Rabbit Holes …

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

I’ve been going down the rabbit hole. In doing some research into black schools in Evansville, I somehow ran across a reference to a Camp Nelson in Kentucky. This led to information about the United States Colored Troops (USCT), contraband camps, the American Missionary Association, and to the Freedmen’s Bureau. These in turn led me to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). There’s just so much good information here, but it’s hard to pull together. This is both the joy and the curse of rabbit holes and research! I suspect this will turn out to be more than one blog, but let’s start with Camp Nelson and see where we end up.

Camp Nelson National Monument is in Nicholasville, KY, not that far outside of Lexington. In December 1862 Union Major General Ambrose Burnside was charged with capturing and holding eastern Tennessee, with the ultimate goal of taking the Confederate rail hub of Knoxville. To do so, he needed a place to both consolidate troops and gather supplies, preferably in central Kentucky. “At the height of its use in 1865, Camp Nelson encompassed roughly 4,000 acres. The camp, which was organized around an 800-acre core, included more than 300 buildings and tents that housed a quartermaster commissary depot, ordnance depot, recruitment center, prison, and a hospital. Eight earthen forts or batteries, primarily constructed by enslaved labor, helped to protect the camp. The camp was also home to stables and corrals, a bakery, and a steam-driven waterworks that could pump water up 470 feet from the Kentucky River to a 50,000 gallon reservoir.” It was highly defensible, surrounded by water and/or high cliffs on three sides.

The War Department used the Emancipation Proclamation to recruit and train freed slaves as Union soldiers. But, the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves only in the states that had joined to form the Confederacy. Here’s the tricky part—Kentucky was a southern state, a slave-holding state, but it never joined the Confederacy, so Kentucky slaves were not freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and thus were not officially eligible to be recruited. But freedom sings a powerful siren song. As it turns out, those who escaped from slavery and enlisted in the Union Army were thus emancipated in exchange for their service. “Camp Nelson quickly became the largest of the eight African American recruitment centers in the state of Kentucky and the third largest U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) recruiting center in the entire nation. Once all restrictions on enlistment were removed in June 1864, the number of African American enlistees exploded. These enlistees, who were formerly enslaved, were able to be emancipated through the act of enlistment in the Union army. More than 500 U.S. Colored Troops mustered into service during June 1864, and a record 1,370 new troops enlisted at the camp in July. By the time the 13th Amendment was finally ratified on December 6, 1865, ending slavery throughout the United States, roughly 10,000 African American men had enlisted in the USCT and claimed their freedom at Camp Nelson.

About those restrictions on the enlistment of slaves—remember that Kentucky was still part of the Union and thus obligated to provide soldiers for the Union forces. It was unable to meet that quota with only white soldiers, so it reluctantly agreed, in March/April 1864, to allow “free African American men and enslaved men who had the express permission of their owners to enlist.” Owners were compensated $300. “It proved to be an untenable system. A wave of violence quickly followed across the state, as substantial numbers of owners objected, rather than consented, to enlistment. Yet enslaved men fled to enlist anyway, and military officials, unsure about whether or not their owners’ consent had been given, routinely defaulted to sending men back to their owners. Camp Nelson thus became “a hunting ground for fugitives,” observed the quartermaster, Capt. Theron E. Hall, who had a frontline view of the situation. “It has been an almost daily occurrence for some squad of men to be employed in hunting slaves and detaining them to their masters,” Hall wrote, and in many cases those captured were “tied together” like a “slave gang” and prodded along by armed soldiers. Other reports surfaced of owners severing the ears of men they retrieved with the army’s help or, in one case, of two men “fastened to trees in the woods and flayed alive.” This injustice was swiftly ended by Union Army Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, who in June 1864 ordered that any slave who escaped and reported for enlistment would be enlisted and thus freed; the owner’s consent and monetary compensation were no longer required.

Although this specific injustice was addressed and corrected, problems continued. Escaping slaves frequently brought with them their wives, children, and parents, who might very well face retribution if they remained behind. But only Union Army enlistees were entitled to freedom. Anyone who did not, or could not, enlist, was expected to return to slavery.

“Official orders were issued to remove these women and children. During the November 1864 expulsion, Union soldiers forcibly escorted women and children from the camp and then destroyed the refugee cabins within the camp. Freezing temperatures, combined with harsh conditions, resulted in more than 100 refugee deaths. This tragedy garnered national media attention and generated public outcry. A few weeks after the November expulsion, the Union army reversed its policy toward refugees and began construction on the government-sponsored “Home for Colored Refugees” at Camp Nelson. It initially included a communal mess hall, a school, barracks for single women and the sick, and duplex family cottages. Refugees who had been turned away or forced out of the camp in November were now allowed to resettle in the newly constructed refugee home, officially opened in January 1865. Although wives and children of the enlisted men were still not legally free, they were legally entitled to sanctuary. Finally, on March 3, 1865, an Act of Congress officially emancipated the wives, children, and mothers of U.S. Colored Troops. This provided legal protection for the refugees at Camp Nelson and an additional incentive for African American men to enlist in the Union Army.”

Check out this video for a fuller understanding of Camp Nelson.

By the end of the Civil War, there were some 175 United States Colored Troops, with about 185,000 soldiers (this number includes officers, most of which were not black.) “In the fall of 1862 there were at least three Union regiments of African Americans raised in New Orleans, Louisiana: the First, Second, and Third Louisiana Native Guard. These units later became the First, Second, and Third Infantry, Corps d’Afrique, and then the Seventy-third, Seventy-fourth, and Seventy-fifth United States Colored Infantry (USCI). The First South Carolina Infantry (African Descent) was not officially organized until January 1863; however, three companies of the regiment were on coastal expeditions as early as November 1862. They would become the Thirty-third USCI. Similarly, the First Kansas Colored Infantry (later the Seventy-ninth [new] USCI) was not mustered into service until January 1863, even though the regiment had already participated in the action at Island Mound, Missouri, on October 27, 1862. These early unofficial regiments received little federal support, but they showed the strength of African Americans’ desire to fight for freedom.” Between 1863-1865, the state of Kentucky formed 23 volunteer regiments with a total of 23,706 soldiers. This number comprised 13% of the African American soldiers who enlisted in the Union Army, second only to the state of Louisiana. Seven of these were formed at Camp Nelson: the 5th and 6th U.S. Colored Cavalry, the 114th, 119th, and 124th U.S. Colored Infantry, and the 12th and 13th U.S. Colored H. A. (heavy artillery). Closer to home, the 121st U.S. Colored Infantry was raised in Henderson, KY.

These signs are located at Virginia Avenue & McCarty Street, Indianapolis

“The 28th Indiana Infantry Regiment—officially the 28th Regiment United States Colored Troops—was Indiana’s first and only all-black regiment during the Civil War. Mustered into service on January 12, 1864, the 28th formed in response to fears sparked by Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s raid into Indiana in the summer of 1863. Morgan hoped to rouse Copperheads in the North and inspire them to rise up against the Union. The raiders ransacked Corydon, Salem, Dupont, Versailles, and other small towns in southern Indiana, burned and looted property, and stole over 4,000 horses. All told, the raid caused over one million dollars in damage. Thousands of Hoosiers enlisted in response to the raid, including the men of the 28th. The raid ultimately failed; Morgan was chased out of southern Indiana by state troops and kept out by the United States Navy. Although the 28th was recruited to help prevent future rebel violence, state officials feared that raising more than one African American regiment would provoke another Confederate raid. By the end of the war, the 28th had sustained an estimated 212 fatalities: two officers and 45 enlistees killed or mortally wounded in combat, and one officer and 164 enlistees who died of disease. Like several other USCT regiments, the 28th was assigned menial duties on the Mexican border. At times, the work became too much for the men. The two most frequent entries in the logbook are the receipt of special orders and notes of incidents which resulted in soldiers receiving demerits. The logbook also briefly mentions the issue of disease in the regiment. USCT troops were often neglected as far as supplies went as they worked menial jobs and did not receive the same care and attention as white troops. At times their diet lacked essential nutrients; many of the soldiers, including James Trail, developed scurvy. James and his brothers Benjamin, David, and William Jr. were just a handful of the men who enlisted in the 28th Indiana. Benjamin was the first of the four brothers to serve. A sergeant major, he was killed at the Battle of the Crater. James also died during the war, but David and William Jr. eventually returned to Indiana. Little is known about the men of the 28th, but there is growing interest in their stories. The 28th were honored with a historical marker in Indianapolis in 2004 and they are also featured on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown Indianapolis.”

No less a personage than Frederick Douglass recruited and heavily promoted the USCT. Both of his sons, Charles and Lewis, were members of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry; Charles later transferred to the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. The 54th was memorialized in the movie Glory; its story was told in this October 10, 2018 blog. Lewis Douglass was the sergeant major of the 54th and wounded in the attack on Fort Wagner, SC.

Let’s be clear about this. African Americans were finally permitted to enlist in the Union forces, but they were in no way considered equal to white Union forces. “Black Union soldiers did not receive equal pay or equal treatment. They were paid $10 a month, with $3 deducted from that pay for clothing—white soldiers received $13 a month with no clothing deduction—until June 1864, when Congress granted retroactive equal pay. Even in the North, racial discrimination was widespread and blacks were often not treated as equals by white soldiers. In addition, segregated units were formed with black enlisted men commanded by white officers and black non-commissioned officers. Some of the white officers had low opinions of their colored troops and failed to adequately train them. Black units and soldiers that were captured by the Confederates faced harsher treatment than white prisoners of war. In 1863 the Confederate Congress threatened to punish captured Union officers of black troops and enslave black Union soldiers. In response, Lincoln issued General Order 233, threatening reprisal against Confederate POWs.”

Despite, or perhaps in defiance of, all the inequity and prejudice they faced, USCT members fought valiantly, with 25 earning the Congressional Medal of Honor for their Civil War service. The first of these was Sgt. William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. “Carney was born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1840. His family was eventually granted freedom and moved to Massachusetts, where Carney was eager to learn and secretly got involved in academics, despite laws and restrictions that banned blacks from learning to read and write. … In March 1863, Carney joined the Union Army and was attached to Company C, 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment, the first official black unit recruited for the Union in the north. Forty other black men served with him, including two of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ sons. … On July 18, 1863, the soldiers of Carney’s regiment led the charge on Fort Wagner. During the battle, the unit’s color guard was shot. Carney, who was just a few feet away, saw the dying man stumble, and he scrambled to catch the falling flag. Despite suffering several serious gunshot wounds himself, Carney kept the symbol of the Union held high as he crawled up the hill to the walls of Fort Wagner, urging his fellow troops to follow him. He planted the flag in the sand at the base of the fort and held it upright until his near-lifeless body was rescued. Even then, though, he didn’t give it up. Many witnesses said Carney refused to give the flag to his rescuers, holding onto it tighter until, with assistance, he made it to the Union’s temporary barracks. Carney lost a lot of blood and nearly lost his life, but not once did he allow the flag to touch the ground. His heroics inspired other soldiers that day and were crucial to the North securing victory at Fort Wagner. Carney was promoted to the rank of sergeant for his actions. For his bravery, Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor on May 23, 1900.” Here’s a full list of all African American Civil War Medal of Honor recipients

Using this Find a Grave website link, you can locate and identify where USCT soldiers are buried in the United States. This includes 209,145 persons: 7,000+ Caucasian officers, 180,000 African American army troops, and 22,000 African American naval troops. This list may not be entirely comprehensive, but it did yield this information: there are 9 USCT graves in Locust Hill Cemetery and 1 in Oak Hill.

Soldiers’ section, Locust Hill Cemetery.
Source: Oramay Cluthe-Eades Collection, MSS 091-071
Source: Evansville Postcard Collection, RH 033-072

For a 4 minute overview of Black Soldiers in the Civil War, check out this video.

I think that’s enough for now The next blog will explore contraband camps, and the American Missionary Association and the Freedmen’s Bureau and how these are related to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). 

Resources Consulted:

The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship: The Civil War. Library of Congress exhibition.

African Americans In the Civil War. HistoryNet.com

Camp Nelson National Monument, Kentucky

Colored Troop Regiments from Kentucky, U.S. Civil War. Notable Kentucky African Americans Database.

Honoring the African American Recipients of the Civil War. Congressional Medal of Honor Society blog, February 11, 2020.

Lange, Katie. Meet Sgt. William Carney: The first African-American Medal of Honor Recipient. Department of Defense news, February 10, 2017.

Presidential Proclamation on the Establishment of the Camp Nelson National Monument. Issued October 26, 2018.

Right to Serve, Right to Lead: Lives and Legacies of the USCT. An exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College, August 29, 2016-December 18, 2017.

Taylor, Amy Murrell. Embattled Freedom: Journeys Through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps. University of North Carolina Press, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central. pgs. 185-187

United States Colored Troops: The Role of African Americans in the U.S. Army. American Battlefield Trust. Weidman, Budge. Black Soldiers in the Civil War: Preserving the Legacy of the United States Colored Troops. U.S. National Archives and Record Administration.

Posted in American history, history, Local history, Military History | Leave a comment


*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

The threat of COVID-19 wreaked havoc on 2020 and threatens to continue to do so for much of 2021. More staying at home, working or attending school virtually. More cancelled activities and vacations. More staying away from friends and family. More mask wearing. With the arrival of vaccines, the end may be in sight, but it’s still a long way off. That said, it can be useful to gain some perspective by taking a brief look at other times in history when humankind has endured pandemics and quarantines. At the end there’s a bit of a twist, a different kind of quarantine.

Plague doctor outfit from Germany (17th century). At the time it was believed that bad air spread the plague, so aromatic herbs, etc. could be inserted in the beak to counteract this.

Let’s start with the word, “quarantine.” Today, if you’ve been exposed to or have contracted the coronavirus, you are told to stay away from others, to quarantine yourself, for 14 days. But did you know that the word itself comes from the Latin quaranta, meaning 40? Makes 14 days seem easy, doesn’t it? In the middle 1300s, the plague began to sweep across Europe to great cost—it is estimated that 1/3 of the population died. With virtually no medical knowledge on which to draw, desperate measures were taken. “In 1374, Viscount Bernabo of Reggio, Italy, declared that every person with plague be taken out of the city into the fields, there to die or to recover. A similar strategy was used in the busy Mediterranean sea-port of Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik, Croatia). After a visitation of the black death, the city’s chief physician, Jacob of Padua, advised establishing a place outside the city walls for treatment of ill townspeople and outsiders who came to town seeking a cure The impetus for these recommendations was an early contagion theory, which promoted separation of healthy persons from those who were sick.” This was only partially successful, and in 1377 the city of Ragusa enacted strict laws enforcing what was at first a trentino, or 30 day isolation. No one could enter Ragusa without first quarantining for 30 days, and any arriving ship had to sit at anchor that long before landing. Anyone venturing into the isolation area (which was forbidden) was forced to stay for 30 days. Only those caring for the sick were permitted to bring food to anyone isolated. Over the years other municipalities enacted similar laws, although the isolation period grew from a trentino to a quarantino, the 40 day period from which today’s word quarantine derives. Why the change? Besides the obvious reason that the 30 day period didn’t produce sufficient results, there are theories that link this to the importance of the number 40 in the Bible—it rained 40 days and nights during the Great Flood, Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai, the 40 days of Lent, and/or Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. No matter the explanation, today we speak of quarantine even when we don’t mean 40 days.

