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Tom Chaney: R717: Wm. Ellis, The Kentucky River, a review

Of Writers and Their Books No. R717. A review of Wm. Ellis' The Kentucky River First printed 2 July 2006.
The next earlier Tom Chaney Of Writers and Their Books column,Tom Chaney: No. R716: A Grisham Addiction

By Tom Chaney

Whilst wandering about like a blind dog in a meat house at the last Kentucky book fair in Frankfort, I came upon an old friend from Georgetown College days in the person of Bill Ellis. Mr. Ellis was flogging several of his books - among them this interesting one on the Kentucky River.

Bill and I had crossed each others' paths over the last few years since my return from exile in Philadelphia. He had come to Kentucky Repertory Theatre a time or two and had the good judgment to drop in The Bookstore. He is retired Foundation Professor at Eastern Kentucky University. We swapped a Georgetown story or two after which I bought the book on the Kentucky River. His book is a part of the Ohio River Valley series the University Press is issuing.

"The Kentucky flows from the confluence of the North and South Forks at Beattyville on a generally northwesterly course to the Ohio River at Carrollton." The river's headwaters comprise the North, Middle, and South Forks which rise near Pine Mountain in far southeastern Kentucky. Its drainage covers about one sixth of the commonwealth or nearly 7000 square (but not flat) miles.

Nothing if not comprehensive, Ellis begins the story of the Kentucky River long before pioneer days -- about ten million years ago, give or take a couple, during the rise of the land caused by the Cincinnati Arch between the Pliocene epoch and the Pleistocene beginning about 600,000 years ago.

Humans appeared at least by 12,000 B.C. Euroamericans arrived somewhat later. Gabriel Arthur may have been the first of that persuasion to glimpse the Kentucky River in 1674. When Daniel Boone and the long hunters wandered into what is now Kentucky wilderness in the 1780's, the outline of the area had already been mapped and the Kentucky was well known.

Ellis' treatment of the Kentucky River builds nicely on three previous works: Thomas D. Clark's The Kentucky; Willard Rouse Jillson's The Kentucky River; and Mary Verhoeff's The Kentucky River Navigation. He also makes fine use of the Kentucky River oral history project and other interviews during the 1980's.

More than a conventional history, Ellis deals with "the idea of the river in the minds of those who have lived, worked, played, and grown up on it."

In a word, Ellis is a fine storyteller, gathering the history of the river in the words of those who know it best.

In the early days of the commonwealth, the Kentucky, like the Green in our part of the state, was used as the highway for the early products of farm, still, and forest. Also, like the Green, it was subject to control by locks and dams beginning before the Civil War.

The Kentucky is a wild river. Efforts to tame it were never completely successful. Rafting timber from the forests lining the forks was not helped by the system of locks.

By the time coal was extensively mined, rail was proving to be the most efficient means of stripping the eastern mountains of their bounty.

Ellis observes in his final chapter, "Whither the Kentucky," "From the beginning of white settlement, the Kentucky has been exploited, abused, misused, misread, and now, neglected. Although water quality appears to be crucial for Lexington and the Bluegrass region, it is just as important, perhaps more so, for the Three Forks."

He quotes the Kentucky seer, Harry Caudill who once warned "If the people of Lexington care for the future of their city, let them look to the hills that will provide the future's water. Unless these hills are saved, are kept green with timber and flowing with pure water, future generations will find themselves bound inseparably to a vast legacy of mud, slime, flood, and thirst. Economic decline will shrink it to an inconsequential town, dozing an hour's drive from a range of mountains that a new generation of insensate cupidity calmly murdered."

Fortunately, Kentucky's rivers, including the Kentucky and the Green, are slowly on the mend as groups such as the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy are creating a growing awareness of the damage that continues to be done to our water -- whether from colliform bacteria from the open sewers of the mountains; the mud from the denuded hillsides and mountain tops removed for coal; or the acids from nearby quarries.

Ellis brings his significant talent as a historian to bear on his considerable sense of the voice of the storyteller to weave a highly readable tale of the Kentucky River. It is time the Green found such a voice.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-07-03 01:11:51
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