DIGGING IN THE KENTUCKY
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BY DIGGER ODELL
©1998 Digger Odell Publications
I think one of the most enjoyable aspects of collecting and digging for antique bottles is making a connection with the past. Wondering about the stories behind the bottles is half the fun.
Newport, Kentucky October 1997
A group of Investors together with the City of Newport, Kentucky used eminent domain to take possession of a four square block area of the river front. All existing structures were to be replaced by a large parking area and a new aquarium. Since the project was a private venture, nothing was to be done to investigate or preserve any historic artifacts much to displeasure of the local officer of historic preservation. We secured permission to dig from both the city and contractors. As long as we stayed out of the way we could dig. The time table for demolition and the size of the project resulted in a loose alliance of local diggers who agreed to work cooperatively. For large portions of the site, it would be necessary to rent heavy equipment to successfully retrieve the artifacts.
May 19, 1775
Ten men in two walnut dugout canoes rounded the bend in the Ohio River and passed the natural sandbar at what is now Dayton, Kentucky and stepped out onto the shore at the confluence of Ohio and Licking Rivers. The bountifulness of the game was astounding. Herds of bison and elk grazed on the wild clover, so plentiful that it could be mown for use a winter feed. As they watched, A bear swam across the river towards the Ohio country.
Among the party were colonists, including George Rogers Clark and a Virginian, Captain Edmund Taylor as well as English gentlemen. It was Captain Taylors stories of the area that would some two decades later result in the founding of the town of Newport, Kentucky.
Digging began behind a five story apartment building scheduled to be torn down within a month or so. Our maps indicated houses had lined the street behind the apartment. Sunken spots in the parking lot indicated promising privy sites. We rented a back hoe and dug long trenches to uncover a row of privies.
Speculators like Captain Taylor, found Kentucky "up for grabs" as a result of several treaties made with the Indians. However, no Indians had made their home in this area for 100 years. Most had migrated North of the Ohio River after having their populations decimated by European diseases and a series of Wars among the tribes bordering the Great Lakes. The Tribe with the most claim to the area was the Shawnee.
Shortly it became apparent that there would be two rows of privies; one for Second Street, which ran parallel to the river and another one for Third streetbehind the multi-story apartment building. The houses on both streets had long since been torn down.. The privies we found were spaced in accordance with the lot lines shown on the 1880 map and most were not too deep no more than twelve feet.
Hubbard Taylor had come to the present site of Newport, Bellevue and Dayton to stake his claim. Much of the prime land had slipped through his familys fingers and he was determined to survey and claim the maximum amount of level land he could. The tract he selected ran east from the Licking River for about three and one half miles. He claimed a parcel greater than 1500 acres with more than two thirds of the area being level terrain. Water mills could be powered by two creeks that bisected the land, and it was a logical spot to locate a ferry across both the Licking and the Ohio rivers. In April of 1787, title to the land was confirmed in the name of Colonel James Taylor.
The second line of privies would have to wait until the apartment building was down and the cement slabs removed. In one of the first holes we found a school house ink. Sadly it had a hole in one corner. The same hole had produced an attractive light blue citrate of magnesia. We found quite a few bottles but nothing much of consequence.
Two parties of men had come from Maysville and Lexington to found the city of Losantiville. The name was later changed to Cincinnati. Colonel Taylor believed in the future of Newport even though the site had several drawbacks. It had less than 600 acres of flat land suitable for symmetrical blocks of housing and commercial districts. Furthermore, landing cargo was more difficult on this side of the river. On the other hand, it was clear that volumes of agriculture goods could be expected for transport down the Ohio to Mississippi. And while Indians to the North blocked the rapid settlement of the Ohio territory Kentuckys population was expanding rapidly. Who would have thought that the greater economic future belonged across the river rather than at the mouth of the Licking River.
The 1800 census counted, 750 people in Cincinnati, 359 in Louisville, 1795 in Lexington, the wests largest city. Newport had 106 people of whom every fifth person was a slave and two others were free blacks. Newport was growing Not everyone who bought lots in Newport actually settled there. Some had purchased them for speculation.
We moved to the lots across the street closer to the river. We began inside the remains of a recently abandoned electric substation enclosed by a chain link fence. At one time there had been a Front Street even closer to the river, but was now under the flood wall. Our map showed a large boarding house on First Street facing the river. The substation, heavily covered with gravel, was in what used to the backyard. Two sunken areas indicated what we thought were privies inside the chain link fence. The smaller one was probably for a dwelling that faced Second Street. Little did we know just how large the bigger one would turn out to be.
Of the seven of us digging together, it was Ted who usually ran the back hoe we rented from a place just two blocks down the street. Ted opened the larger depression to revealed a brick lined privy about eight feet in diameter. The first seventeen feet went well. By digging a space in which the back hoe sat, it was possible to reach deeper than the typical twelve foot maximum. For safety we put our protective tubes in the hole.
The hole kept going and going and going, but the horror began when we started digging by hand. The large diameter, the size of the boarding house and that at 18 feet the 10 foot probe sank to the handle suggested what we did not want to believe. It was going to be deep. Spirits were high initially because we had found an "I. Sutton" iron pontiled cobalt root beer in the fill. The privy had been filled in the 1850s! Progress was pitifully slow. The size of the hole dictated the pace -- less than a foot an hour. We returned time after time. There was talk of filling it in and moving on especially when we returned on the fourth day to find the hole had eight feet of standing water in it.
September 1, 1801
The strangest event in Newport history happened on this day when tens of thousands of squirrels descended upon Newport, plunged into the Ohio River and after swimming across scampered over the Cincinnati waterfront. When folks realized the semi-rabid animals posed no danger they grabbed their guns and blazed away. The numbers killed reached five hundred a day for several days.
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