Paducah’s First Frontier
The heart and soul of the city of Paducah is and always has been its downtown. Even now, when the main flow of traffic in and out of the area takes place in what used to be farmland about five miles from downtown’s apex, our imaginations and identity are continuously drawn back to the cradle of the Ohio River where Paducah was born.
It was from the river that Paducah’s first settlers and guests experienced this land. They departed their vessels, walked up the bank, and viewed a region brimming with potential. The path into Paducah, just up the hill from the most common landing point, became worn, giving rise to the city’s main thoroughfare—Broadway. It was strategic, being at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers.
One of the first orders of business for the growing town was lodging for itinerant trappers, hunters, and weary travelers who’d been confined to riverboats. John Harris, a Paducah merchant, opened a hotel on the first level plot of ground just off the river. A log-cabin inn and tavern had been operated there by John Fields until Mr. Harris saw the potential of a proper hotel. The St. Francis Hotel, built in 1847, was a multi-story structure located at 100 Broadway—a plot of land that sold for $12 in 1827. The original building was wood-frame, had 18 rooms, depended on drawing water from a well, utilized outhouses, and housed the city’s pioneering post office. The hotel underwent several expansions within a short amount of time, and a brick veneer was added. Gas lights created a glow both inside and outside of the blossoming hotel, and owners added a hand-cranked elevator.
Years later, in 1861, General Grant seized Paducah for the Union Army, and business boomed. That spring, before Grant’s occupation, a Confederate solider wrote that upon arrival, their company “marched directly to the St. Francis Hotel, kept at that time by a strong Southern rights man named Shields. The hotel was thrown wide open to our company. We were wined and dined until late at night.” When Grant and Union forces arrived months later, they found a Confederate flag flying atop the hotel. As Grant read his proclamation to the citizens of Paducah, General E.A. Paine entered the hotel to have the flag removed.
Not long after the war, and after a couple of changes in ownership, the hotel had a new name—the Richmond House. And it had grown to 54 rooms. The Richmond House was known as one of the finest hotels on the inland riverways, drawing comparisons to those in St. Louis and Cincinnati.
Ancillary businesses flourished in the hotel. There was a barber. There was what was considered to be one of the finest bars around where the proprietor ran a mail-order whiskey business. A lottery along with a betting house was run from the lobby where it is estimated up to eight-thousand dollars changed hands daily. With additional renovations, a chef from St. Louis was recruited to run the hotel restaurant.
The Richmond House, later known as The New Richmond House after a change in ownership, was also a central meeting place. It was one of the first stopping points for visitors, even if they weren’t staying there. Locals also used it as a gathering spot. Couples John W. Keiler and Miss Blanch Friedman, as well as Joseph L. Friedman and Miss Elizabeth Keiler, held their wedding receptions there in a ballroom that boasted a walnut mantle and fireplace along with 30-inch tall wainscoting along the walls. It is where the City of Paducah signed the first railroad bonds for the Illinois Central Railroad.
Musicians, performers, and singers stayed there as they traveled through the area or stopped to perform in Paducah. One couple was Louise and William Cody, the real Buffalo Bill. The hotel name was changed to its final moniker, the Southern Hotel, in 1917 by a new proprietor. A hotel by that name had previously existed just a couple of blocks away.
The hotel complex occupied a quarter of the full block. On the Jefferson Street side, the Western District Warehouse Company stored mostly tobacco. Later, it would house the Friedman, Keiler & Company, distillers of bourbon. Later, it would house a shoe factory. On the Broadway side, next to the hotel, were a variety of businesses including a cobbler, a cigar factory, another small hotel, and a laundry, among others. The 2nd street side of the block housed mostly wholesale grocers and liquor dealers.
By the late 1930s, times had changed for Paducah. Larger, more grand hotels had been built to accommodate a growing population and more visitors due to an increase in national travel. During the Depression, the hotel became the first official home in Kentucky for out-of-work transients as established by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. In May 1940, a new owner of the property tore the hotel down with no plans for the site. In remembering the hotel in its heyday, Fred Neuman, columnist for The Paducah Sun-Democrat wrote that “the large building stood out like a diamond stud in a red flannel shirt.”
PUSH TOWARD TOURISM
By the 1970s, little had changed along the 100 block of Broadway. Nothing had been erected where the old hotel had been. The lot was used for parking and, in its later years, open storage. Businesses lined the remainder of the block on around to 2nd Street. The International Shoe Company, which was located in the 100 block of Jefferson, had been torn down. The company began operations in 1919 in the old tobacco warehouses which had also been a brewery and distillery before Prohibition. But after closing down, the building decayed, and its destruction in 1973 was considered a “mercy killing.” Downtown remained an increasingly untenable mix of industrial and retail properties.
In the late 70s, city planners proposed a convention center and hotel be built in the 100 block between Broadway and Jefferson Streets with a parking lot to be located on the other side of Jefferson. That property was the home of the Federal Materials concrete plant.
Businesses such as Grief’s Restaurant, Troutman Signs, and Warden Electric Company, would be required to sell their buildings. It is estimated that 11 businesses were located in that block in 1978. The city worked with developer Bob Green who had built the Executive Inn in Owensboro. City leaders secured state and federal grants, the block was razed, and in May 1980, a groundbreaking ceremony was held with Governor John Y. Brown and former Governor Julian Carroll in attendance. There was just one problem—negotiations on the Federal Materials had not started. Not only would there be the cost of purchasing the property, but there was also the cost of relocating the business. Green balked immediately at the price tag and threatened to pull the entire project out of Paducah. Within a few days, Green unveiled his own plan which put the hotel and convention center at Barkley Park on the other side of the floodwall. He touted the ability to add playgrounds and other public amenities. He even talked about building a mall. Rumors swirled about Green’s motives, and the project drew controversy throughout its duration.
The original site for the convention center remained desolate—a full block of empty, gravel lot. When the Museum of the American Quilter’s Society (now The National Quilt Museum) opened in 1991, a renewed sense of downtown’s possibilities emerged. A plan emerged that included a river heritage museum, a floating dock with offices and meeting rooms, additional floodwall openings, and a 281-car, tree-lined parking area in the gravel lot. Some of the ideas came to pass, some did not. The parking lot did. And that move was credited for the receipt of a state redevelopment grant that helped begin the slow revitalization of downtown.
While parking lots, in and of themselves, are not exciting, great thought went into how to make surface fit within a historic, downtown context. The finish resembled concrete from mid-century when gravel aggregate was used and won a state award for design. Planners also included a gazebo and horse path.
Since then, nothing has changed. What would be probably considered the most valuable piece of property for a river town has, historically, been largely underutilized. With the loss of the hotel and later, the International Shoe Company, the entire block, for most of its life, served neither tourism nor industry. It has provided parking and, for the past 25 years, been the central hub for Barbecue on the River.