Saturday, January 23, 2010

Nashville and Providence Gained Prominence as Early River Towns

by John C. Crighton, Copyright Boone County Historical Society 1987

From the Boone County Historical Society collection.  A History of Columbia and Boone County, by John C. Crighton, 1987, Chapter 46, pp. 135-137.  Out of print.  Available at the Wilson-Wulff History and Genealogy Library in the Walters-Boone County Historical Museum. 

“. . . And the windows of the heavens were opened.  And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights.”  It must have seemed to the inhabitants of the town of Nashville, in mid-June 1844, that the account in Genesis was being reenacted as they watched the flood waters of the Missouri River inundate the neighboring bottom lands and then sweep away Lamme’s warehouse and Camplin’s tobacco factory which stood on the river bank.(#1)

With the water swirling into the business section of town, desperate efforts were made to save the stocks of goods in the stores.  On Tuesday night, June 18, around 9 o’clock, four Columbians, William Lampton, Cornelius Maupin, Lewis T. Dameron, and John W. Collier, left on horseback for Nashville to help the clerks in the store of Rice G. Woods and Co. get their goods ready for shipment by boat to a safe upriver landing.  About 3 a.m., the Columbians encountered the flooded lowlands north of Nashville.  In the pitch darkness, with no road to guide them, they lost their sense of direction and abandoned their horses to climb to temporary safety in trees.  The next morning, they mounted again and started for dry land about 1,000 yards distant.  When their horses gave out, the men were forced to swim or scramble to safety.  Two reached trees, one a floating log, but the fourth, John Collier, was drowned.(#2)

In the town of Nashville, the water eventually reached a level of eight feet in the streets, homes and stores were carried away, and the whole population was forced to flee.

The site of the settlement, thus abandoned, was a Spanish land grant on the north bank of the Missouri river near where the Bonne Femme enters it, made to Ira P. Nash shortly before Louisiana was ceded to the United States.  Nash, an emigre Virginian, had ingratiated himself with the Spanish authorities and served as deputy to Antoine Soulard, surveyor general of upper Louisiana.  In addition to his own land grant, Nash had located the 680-acre concession to Louis Delisle, Jr., in the same neighborhood.

Nashville was laid out in lots in 1819, and was thus one of the first platted towns in what later became Boone County.  The sale of Nashville lots began on January 1, 1820, at Franklin in Howard County, with Peter Bass, Richard Gentry, and J.M. White acting as sales agents for themselves and the other proprietors.  In their prospectus the agents declared:

Nashville is the nearest and most convenient point on the river to which the extensive and numerous settlement in the Two Mile Prairie and the surrounding country can have access.  It promises to enjoy a large proportion of the trade of the river; and from the convenience of its situation, it will furnish many facilities to the transportation of the vast quantities of surplus produce of an extensive and salubrious soil.  The landing at this town is at all seasons of the year superior to most other places, and certainly inferior to none on the Missouri.(#3)

In the first year of its existence, Nashville had a tobacco warehouse operated by James Harris and Abraham J. Williams, a post office, and several stores and homes.(#4)  During 1823, lot number 285 sold for $53; lot number 248 for $81.  The lot numbers indicate the town was designed on a spacious scale; and the prices suggest that purchasers were convinced that it had a bright future.  But this prospect was clouded when Rocheport, about fifteen miles upriver, was established in 1825.  Rocheport had an excellent boat landing and a rich farming hinterland.  It had the added advantage of being located at a major river crossing.  By 1840, Nashville had a population of several hundred persons.  It was growing but not so fast as Rocheport.  Shortly after came the disastrous flood of 1844.(#5)

It was decided to build a new town as a market center and shipping port for the area on a rocky bluff two miles north of the Nashville site.  Lots in the new community, called Providence, were put on sale by Williams Shields, John H. Field, and Robert S. Barr, town commissioners, on July 13, 1844.

Providence, in the 1850s, was an attractive, bustling, and prosperous village, as the following account given in Paul C. Doherty’s article, “The Columbia-Providence Plank Road,” published in the Missouri Historical Review of October 1962 indicates:

Providence has been described as a charming southern community; picturesque walls and gardens, formal dances, fair women, and a large slave population.  In addition to (John) Parker’s building, the largest of which were the hotel and a port house, Providence also contained four or five stores, another hotel, a blacksmith shop, a cooperate, two or three drug stores, and a saloon.

At this time, there were four sizable towns in Boone County–Columbia, Centralia, Rocheport, and Providence–each seeking its place in the sun and making alliances with each other for mutual advantage.  This town rivalry reflected the competition between two different systems of transportation and communication–by water and by rail.  The actions of the county court played an important role in this power struggle.  On May 10, 1853, the court voted to subscribe $5,000 to assist the construction of a plank road from Columbia to Providence, thus cementing at least temporarily, a commercial alliance between these two communities.  But this favor to Providence was more than offset when, on December 23, 1853, with prior voter approval, the court agreed to purchase $100,000 of the capital stock of the North Missouri Railroad, provided it passed through the county.(#6)  In opposing this action, when the issue was before the people in the spring of 1853, James McConathy charged that the proposed railroad would destroy he trade of the river towns.

The action of the county court, though not deliberately unfriendly to the river settlements; the changing course of the river; the recurrent spring freshets; the disease epidemics that traveled with the boats; the disruption of the pattern of river trade in its Deep South extension during the Civil War; and the competition of the new rail systems–all these combined to determine that the brilliant promise of the river towns, at their beginning, was never fully realized in practice.

1. William F. Switzler, History of Boone County (St. Louis: Western Historical Co., 1882), pp. 345-346..
2. Idem.
3. Ibid., pp. 147-148.
4. Ibid., p. 147.
5. Ibid., p. 347.
6. Boone County Deed Records, Book K, pp. 52, 202.

© Boone County Historical Society 1987


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