Finding Historical Paducah

Much of Harper’s Donelson and all of Harper’s Rescue take place in the town of Paducah, Kentucky.

Because the city sits near the junction of the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Ohio Rivers,  Grant designated Paducah to be the supply depot for his operations up  the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers.    I needed to develop a good understanding of the town as it existed during the Winter of 1862 if my books were to have a pretense of historical accuracy.

Harpers Weekly Paducah Kentucky

First stop on the research trail was a quick check of The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War to find a map dated November 6, 1861, at Plate 6-2.  Perfect for the time period of the novels.  This map shows that the town extended inland for eight blocks ending at an unnamed street along which the occupiers built fortifications (present Ninth Street).  It stretched along the Ohio-Tennessee Rivers for fifteen blocks from Trimble Street (Park) in the north to Norton Street in the south, with Fort Anderson located on the north side of Hospital Street (Martin Luther King Drive) at its intersection with Oak Street (Fifth Street).   The map also shows a small community south of the city on both sides of the mouth of Island Creek, outside the Federal fortifications.

So now I had the basic geometry of the 1861-2 town.

But I wanted more.  On to Wikipedia.  At the Paducah page on Wikipedia, I learned the background history of the city from the earliest white settlement in 1815, through it’s initial platting in 1827 by William Clark  (of Lewis and Clark fame), incorporation as a town in 1830, and its chartering as a city in 1856.  The page also contained details of some of the earliest industries in the city along with short descriptions of three key events during the Civil War:  occupation by Federal forces on September 6, 1861; the implementation of Grant’s General Order 11 on December 17th, 1862, which led to the eviction of thirty families of Jewish descent; and a raid by Bedford Forrest’s cavalry in May 1864.  I also discovered that I was dealing with a population of about 4,600 people.   All of this information was interesting enough, but it did not give me enough detail about the character of the city that I wanted to include in the novels.

One item that I found useful was the detailed weather norms.  Winter (Jan-Mar) averages are between 58 degrees daytime highs and 23 degrees nighttime lows — much colder than I had expected.  That was significant, because I would have to make sure that my characters had to deal with the possibility of an over-night freeze every sunset.   Also, grass and trees would be dormant, brown and dry.

But, I wanted more.  So, I turned to good old Google to search for sites.  This search eventually led me to several sites from which I gleaned interesting facts which appear in Donelson and Rescue.  These sites include:


The National Register of Historical Places;

This website not only lists the Historical Places but also shows the approved original nomination forms for the sites.  Particularly useful was the description from the nomination form for the Saint Mary’s Academy Complex.  From this document, I was able to hypothesize the composition of the original Saint Mary’s Academy complex in 1858, adjacent to the Saint Francis Church where the Civil War Atlas shows Federal cavalry camped.

The website gave a detailed description of the Market Square  where I had originally intended to place Lafitte’s Hideout.  I learned enough to make reasonable assumptions about the buildings and businesses on the Market Square.  This information caused me to place The French Pelican restaurant near, but not in, the Market Square with Lafitte’s Hideout saloon in an adjacent building farther away from the Market.


The Kentucky Historical Marker Database

From this site I discovered the location of the historical Ferd Hummel’s Gunsmith Shop on Oak/Third Street.  Later, I had to correct this location in the book based on other information that made the Oak Street location an anachronism.

I discovered the location of the home of General Lloyd Tilghman, who surrendered Fort Henry.

In addition, the Google search turned up a bird’s-eye view of Paducah in 1889 from multiple sources, as well as the fact that the City of Paducah has a four-panel display of a bird’s-eye view of the city in 1873.  These I used to get a sense of the density of buildings in various parts of town where the characters were located or passed through.  Unfortunately, I do not have permission to display those images here.


The Market House Museum

This site led to a description of the likely configuration of the Market House in 1862.


The Story of Paducah;  Fred G. Neuman and Catherine Neuman Adams.

This hardcopy book was cited as a reference in several of the historical register nominations.  It tells the story of the political, social, and economic development of the city from 1815 to 1980.  Here I discovered interesting details of city life in the days before the Civil War such as the locations of churches, schools, hospitals, and industries.

That Ferd Hummel’s gunsmith was on Broadway Street in 1862.

That Lloyd Tilghman’s House was across the street from the Federal garrison commander’s headquarters.  This put the headquarters in the same city block as the cavalry camp at St. Francis and the hypothetical billet of Lieutenant Harper’s unit at St Mary’s Academy.

I was even able to learn when, prior to the Civil War, the city macadamized and laid gravel in the streets and which streets were covered under succeeding contracts.  Unfortunately, the book is nearly silent for the four years of the War Between the States, except for a description of Forrest’s raid in 1864 and a very helpful schematic of Fort Anderson.


So now, I am fairly confident that when my characters interact with Paducah City they are doing so in a plausible way, within the limits of fictional storytelling.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *