River To Rail: River & recreation

From Commerce to Recreation

By the last years of the 19th century, the steamboat age was beginning to fade. Mass transportation of people and goods had largely shifted to the railroads, which for the past half century had been spreading over the East and the especially the West. There navigable rivers were scarce and the surges in population growth demanded a secure and reliable delivery of necessities. As the trade market began to move away from the steamer, the entertainment industry enthusiastically stepped in to fill the void with the excursion boat. These were large vessels, decked out with sumptuous living quarters or fitted with music stages and gambling saloons began cruising America’s rivers, offering relaxation and excitement to any who would pay to ride. Surviving well into the 20th century, the excursion boat industry was only finally eclipsed by the arrival of the automobile and the rise of personal transportation. A few of these venerable entertainers, such as the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen, still exist and can be seen on the waves of the Ohio from time to time.

Meet the Boat Trips

Recollections by Louis DeCar

We have always considered ourselves very fortunate here in Madison, due to our river location midway between Louisville and Cincinnati. There has always been so much river activity going on since the town’s inception, what with steamboats carrying passengers and freight in and out of port. However, one of the finest things ever to occur was the “Meet the Boat” trips. Though they originated around 1915, I didn’t get to be a part of them until the late 1920’s, having been born in 1923. My father was head florist at the Madison State Hospital, and my parents lived on the hospital grounds. Our home was on a point overlooking the bends in the Ohio River, southwesterly. My mother loved to watch the steamboats plying the Ohio, and riding the boats. She had been born at Markland, Indiana, so grew up on the river. Her family rode the “Hattie Brown” for many years to visit relatives in Madison. After my father passed away my mother brought my brother and me from the hilltop to downtown Madison where we located one block from the river. So the greatest recreation that I remember was on a Sunday, during warm weather months, of taking the “Meet the Boat” trips.

The “up-boat”, as we referred to it, left Louisville in the early morning hours, and arrived at Madison around noon. We would wait aboard our wharf boat (which met its demise in the 1937 flood) and watch for the boat to appear around the bend in the lower river section of Madison. What excitement when the first glimpse of the packet appeared “round the bend”-lots of hoopla and excitement. It seemed like it took forever for the boat to arrive at our wharf. It always put in on the river side of the wharf and placed the stage so passengers could board from the wharf to the steamboat. Once aboard, everyone scrambled to the upper decks to get a good deck chair to enjoy the trip up the river. Once everyone was aboard, the steamer started its up-river trip. The dance floor became a Mecca for dancers, as the boat always carried a hot Dixieland music band on board. The Two-step, the Black Bottom and the Charleston were the order of the day. Enjoying this music was a special treat. In later years as Madison became a big excursion stop, I learned to dance on those steamers. We loved the afternoon scenic ride, but most of all the moonlight’s. I tell people today, “you’ve never lived until you dance on a moonlight excursion”.

I don’t recall any meals being served while on board. We always had our meal at home before we boarded the boat, but they did have popcorn, candy bars and 6 ounce Coca-Cola for $.05 each. I loved Hershey Chocolate Bars and they were larger then for a nickel than they are today for more than ten times that.

We always hoped we would get a real long ride. We always hated to see the “down-boat” appear far ahead, knowing that our trip up river was about to come to an end. Sometimes we were fortunate enough to get almost to the Markland Locks (Dam 39) before we would transfer to the down-boat. We never did get to lock through at Markland.

The transfer to the down-boat was always exciting as the two steamers pulled along side of each other, laying the stage so you could cross over to the other boat. After the transfer was completed, we would arrive back in Madison about supper time, and after de-boarding, we watched the down-boat head on down river to Louisville. I imagine they did serve meals to those passengers aboard from Cincinnati, as they would have gotten pretty hungry before the trip ended.

We had two other special river trips each summer. One was to Louisville and return, and the other one to Rose Island (Fern Grove) at the mouth of 14-mile Creek, above Louisville. It was destroyed in the 1937 flood. We looked forward to these with happiness and excitement. Those were the days my friend – we thought they would never end – but they did. Now, memories are all we have left.

