Visitors Guide to
Columbus
Carlisle County, Kentucky
 
   
 





 
 

The French explorers Jacques “Pere” Marquette and Louis Joliet were the first Europeans to explore the area around Columbus in 1673. Their exploration claimed the Middle Mississippi River Valley for the French who gave Columbus the name "Iron Banks," believing the color of the banks indicated the presence of iron. In 1783, the Virginia legislature authorized a town to be laid out at Iron Banks. This town would eventually become Columbus. The survey began in 1784, but only the corners were set because of attacks by the Chickasaw tribe. Thirty years would pass before another effort was made to settle the Columbus area. In 1818, Andrew Jackson bought all the lands in Kentucky and Tennessee between the Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers from the Chickasaw for the federal government. This area in Kentucky became known as the Jackson Purchase and now includes 8 western Kentucky counties.

In 1820, the town of Columbus was surveyed and organized on the flood plain of the Mississippi River. The town occupied 4,000 acres and contained space for a public square, a college and cemetery, and other public buildings. The sale of lots by public auction began in 1822. Families moved into town and formed a local government. Columbus became the first county seat of Hickman County, which then included the entire Jackson Purchase area. Columbus is the oldest town in the Jackson Purchase. Local tradition holds that Columbus was once considered as the location for the national capital. However, when controversy arose about the placement of the capital in 1789 and again in 1812, Columbus did not exist as a town. Congress again raised the subject in 1846 and 1869, but Congressional records do not mention Columbus. By 1845, Columbus was a prominent trading post on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Memphis. The town sold all the needed supplies for people in the Purchase District.

Columbus prospered with the increase in steamboat river traffic. As more settlers arrived Columbus grew in importance. The railroads soon took over as the leader in commerce traffic and Columbus was again part of that growth. Columbus became the northern terminus for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad in the early 1850s. The owners of the railroad wanted the terminus close to the mouth of the Ohio River to tap northern trade. Columbus occupied the best possible site. The Mobile and Ohio completed its line from Columbus to Mobile, Alabama in 1861. Unfortunately, the rail line opened only months before the Civil War. Any economic advantage Columbus would have gained from the railroad waited until after the war.

During the Civil War Columbus was the site of Confederate fortification. In 1861 Confederate General Leonidas Polk fortified the area by building a fort along a bluff along the "cutside" of the river. The fort was christened Fort DeRussey and referred to by Polk as the "Gibraltar of the West." Polk equipped it with a massive chain that was stretched across the Mississippi to Belmont, Missouri, to block the passage of Union gunboats and supply vessels in the western theater of the war. The fort was also equipped also with 143 cannons. Columbus was the northernmost Confederate base along the Mississippi, protecting Memphis, Vicksburg and other key Southern holdings. As the northern terminus of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, Columbus was logistically tied to Confederate supply lines. Today the old fortifications are the site 156-acre Columbus-Belmont State Park which interprets the area’s Civil War history as well as provided picnicking, camping, hiking, and other natural activities. The park hosts an annual Civil War Days reenactment that includes battle re-enactments, living history exhibits and military encampments in October.

In the 1870s, the St. Louis and Iron Mountain line was completed to Belmont, Missouri, just 800 yards across the river from Columbus. The transfer terminal at Columbus connected trains of the Mobile and Ohio with the northern markets of the St. Louis and Iron Mountain rail lines. Rail cars, instead of cargo, were ferried across the Mississippi on transfer ferry boats. These boats carried the train cars across the river, without unloading cargo or passengers. Approximately 100 cars were transferred at Columbus every day by transfer boats. Up until 1881 Columbus was the major freight and passenger transfer point on the Mississippi River.  In 1874, the Illinois Central Railroad built a rail bridge across the Ohio River at Cairo. The need for freight and passenger exchange declined as railroads extended their lines to Cairo. By the 1880s, Columbus declined as an important rail center. The St. Louis and Iron Mountain ended its rail service in 1912. At that time, many bridges existed across the Mississippi River and transfer service was not profitable.

Many floods have damaged Columbus over the years, but the flood of 1927 destroyed the town. The first waters broke the city's levy in April. Water stayed in the town for about three weeks, and in June, another flood covered Columbus. With the levy gone, the river current swept against the town's embankments. The banks eroded 350 feet in just a few weeks. Columbus's entire business district sank into the river, and only 13 out of 150 houses were unaffected by the flood. The Red Cross established relief quarters for the flood-stricken victims. Marion Rust, in charge of the Red Cross operations, decided the damage to the town was too severe to rebuild. The Red Cross bought 80 acres for the new site of Columbus, 140 feet above and one-half mile from the river. They also donated money to move the town to the bluff site. The new town contained a large business district and house lots averaging 100 by 200 feet. Houses and buildings were moved to the new city beginning in September 1927. If a home owner could not afford the cost, the Red Cross paid for moving the old house or for a new house. This was the first time in history an entire town was moved to a new site. By April 1928, 600 people occupied the new town of Columbus.

While examining the bluffs for the new site of Columbus, Red Cross agent Marion Rust became fascinated with the remains of the Confederate fortifications. Though the forts were gone, Rust could see the large earthworks scattered over the bluffs and decided the area would make a beautiful park. A Columbus-Belmont Park Association was formed, and the Kentucky legislature donated $5,000 to create the park. Over the next few years, 369 acres were bought for the Columbus-Belmont Park. In 1934, this acreage became part of the state park system.  In 1934, the federal government appropriated $50,000 for the Park's development. This federal money allowed the Civilian Conservation Corps, under the supervision of Rust, to restore the earthworks, trenches, Redoubt No. 1, and the Civil War hospital. Picnic tables and pavilions were built and miles of trails were cleared.
 

 
 
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Columbus-Belmont
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General John A. Logan
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