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.
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
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.
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.
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.