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Vibrant. Gorgeous. Gaze-worthy…three adjectives which certainly describe me, but perhaps more accurately describe our floodwall murals.

Do you have a favorite? I’m partial to the Frozen River of 1938, the Strawberry Festival, and of course, the rendering of the old Carnegie Library. Yet, there’s another mural which never fails to pique my interest, the one at the Kentucky Avenue entrance to the river which depicts a group of swimmers coming out of the Ohio (see the attached photo).

There are a couple curiosities in the painting, namely the hot air balloons and the parachutist. But one thing strikes me more than the rest….people actually swam in the Ohio. Really?

I’m approaching my 30th year in Paducah, having moved here when I was in middle school, and I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen anyone swimming in the river (other than the heavily monitored yearly Cross River Swim). The current, the undertow, often seems too strong and the barge traffic too heavy. There’s ever-present trepidation as to what might lurk just below the surface: gar, rusted metal, petrified bodies (i.e. Speedy). While the Ohio is the source of our drinking water, untreated it seems a little too dirty to actually submerge oneself in.

Swimming in the Ohio is not an amusement one thinks about anymore. The whole process seems, at the least, daunting, particularly with sun-drenched lakes and crystalline pools so close by.

As evidenced by the floodwall mural, however, swimming in the Ohio used to be a very common recreational activity, so much so that Paducah essentially had its own beach that went by varying names over the years…a significant sandbar across from the foot of Broadway on the Illinois side of the river as wide as an island and nearly half a mile long!

The first reference found for this specific sandbar dates back to a March 15, 1897 issue of the Paducah Daily Sun. Cheekily called the “East End Addition,” the paper speculated as to the future of the sandbar because of recent flooding. “Year after year,” the article stated, “a change is perceptible in the ‘East End Addition,’ and after the present rise old river men would not be surprised to find the bar almost down as far as Brooklyn.” (Brooklyn, by the way, is the original name of Brookport.)

A year later, though, the sandbar was still around, and while The Sun reported that it had extended itself downstream somewhat, the sandbar still “raised its towering head above the placid Ohio” since the river had subsided.

In the early 1900s, the papers not only touted the continued existence of the sandbar, but also of its increased use for recreational purposes.
* September 23, 1902 – This morning a queer sight was witnessed. There was a horse on the sandbar opposite the city grazing on the grass that has grown on the bar.
*June 14, 1903 – A very delightful rowing party was given on Thursday evening in honor of Miss Inez Vertrees of Vine Grove, who is the attractive guest of Miss Odie Puryear. After several hours on the water, a delicious luncheon was served on the sandbar opposite the city.
*June 27, 1903 – The sandbar is beginning to show up and will soon spread over the river for many hundred yards if the fall continues with the present speed. The bar has not washed down as far as was expected.

Closer to 1910, the sandbar adopted a new name…the Cottonwood Bar.
*August 11, 1908 – Before sunrise yesterday morning, the following party went to Cottonwood Bar in the river opposite Paducah where bathing was enjoyed for several hours and breakfast was served.
*November 7, 1910 – The river is getting thin here and the sandbar abreast the wharfboat resembles an island. For the first time the bar was used as a playground yesterday by boys who pulled over in a skiff.

Jump forward another decade and the sandbar is bequeathed yet another name– Sunset Beach—and by all accounts it appears as if the number of people using the sandbar for swimming purpose increased so much that changing rooms were put up across the river and daily ferry service from the Paducah side was offered. Two Paducah historians, Fred Neuman and Baron White, both recall Sunset Beach as it was in the 1920s and 30s.

In “The Story of Paducah,” Neuman says, “Sunset Beach, a natural sandbar on the Illinois shore opposite the city, furnishes an opportunity for natatorial sport and is widely popular. While the sandbar had been in the process of forming for nearly a score of years, it was not until 1921 that suitable lockers and other conveniences were provided. “

Barron White, in “My Paducah,” says, “The first time we went swimming, Dad took the family on the ferry over to the sandy beach right across the river from the foot of Broadway. A wooden change-house had been erected over the shallow water and wooden barriers were placed out at the limit of the shallow part with a sign warning swimmers not go beyond the markers. The small ten-passenger ferryboat made trips back and forth every hour all day long until dusk.”

Following the 1930s, though, we start to lose sight of the sandbar and of regular swimming in the Ohio. The first municipal pool went in Noble Park in the late 1930s. Kentucky Lake was formed in the mid-1940s. And a series of locks were established up and down the Ohio River that deepened the river and made the sandbar finally disappear for good.

As they feared in 1897, Paducah’s shore has probably washed downstream. Never fear, though, the word on the banks is that there are still significant sandbars to be found in the area…one close to Owen’s Island and another just upstream around a bend in the Ohio. I’ve even heard tell that the latter sandbar is still known by some as “Sunset Beach.”

Do have memories of Paducah’s beach? Perhaps a picture? We’d love to see more; feel free to share them with us in the comments section below.

And as always, for all your natatorial history needs, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger