Month: April 2017

EXODUS AND THE TNT PLANT: Today in McCracken County History

April 20, 1942 was the deadline for many western McCracken County families to vacate their homes and properties in order to make way for the soon-to-be-formed Kentucky Ordnance Works trinitrotoluene (TNT) production facility. Today, 75 years later, we remember those families, the plant, and the effects that are still visible.

The announcement of the plant was made in the Paducah Sun-Democrat. February 27, 1942, with headlines reading, “$30,000,000 Arms Plant to be Built in M’Cracken County. Barkley Says.” The article went on to note that the exact location was a secret. It wasn’t until early April that residents of West McCracken County found out the exact location. Some 250 families would be affected. Seen here is a copy of a Notice to Vacate issued on April 3, 1942.

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The April 5th edition of the Sun-Democrat revealed that, “The 16,100-acre site is bounded on the south by the Woodville road, on the west by the New Liberty church road, on the north by the Ohio River, and on the east by the back-lines of farms fronting the Metropolis Lake road. The eastern boundary is irregular, ranging from a quarter-mile to three quarters of a mile west of the Metropolis Lake road.” The residents were given until April 20 to leave their homes. The article indicates that a suit under the War Purposes Act, had been filed in Federal Court giving the government the right to require the residents to evacuate.

According to “The Coming of the Plant,” by Linda Thompson Hawn that appeared in McCracken County, Kentucky History (Turner Publishing, 1988), many of the families had lived and farmed on the land for years. Not having a great amount of time to move, families left behind some items. “In actual land acquisition, a list of everything on the farmland had to be made: the number of acres devoted to each crop, the number of rows of strawberries and raspberries and acreage in orchards and timber. Everything was appraised separately, most people felt that they were not given a fair price for their land and were unhappy that the appraisers were from Tennessee.” She goes on to note that, “The government tore down some of the houses and sold what they could not use as salvage. Other houses were sold intact and were moved to new locations.”

Construction began immediately and the plant would open for operation by the end of the year. The plant was run by the Atlas Powder Company and, according to the US Army Cop of Engineers, produced some 196,490 tons of TNT during its operations from December of 1942 through August of 1945.

Hawn also writes that the plant had had a cafeteria, water and sewer system, steam plant, railroad line, hospital, laundry, and box factory. Legend tells the KOW was the largest of its kind in the world. As one can imagine, the process for making TNT was pretty extensive and called for buildings on stilts with lead floors, the mixing of acid and toluene gas. After production, the TNT was boxed and sent to storage in magazines. These buildings, also called igloos, were built with four foot thick concrete walls which were tapered to 18 inches at the top with a bolted on wood roof. This was in hopes to direct any accidental explosions upward instead of toward the other machines.

As a longtime resident of Heath, I have heard many stories of the plant. My grandfather, Wilford Cathey worked at the KOW site. As a child, I was told that he was turned away from the draft due to the amount of gunpowder in his bloodstream, as if he would have exploded if shot. While in high school, a number of my fellow students told of a map that they found at the library which marked a number of tanks that were buried near the KOW site. They took to shovels, and while they never discovered any tanks, they did get a nice case of poison ivy. These “tanks” that they were searching for were actually storage tanks and not military tanks like they had conjured. Folklore or truth, tales like this have long shrouded the plant’s history.

Today, the majority of the structures and facility are gone. A large portion of the original acreage is now home to what is left of the uranium enrichment plant that was built in the early ‘50s. Many of the families who had to move resettled around the boundaries of the plant property. They and their ancestors still live there today.

–Nathan Lynn

SLIDING INTO SUMMER: Paducah’s First Public Playground

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The weather is nice and warm. Time to get outside and one of our city’s beautiful parks. If you’ve got kids, there’s nothing they want to do more at the park than play on the playground.

Public parks have been a part of Paducah’s landscape since the city’s earliest days. One of the first, if not the first, was Fisher Gardens in the mid-1800s, located where Blackburn Park is now. But public playgrounds, with playground equipment, didn’t arrive until after the turn of the 20th century.

Opening on June 11, 1914, Kolb Park at Sixth and Broad Streets was Paducah’s first public playground…and it’s still a playground today.

Louis C. Kolb, the founder of the park, emigrated to Paducah in 1860 at the age of 18 from Hellbronn, Germany. He came to town with fifty cents in his pocket and established himself as a butcher. In 1864 he married his wife, Elizabeth Kroop, and also witnessed the occupation of Paducah by General U.S. Grant, watching him lead his troops up Broadway to take possession of the telegraph office. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, Kolb’s success and local prominence grew. He was an original stockholder in the city’s first bank, as well as an investor in the Palmer House Hotel and West End Improvement Company. Throughout town he became known as “Grandpa Kolb.”

Kolb built a grand house at 1810, and it is the property directly across the street that he ultimately donated to the city for the purposes of a playground.

The opening ceremonies for the playground were a grand affair, complete with a speech by Mayor Hazelip, a children’s chorus, a performance by the Paducah Band conducted by A.J. Bamberg, and the raising of the flag on the newly erected 60-foot flagpole, by Miss Elizabeth Rhodes, daughter of the park commissioner.

And finally, after all that folderol was over, the kids got to play on their new playground equipment which consisted of six swings, horizontal bars, flying rings, seesaws, slides, a tennis court, a large sand pile, and a giant stride.

(In case you’re like me and didn’t know what a giant stride was, a picture of one from a New York City playground is posted below. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division ca. 1910-1915.)

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PLAQUE BUILD UP

Do you know where this curious historical marker is?

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If you don’t, who can really blame you? We’ve got so many historical markers in this town that it can be hard to keep track of them all.  Turns out that Paducah has always been crazy for historical markers.

 

With regards to the current proliferation of plaques, the Kentucky Historical Society began installing the familiar, standardized green and gold plaques in 1949, and to date, McCracken County has 76 of them…the third most of any county in the state.

 

To put that number in perspective, here are the five counties/cities in Kentucky with the most historical markers:

Jefferson County/Louisville — 116

Fayette County/Lexington – 84

McCracken County/Paducah – 76

Franklin County/Frankfort – 52

Kenton County/Covington – 37

 

It’s no surprise that Louisville has the most. But it is a little amazing that McCracken/Paducah has so many with only 8 fewer than Lexington, 24 more than the capital city, and at least 39 more than any of the other 116 counties in the state of Kentucky. The information on our 76 plaques has covered a wealth of history, chronicling famous events, sites, buildings, and people. The earliest plaques that were put up (most of them along the river) primarily highlighted events related to Paducah’s founding and the Civil War. The two latest plaques, installed just last year, relay the histories and contributions of Boy Scout Troop 1 and Dr. William Stuart Nelson.

 

But even before the KHS’s standardized plaque program began in 1949, Paducah was a town full of historical markers, and a great many of them, like the one pictured above, were placed directly in the sidewalks.

 

It appears as if the movement to fill Paducah with historical plaques has its beginnings in 1909. The city’s Parks Commission was charged with choosing and researching the first of historical markers to be installed in order that the locations of these events “may not be lost to future generations, and it may be easy for sightseers to find the sites of historical interest” (Paducah Evening Sun, 5/2/1910). The Parks Commission identified the following eight sites as the first places in Paducah to receive plaques.

  1. The one story house with the two story porch made famous by Charles Dickens. Corner of Fourth and Jefferson.
  2. Residence of Captain Jack Lawson who ran first steam locomotive in America. Northeast corner of Seventh Street and Broadway.
  3. First Submarine Cable Laid by Captain Jack Sleeth across the Ohio River.
  4. Prison of General Lloyd Tilghman. Frame Building. Frame building at 419 Broadway.
  5. Fort Paducah – Site of Riverside Hospital
  6. Reading of the Proclamation to the South by General Grant. First Street and Broadway.
  7. Grave of Chief Paduke for whom the city was named—site of Lack Singletree Company.
  8. Colonel Thompson Killed During Battle. Trimble Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets.

 

The original design for the 1910 plaques called for them to be “neat tablets placed at an angle on low posts similar to the ones in United States cemeteries” (Paducah Evening Sun, 5/2/1910). But for the most part, the Parks Commission didn’t stick to this design. Instead, the plaques were implanted in the sidewalks…just like the one pictured above.

 

These embedded markers became a unique feature for visitors to Paducah. A 1921 article in the Dearborn Independent, “Under American Shingles: Irv Cobb’s Home,” described the experience of looking at them. “Eyes scanning the sidewalks appears to be the habitual attitude of Paducah’s flappers. They’re not more demure than elsewhere. Chances are they are students, locating historic shrines as a part of their lessons…few markers of historic shrines in Paducah are plates on the ends of posts, as they are in other places. Practically all of the markers in Paducah are embedded in concrete sidewalks—which is also to say that Paducah is well sidewalked. When you start out to find the place, you’re likely to walk over the telltale of it, and never know where you are.”

 

It is not known exactly how many embedded markers there were in Paducah, but evidence of them still exists. A handful are still around: in front of the Katterjohn Building, across the street from Etcetera in Lowertown, on the corner by Rose Garden Florist on Broadway.

 

And, of course, the one pictured above, which was placed in the sidewalk in front of the home of the colorful local judge and Irvin Cobb inspiration, William S. Bishop…at 929 Broadway.

 

Bishop’s house may be long gone, but the marker is still there, thus ensuring that the site hasn’t been “lost to future generations.”

 

For more information about our historical markers and the histories they contain, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.