On Kentucky’s far western shore, there’s a high, windswept bluff that overlooks the breadth of the Mississippi River. From there, as one spies the land and skies beyond, a sense of this spot’s importance comes into focus. This vista is part of Columbus Belmont State Park, a land set aside to not only provide recreational opportunities but to also reflect on the significance of Columbus in our nation’s history.
Evidence of early exploration go back to the 1670s when two Frenchmen made their way down the Mississippi and were immediately struck by the bluffs rising 180 feet above the water. Initially called Iron Banks, it is one of the oldest towns in the Jackson Purchase. The growing populace changed the name to Columbus in 1820.
The town developed as a crucial stop along the Mississippi River, and its importance came into sharp focus during the Civil War. Confederate Major General Leonidas Polk and his troops occupied Columbus, KY in the fall of 1861 and built a series of forts and entrenchments just northwest of town. The Confederate Army felt the high bluffs overlooking the river would be a key control area in the infancy of the war. The Confederates stretched a massive, mile-long chain across the river to slow any potential Union traffic. Each link measured over eleven inches long and weighed over twenty pounds. A barrage of cannons rose up from the shoreline to the tops of bluffs. Any Union boat slowed by the chain would meet an unsurvivable barrage of cannonballs.
General Usysses S. Grant knew Columbus was too much for his troops coming down the river. He circumvented that path by heading east and making his way into the south through Forts Henry and Donelson near the Kentucky and Tennessee border. Columbus was a moot point, yet it earned a reputation as the Gibraltar of the South.
The town continued to grow due to its location and the growth of railroad traffic. In 1878, fifteen-year-old Casey Jones arrived in Columbus, ready to pursue a career in railroading. He began as a telegrapher for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, all the while studying trains around the town during his off time.
But Casey, like many others, left Columbus for better opportunities. And other towns along the Mississippi River built bridges that served to isolate the town. Additionally, the original settlement, which was built near water level, was prone to constant flooding.
Reeling from the loss of river and railroad business as well as the devastation of a 1927 flood, Columbus seemed destined to become a footnote in American history. During the relocation of the flood-prone town, F. Marion Rust with the Red Cross became fascinated with the town’s role during the Civil War. The Confederate fortifications remained well-presevered, and the idea of a new state park emerged.
Fund raising efforts to purchase the acreage that comprised the stronghold were successful, and in 1934, Columbus-Belmont became a part of the state park system under the leadership of Mr. Rust. CCC workers arrived the same year to reinforce and restore earthworks and trenches. An antebellum home that served as a Confederate hospital was restored into a museum. Artifacts such as cannonballs surfaced, and an anchor along with a large portion of the chain the Confederates strung across the Mississippi river became icons of the park.
Columbus remains an isolated bulwark on the Mississippi. Yet its past and importance in the early days of the Civil War continue to bring life to this Kentucky town. Columbus-Belmont State Park is a destination for families to picnic, camp, walk trails, and learn about the town’s place in history.
Columbus-Belmont State Park is ideal for a day trip, especially if you are traveling from the Paducah area. If you want to relax and spend more time there, the park boasts a campground overlooking the river. There are trails, remnants of the Civil War days, and a museum that once housed a wartime hospital.
For another, overnight stay option, there is the nearby Iron Banks Lodge. The building was originally constructed as a hotel complete with a ball room. During the construction of the park, the hotel was a hub of activity.
In the 1940s, it became a private residence and remained so until 2015 when it was reopened to welcome guests once again. There is a grand view of the Mississippi River and the surrounding area (as far away as Arkansas on a clear day) from the rooftop walk.
For more information, visit ironbankslodge.com.