The last Ohio River packet boat to travel the Big Sandy River was the J.P. Davis. The 137-foot sternwheeler was owned by Capt. John F. Davis and named in honor of his son, the late J. Paul Davis (May 12, 1901 – May 31, 1993) of South Shore.
J. Paul, who operated a gas station in South Shore for more than 60 years, was 20 years old when his father pulled the boat out of the old Fullerton landing during January and February of 1921 on three trips up the Big Sandy, each time loaded down with groceries and merchandise for sale.
J. Paul said he had learned to play two tunes – “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” – on the boat’s steam calliope, and he would belt them out as the boat approached a landing on either side of the river where people had gathered.
“We sold completely out before we reached Paintsville, and returned home immediately to load up again,” Davis said in a 1984 newspaper interview with this reporter.
The boat reached Prestonsburg on the second trip and once again sold everything it had to offer. A rapid fall of the river stranded the boat in Prestonsburg for two weeks, until a hard rain returned the river to traveling level.
The third and last trip was made several days later. The Big Sandy was at such an acceptable level that the boat, even after selling all its merchandise, continued on upstream until it reached Pikeville.
“We docked there for several hours and hundreds of people came down to see the largest packet that had ever reached there,” Davis said.
The first established village in Kentucky was Shannoah, consisting of lodges and bark huts and built by Shawnee Indians on the site of an earlier Fort Ancient mound works at South Portsmouth. The village was visited in 1751 by Christopher Gist and other white men, some of whom stayed to open a trading post.
Not all settlers traveled the river in order to establish settlements on its banks. The Poague family left Virginia in 1799 and migrated across the mountains and through Kentucky to establish Poague’s Landing, the forerunner of Ashland.
River towns such as Marietta, Point Pleasant, Huntington, Ironton and Portsmouth were developed along the shores of the Ohio as the early river travelers stopped to build their log homes.
It was the coming of the steamboat that really brought prosperity and growth to the river towns. Credit for the invention of a practical steamboat has generally gone to Robert Fulton (1807).
The “New Orleans,” built by Fulton’s associates at the head of the river, was the first steamboat to ascend the Ohio. In late 1811, when it landed at Parkersburg, at the mouth of the Little Kanawha River, all 100 residents of the village poured out to marvel at it.
It was Woodrow Wilson who said, “A spot of local history is like an inn upon a highway; it is a stage upon a far journey; it is a place the national history has passed through.”
Today’s “inns” have a system of levees and floodwalls to stave off occasional rampages by the river, which, whenever it takes a notion, reminds residents of who was there first.
Outside the walls, where diesel towboats with 10,000-horsepower engines hustle tons of cargo along, the Ohio River continues its flow of history.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext.236.