A Brief History of Augusta
Geography and Government
Augusta is located in Bracken County, Kentucky, at the convergence of the Ohio River and Bracken Creek, approximately 42 miles east of Cincinnati, Ohio. The Ohio River borders the northern part of the City; it flows in a straight westerly direction for nine miles without the obstruction of a floodwall. Riverside Drive in Augusta offers an incredible long-range view of this picturesque river valley. Many people believe it is the most beautiful view of the valley in the entire state of Kentucky.
The area was part of a Revolutionary War grant by Virginia to Capt. Phillip Buckner, who first visited here in 1781. Buckner returned in 1796 with 40 Virginia families. Augusta was named in honor of his former home, Augusta County, Virginia. The Legislature of Kentucky issued its charter on October 2, 1797. At the request of Capt. Buckner, the town trustees were chosen and Buckner deeded them 600 acres of land on which the city is located. They were sold as “in lots” in 1795.
Augusta was the seat of government in Bracken County. The 1st session of the court was held in a log house built in 1803; it is still standing today at the corner of Parkview and 3rd Street. In the late 1830’s, the county seat was moved to Brooksville, where it remains today.
Perhaps one of the most interesting discoveries in Augusta was that of Native American skeletal remains that were found buried at numerous locations around the town. A letter from General John Payne, an Officer under Harrison at the Mississinaway towns, gives the following account of the burial grounds:
“From the cellar under my dwelling, sixty by seventy feet, 110 skeletons were taken. I numbered them by the skulls; skeletons were of all sizes, from seven feet to the infant…. In my garden, Indian arrowheads of flint have been found – an earthenware of clay, and pounded mussel. A posthole near the river cannot be dug without turning up human bones, everywhere between the mouths of Bracken and Locust Creek.”
Formal education in Augusta began in 1795. A private school, operated by Robert Schoolfield, was constructed at 211 Riverside Drive. The two-story log structure still remains there and is in excellent condition. Community leaders established the Bracken Academy in 1798 and the state awarded it a charter and a land grant in 1799. The academy built several buildings, including a classroom on the southeast corner of 3rd and Elizabeth. The brick dormitory on Frankfort Street remains today and is used as a private residence.
Bracken Academy merged with the Augusta College in 1822 and was chartered by the Kentucky Legislature with Princeton graduate Rev. John P. Finley as the early leader. The conferences of the Methodist Church of Ohio and Kentucky sponsored this institution under the patronage of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
The family archives of Stephen Collins Foster, who wrote My Old Kentucky Home, indicate that he visited his uncle, Dr. Joseph Tomlinson, a President of the College, on numerous occasions. A historical marker located in the city makes note of the towns influence upon Foster’s later compositions. In particular, the “old church on the hill,” in west Augusta where African-Americans worshipped at the time, was said to have been the origin of the harmonious voices that floated down over the town, which Foster included in his famous spirituals.
Agriculture and Port Services & Businesses
Early in its history, Augusta was a popular shipping port. Products that were shipped from Augusta included tobacco, hemp, livestock and wine. In fact, during the middle 1800’s, European immigrants helped establish a thriving wine industry in Augusta. Today, the surrounding hillsides are still terraced, much the way they are in the famous Rhine Valley in Germany. At the time, the region was responsible for a major portion of the total wine production in the U.S. Also in the mid 1800’s, Michael Sells and his son Benjamin were leading gun manufacturers, operating the Sells Iron Foundry. They produced “long rifles” but also made cook stoves as well.
A ferry service on the Ohio River has been in operation since April 2, 1798. In these early years, the ferry was operated by John Boude and was known as Boude’s Ferry. Several ferry services were conducted over the next 200 years and currently the Jenny Ann remains in daily operation under the auspices of the Augusta Ferry Authority, Inc.
The Battle of Augusta
On September 27, 1862, Colonel Basil Duke led seven companies (350 men) of Morgan’s Raiders, with two pieces of artillery, onto the cemetery hill overlooking the town. Augusta was being protected by 150 “home guards” under the direction of Colonel Joshua T. Bradford, and three Union gunboats stationed just off shore. After Duke fired only a few rounds of artillery, the gunboats abandoned their posts, leaving the town without proper protection. A fierce battle ensued on the streets in the center of town. Thirty-five men lost their lives that day and many more were wounded. Colonel Duke ordered several of the buildings to be set afire. A monument was erected in the 1880’s, commemorating the death of 11 unknown Confederate soldiers who lost their life in the battle.
Films and the Arts
In the last quarter century, Augusta has been best known as the site of three major films: Michner’s Centennial, PBS’ Huckleberry Finn, and Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers. Augusta is also the home of the Nick and Nina Clooney family, former home of Rosemary Clooney and Miss America 2000, Heather Renee French Henry. Noted Playwright Stuart Armstrong Walker was raised on Riverside Drive and later patented the portable stage and introduced the individual spotlight system used in theatres today. The foremost native in the field of visual art was Steven Alke, who painted in oil on canvass and chose area landscapes and portraits as his central themes. He later became a student of the nationally known Kentucky Artist, Frank Duveneck. Some of Alke’s paintings are on display in the Smithsonian Museum.
Current Industry and Tourism
In the later half of the twentieth century, several businesses closed their doors. Clopay Plastics Products Company, which opened its doors in August 1955, initially produced plastic covers and later manufactured window blinds and blackout covers. The company continues to manufacture barrier film for healthcare and hygienic use. Clopay is a division of the Griffon Corporation, which is headquartered in Jericho, New York.
The river has continued to hamper, as well as advance the city into the 21st century. The devastating flood of 1997 affected the permanent removal of some homes; it has also enabled the town to develop green spaces and parks for the enjoyment of residents and visitors. The construction of the O’Neill Riverwalk along with the boat docking facility provides access for large pleasure and entertainment boats to dock in the town’s center. City and County leaders expect the tourism industry to become a major contributor to the economy in the future.