What was old Columbus like?
Where was the race track with it trotting horses? The Gest Hotel with its “goodnight” plaque in each room? The Rocker Pottery with its rows of crocks and jugs?
How did the trains board the ferry to cross the Mississippi? Do you see the Catholics marching about town with their banners in celebration of Easter Sunday?
Is that a showboat coming ’round the bend, beckoning with its calliope like a marvelous Pied Piper? Do you have a quarter to go on board to see “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” and a few more cents for popcorn and peanuts? It’s the Fourth of July@ Is that Daisy Cowle singing “Dixie?”
Smell the fish markets and the dirt streets after a rain! The river sloshes against the piling at the wharf.
At its zenith around 1885, Columbus percolated with its multiple groceries, furniture and drygoods stores, confectioneries, boot and millinery shops. Six churches competed with the bordellos and dram shops.
Livery stables, blacksmith shops, a flour mill, the railroad industry, hotels, schools and a college generated employment for the townspeople who numbered around 2000.
“Roll out the Barrel” could have been the town’s theme song near the turn of the century as its factories produced parts for thousands of barrels — the container of choice for shipping sugar, flour, crackers, kraut, candy, vinegar, molasses, mackerel, crockery, etc. Smaller kegs held nails and staples. Columbus Stave Co., make the sides of the containers while Cowles’ and Gassaway Brother Heading factories manufactured the tops and bottoms. Polock’s Strawberry Box factory made up to 700,000 boxes annually for the area’s strawberry industry. Also, the Standard Box Co., made specially patented wooden boxes for shipping bread, cheese, oranges, dried fruit, etc. In addition, many were employed to harvest timber from the bottomlands for these industries.
After 1881 when the Mobile & Ohio Railroad extended north to Cairo, its principal depot was of necessity on the main line at South Columbus which was bout one and a half miles from its depot in “old” Columbus. Because there were several blocks between Columbus depot (downtown) and the landing where Iron Mountain Railway ferried its trains and passengers back and forth from Belmont, Mo., IMRR laid track from “old” Columbus depot to the ferry landing. These rails ran from the depot over five blocks north on Washington Street and turned on Croughan toward the river to form an incline to the ferry.
As progress by-passed the town, Columbus began to shrink. Fletcher Walker, son of the Columbus Critic editor, said when he came there in 1895 that Columbus College, a very fine structure located on the river side of the town levee, had become a tenement house.
After the train ferry ceased to operate in 1911, the M&O put on a small steam trolley or “dinky” operated by Joe Epps which moved passengers from South Columbus depot over track to the M&O depot in the Kentucky City area of Columbus. There the Joe David Hack took them a short distance to the business area. Roads were poor and cars were few.
From a nearby bluff in the 1920s, one could have observed that the town was bisected east to west by Roan Street, now Ky. 80 (58) (SEE MAP.) South of Roan were other parallel streets, including Dabney and Meuter.
North of Roan were Henry, Rogers, Montgomery, Carrington and Croughan. Many of these streets bore the names of the town’s first trustees.
North/south streets marked the town off into neat squares — Kentucky, Washington, Virginia and others ending with Back Street, Water Street, next to the river, had already caved in. A levee ran through the town between Kentucky Street and the river, curing south of town eastward along the M&ORR track.
John Owings who lived in “old” Columbus, said that south of Roan, over the levee, was the Columbus or Gest Hotel (No. 8 on Map), last operated by Della Brown, grandmother of Bill Brown. Also in the south sector were the canning factory, race track, Rocker’s Pottery, the public school, several churches and a picnic area.
Owings sain a cannon (No. 7), a reminder of the town’s role in the Civil War, was just opposite the hotel on the north side of Roan. On North Kentucky (the main business street) was Marre’s Ice Cream Parlor, Beshear’s flour mill (No. 2) and the Home Telephone Office (No. 6).
Dr. Snell and daughter, LaVerne, longtime GAZETTE reporter, lived south of Roan as dit Capt. L.T. Bradley who had captained the “General Anderson” packet boat which made daily runs between Columbus and Cairo. He also operated the St. Louis train transfer between Columbus and Belmont.
Black families traditionally gathered in a picnic area (No. 5) for Eighth of August celebrations — the same spot still used for the purpose.
When asked about her memories of Columbus, Carrie Kerr thought about Bob Summers Drugstore, DePree’s, Avey’s and Morrison’s Groceries, and the moving picture show. She said that George Montgomery, a black barber, had a shop next to the Gest Hotel where Clinton Hill Road cut across the levee.
Seldon Bugg remembers jolly Daisy Cowle, aunt of Helen and Elizabeth DuPree, who catered to young people at her restaurant with soft drinks, ice cream, a pool table, and a dance floor “the size of a postage stamp.”
Standard fare at the Fourth of July celebrations, Willena Shaw said, included pit barbecue, dancing in the sawdust and a parade of floats, many designed by Druggist Summers, who was known as “Mr. Columbus.” She remembers the showboats, such as “Floating Palace” and “French’s New Sensation” arriving at the wharf with steam calliopes wheezing. The showboat band, she said, marched through town to draw a crowd to the river. There were excursion boats, too.
But the floods were becoming more frequent. Much of the town bordering the river was nibbled away as if by a nervous cook, eager to consume the thing she had created.
Ray Samuel’s father, Bullock, told him that as a young man (1921) he stayed overnight at the Columbus Hotel with his father who was a traveling salesman. “It was an eerie sound at night,” he said, “to hear the river lapping at the hotel foundation.”
The stage was set. Time was short for “old” Columbus.
To be Continued