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Digging into the past

Portland Wharf park project
uncovers history of the area

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (August 2006) – At a time in history when commerce depended on steamboat travel, the Portland Wharf surpassed many riverboat towns. It became a rival to nearby Louisville until an improved canal and a devastating flood rendered it no longer viable.

Jay Stottman

Photo by Helen E. McKinney

Archaeologist Jay Stottman leads
the project. City officials hope the park
project will create “heritage tourism.”

M. Jay Stottman is an archeologist whose goal is to “connect the people of Portland to their past.” Stottman, staff archaeologist with the Kentucky Archeological Survey, has led archaeological investigations at the site, which is located at the Portland Wharf Park. The University of Louisville conducted a preliminary study of the area in 1982.
Along with colleague Lori C. Stahlgren, Stottman lectured on the Portland Wharf Park project on June 7 at Historic Locust Grove in Louisville. He said plans call for turning Portland Wharf, a 55-acre site, into an archaeology and history park.
Stottman considers Louisville lucky to “have such a large area intact as an archaeological resource.” Throughout the 1930s, the once-thriving economy of the city of Portland died out. In 1947, a floodwall was constructed that removed any remnants of the wharf’s former existence and severed the Portland neighborhood from its history. This floodwall and an interstate highway now separate the Portland neighborhood from the wharf area.
Most people are familiar with the park area because of the Riverwalk Trail, a multi-use path, said Stottman. “They know it more as a bike trail. They don’t know they’re walking on history.”
The city of Portland was founded in 1811. The city catered to steamboats, but its location made it susceptible to flooding. Floods in the late 1800s and early 1900s destroyed much of the wharf area.
It is this rich history of the Portland Wharf area that Stottman and his team of researchers hope to uncover for others to see. The site dates between the early 1800s and the 1940s. The city contained a paved wharf, commercial buildings, industry, several taverns, a hotel and residences. Stottman hopes to document the history that lies buried beneath layers of silt.
Last summer, research was conducted on a house lot located at 124 33rd St. Evidence showed that a small shotgun house built in the late 1800s, a shed and outhouse pits were once there. A commercial lot at the corner of 34th St. and Florida Alley was also examined, uncovering a circa 1856 building and cellar.
Like any other city, “There used to be city blocks and streets, and specific house plots,” said Stottman.

I-64 Overpass

Photo by Helen E. McKinney

The excavation site lies beside the I-64 overpass.

Last summer, the work conducted on 33rd and 34th streets revealed the foundations of buildings, streets, sidewalks, privies, wells, cisterns, cellars and the remains of ceramic dishes, animal bone, window glass, nails and marbles.
This project is focused on public programming. Stottman wants people to “experience archaeology and have the experience of discovering history. Many times, we are told what history is but don’t see the process of how we learn about history,” said Stottman.
Portland was a booming town in a formative period of American history. The site “takes us back to the roots of Louisville,” said Stottman. “It provides the opportunity and link to that time period, and the opportunity to access that.”
Rhodeside & Harwell Inc., an architectural firm based in Alexandria, Va., completed a Master Plan for the development of the park in fall 2002. Louisville Metro Parks partnered with the Portland Museum on this effort.
This is a project that’s been in the works for a long while, said Nathalie Andrews, executive director of the Portland Museum. The study conducted by U of L in 1982 determined an interest in the site. The community worked with Jefferson County officials on the idea of developing a park.
Louisville was selected as a site for a City Park Forum, a yearlong project involving mayors, park officials and community partners (the Portland Museum). From that yearlong study grew a Master Plan, said Andrews. Costs for the Master Plan were paid for by the city of Louisville, and several grants have been received for this project.
The Portland Neighborhood was among the first five neighborhoods in the country to be designated a “Preserve America” community, said John Swintosky, a landscape architect for Metro Parks. A $150,000 grant was awarded to the Portland Museum, the entity that will manage the grant money. These competitive grants are intended to provide financial support to Heritage Tourism initiatives, officials said.
The idea to turn the 55 acres into an archeology and history park was an “idea put forth early on,” said Swintosky. After completion of the master plan, a feasibility study was conducted. Metro Parks’ goal is to reconcile the Portland Neighborhood with the wharf and its history, said Swintosky.

U of L Students Excavate

Photo by Helen E. McKinney

University of Louisville students are
helping out with the hard work involved
in the excavation project.

In the 1960s, the first modern lock was built nearby at the McAlpine Locks and Dam. After pumping sediments out of the lock site to de-water, the settling basin preserved what sediments remained behind in the area. “The sidewalks are 18 inches below grade,” said Swintosky.
Begun in 1999, the McAlpine Locks and Dam project consisted of construction of a second lock to serve as a twin to the one built in the 1960s. It was to replace two smaller locks dating to 1921 and the 1870s.
Amenities for the Portland Wharf Park include signage, a play area, boat landing, Visitor’s Center, Farmer’s Market opportunities and an archaeological core that will “reveal the old city as it remains,” Swintosky said.
If this project is successful benefits include Heritage Tourism, which should bring people to the neighborhood, said Swintosky. It would also change the way the rest of the city looks at the Portland Neighborhood area, said Stottman.
Stottman will be conducting an archaeology field school at the wharf site throughout the summer months for college students. During this time the site is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for tours and volunteer help.

• To get to the Portland Wharf Park, take Exit 3, 22nd Street, off I-64. The park is only accessible via the Riverwalk at the intersection of 31st Street and Northwestern Parkway at the K&I bridge. For more information, contact Stottman at mjstot2@uky.edu or call Louisville Metro Parks at (502) 456-8112.

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