The lives of David Gharky and Dr. Thomas Waller are forever intertwined. These two pioneer settlers first made their home at Alexandria, on the West Side of the Scioto’s Old Mouth, but when that village’s fate became clear, these two men and their families helped lead the exodus of Alexandrians to higher ground in Portsmouth. Gharky and Waller would prosper economically and politically with the move, each coming to hold office in Scioto County’s new seat of local government.
Carey’s Run Cemetery, where Gharky and Waller lay buried, has fallen into disrepair – toppled head stones, overgrown grass-covered monuments sunken into the earth; the surrounding ridge, on two sides, recently stripped to the bone in what resembles the scars of a new mountaintop-removal mining project.
Rather than coal, the rock and dirt from the ridgeside was used as fill in the construction of Portsmouth West Middle School. The Carey’s Run side of the ridge, which adjoins the cemetery, descends into a massive automobile junkyard, which runs north alongside the creek.
Settling at Alexandria had not been part of Gharky’s original plan. Born in the city of Stargard in Pomerania, a historically German city in northwestern Poland, a single, 24-year-old Gharky immigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, arriving in October 1796.
After a year working as a cabinet maker on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Gharky headed west for Pittsburgh, where he hoped to make another new start. In October 1799, Gharky, traveling by flatboat, landed at the mouth of the Scioto River, in another attempt at a new beginning. He would now cast his lot with the people of Alexandria.
In June 1801, when Thomas Waller, with his wife Elisabeth McFarlane, and their new born first child, arrived in Alexandria, Gharky had just begun preparations for building a house and workshop on one of the town’s many empty lots. In the Gharkys’ and Wallers’ minds, Alexandria offered a bright future, an opportunity to achieve their American Dreams.
In 2000, the pioneer doctor’s life garnered the attention of author Jerry Holt, who wrote a one-act play, “Thomas Waller.” Produced by the Southern Ohio Medical Center in Portsmouth, Holt’s imagining included Waller ruminating upon life in Alexandria: “The floods. Ah, the floods. They came in the winter, and with such frequency that our fences, our haystacks, our grains, even our houses were often carried away – just swept along the water. During those first two winters I often saw the water three feet deep in our home. And those winters were bitter cold. And there was sickness. A great deal of sickness. There was so much for a doctor and wife to do.”
Waller and Gharky would both eventually move to higher ground in Portsmouth and go onto to help lead the city as it established itself as the Scioto County seat and the Ohio River gateway to the Scioto Valley.
Alexandria would earn the nickname, Hardscrabble, for the meager reward residents wrung from its flooded streets. In 1817, Samuel Brown’s Western Gazetter noted the decline had reached a depressing state. “There are fifteen old buildings, and a tavern well supported by the votaries of Bacchus. Indolence and dissipation characterize the inhabitants.” As the original settlers left, the village decayed and eventually what had not been carried off would be washed away by the waters of the Scioto and Ohio.
When death came for Dr. Waller and David Gharky, both men chose to have their remains buried near Carey’s Run, on a hill overlooking Abandoned Alexandria. When standing in the cemetery, contemplating the lives of these two pioneers, one can’t help but wonder whether they shared a memory, a love perhaps, of this hill’s view of the Ohio river bottoms and the hills of Kentucky, rolling off into the distance.
Samuel R. Brown, “Scioto County” in the Western Gazetteer; Or Emigrant’s Directory: Containing a Geographical Description of the Western States and Territories (1817): p. 300.
David Gharky, The Life of David Gharky, as written by himself: Also, a Record of the Gharky Family; … with his Last Will and Testament (Portsmouth, Ohio: John Gharky, 1852).
Jerry Holt, “Thomas Waller Play,” unpublished script (December 2000).
Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D., is a Professor of American History and Coordinator of the History and Appalachian Studies programs at Shawnee State University. As Director of the Shawnee Digital History Lab, he is the founding editor and developer of the Scioto Historical mobile app and website, a public history project that explores the history of Portsmouth, Ohio, and the surrounding Appalachian region. Visit sciotohistorical.org to continue your exploration of Portsmouth and Ohio’s Little Smokies.