Store Leavenworth, Indiana.)