Marks and Benson and the American Boys Excursions

In 1886, the Louisville and Jeffersonville Ferry Company acquired 118 acres of land along the Indiana side of the Ohio River. It was a peninsular shaped area just below Louisville at the point where 14 Mile Creek empties into the river. The location was blessed with soaring bluffs, cool springs and a flat area perfect for picnicking and entertainment.

It was largely utilized by church groups at first but it quickly became a favorite with the general public. As its popularity grew, accommodations for the crowds were initiated. A hotel for those who wished to stay overnight, or longer, was built and a dining room served hearty meals. Cabins were built for extended stays. There were baseball diamonds, hiking trails, row boats, and there was always a band. At some point a zoo, pony rides, and a carousel were introduced.

In 1923 David B. G. Rose of Kentucky bought the amusement park and changed its name. An iron arch was erected at the entrance proclaiming “Rose Island” and the park’s popularity continued as before for several years. As with all businesses, the amusement park was not exempt from the woes of the depression but it was still functioning when the flood of 1937 struck. As so many landmarks were, it was swept away and irretrievably lost.

American Boy

In the early 1900’s, as a promotional “gimmick”, the Marks and Benson Clothing Store began offering a free, six months subscription to “American Boy” magazine to every boy between the age of seven and seventeen with the purchase of a suit or overcoat.

The “American Boy” was a book published by the Sprague Publishing Company of Detroit, Michigan. It was the forerunner of the Boy Scout magazine and it emphasized family values and clean living with some adventure stories thrown in.

The promotion was such a hit that the store decided to expand upon the idea and in 1907 it began sponsoring an “American Boy” outing. The first two years consisted of a day at the Hanover College campus grounds but by 1909 the store hit upon the idea of a boating excursion for the whole family to Fern Grove. The participating young man and his mother would receive a free ticket on an excursion boat and a badge for entrance into the park. The rest of the family could go along but would have to pay their way. The general public was also invited at the own expense.

On August 1, 1927 The Madison Courier reported that nearly 1,500 people took advantage of the outing. It was a good deal on both sides as Marks and Benson obviously received reduced rates by delivering a crowd, the steamboat companies were assured of a full boat and the boys enjoyed a free day of entertainment.

A Day at Fern Grove

At the height of its popularity, nearly 2,000 people would pour out of Madison and onto the steamboat early in the morning. The participating boys picked up their tickets up at 6 o’clock in the morning, the store would close its doors and at 6:30 the boys and their families marched down to the boat. There the calliope would be blasting out and soon after, the townspeople began to stream up the gangplank. Everyone jockeyed for position on the decks and tried to snag a deck chair. Picnic baskets laden with fried chicken, potato salad, hard boiled eggs and chocolate cake were stacked everywhere along with blankets and baseball gear.

As the boat pulled out at 8 o’clock the band would begin to play and people walked the decks visiting with neighbors and enjoying the scenery. At about 11 o’clock the picnic baskets were hauled out, blankets spread and lunch was eaten. Fern Grove came into sight about noon and all hurried off the boat into “nature’s paradise”.

The store provided organized sports events such as foot races and baseball games but many preferred to find their own amusements. Young couples walked hand in hand along the edge of the fern banks or took a row boat ride. Children attended the zoo or rode the merry-go-round and parents tended to toddlers and spread out the blanket to listen to the band.

At five o’clock the boat whistle sounded the “all aboard” and folks scrambled to find their belongings and get back on the boat. The blankets were folded and they proceeded to the water’s edge and waited in line to climb the gangplank. They were dusty, tired and hungry so the picnic basket was opened and the last of its contents were consumed and the contented group floated back down the river. The younger children were already asleep in their mother’s arms, oblivious to their surroundings. The band would “play them home” and some people still had the energy to dance a little.

At 9 o’clock they exited the boat at Madison, dragging picnic baskets, blankets and baseball bats behind them. All, no doubt, were hoping someone in the family would need a new suit of clothes by next summer.