While this official term for isolation wasn’t established until the 12th century, the practice of keeping those who are sick apart from others is ancient. Those suffering from leprosy are a prime example—the Bible mentions it 55 times in the Old Testament and 13 times in the New Testament. Lepers were shunned; the book of Leviticus calls them unclean. (The focus in the New Testament was different, with stories of Jesus touching and healing lepers.) Shunning the leper by separating him/her from society isn’t just a Biblical phenomenon. In 1866 a portion of the Hawaiian island of Molokai was designated a leper colony, and shiploads of new patients arrived several times a year, more than 8000 in all. Sufferers were taken from their families and sent to Molokai, expecting to die there. The facility didn’t close until 1969. The National Leprosarium of the United States was established in 1921 in Carville, LA, although lepers were sent there as early as 1894, the last in 1999. Some 4,500 patients passed through Carville. A very small number were housed and treated on Penikese Island, off the coast of Massachusetts, from 1905-1921.

Over the centuries the world has been swept with devastating pandemics. Below are just a few examples.

What is thought to be typhoid fever swept Greece in 430 B.C., killing 2/3 of the population.

The Black Death or bubonic plague ravaged Europe, beginning as early as 1347. “England and France were so incapacitated by the plague that the countries called a truce to their war. The British feudal system collapsed when the plague changed economic circumstances and demographics. Ravaging populations in Greenland, Vikings lost the strength to wage battle against native populations, and their exploration of North America halted.” In 1665 it came again to London, killing 20% of the population. In 1855 it moved across China, India, and Hong Kong, taking 15 million lives.

The arrival of the Spanish and other Europeans in the New World, bringing with them disease, decimated the native populations. The native population of Hispaniola dropped from 60,000 to less than 500 after Columbus arrived. Smallpox destroyed the Aztec empire in 1520.

These boys are wearing bags of camphor around their necks to protect them from the Spanish flu, an old wives’ tale method of prevention.

In 1817, “the first of seven cholera pandemics over the next 150 years, [the first] wave of the small intestine infection originated in Russia, where one million people died. Spreading through feces-infected water and food, the bacterium was passed along to British soldiers who brought it to India where millions more died. The reach of the British Empire and its navy spread cholera to Spain, Africa, Indonesia, China, Japan, Italy, Germany and America, where it killed 150,000 people. A vaccine was created in 1885, but pandemics continued.”

In 1918, the Spanish flu killed 50 million people across the globe, but it did not originate in Spain. In 1918, the Axis and Allied powers were waging WWI and refused to acknowledge the flu. Spain was a neutral country and thus not subject to such news blackouts, so the first report of the pandemic came from Madrid.

Yellow fever, SARS, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, and now COVID-19 are just a few of the other diseases that precipitate the need for isolation and/or quarantine.

The efficacy of prevention measures is dependent on a solid knowledge of the cause of the disease in question and how it is spread. Louis Pasteur published his findings about the role of bacteria in anthrax and helped establish the germ theory in 1861. In 1876 a German physician by the name of Robert Koch was able to replicate that, and in 1882 identified the bacteria causing tuberculosis. These findings were incredible and should have caused a huge drop in the number of cases of these diseases…except for the fact that medical science dragged its feet, not accepting germ theory until early in the 20th century. “Koch’s contemporaries were trained to believe that, “most diseases were caused by miasmas, undisciplined lifestyles, and anything other than tiny living organisms.”” The other important factor is understanding the incubation period. The moment the disease-causing mechanism enters the body, the host is infected. The host may not show symptoms, and any symptoms (fever, for instance) may be related to the immune response and not the disease itself. Consider the case of Typhoid Mary who, while harboring the bacteria causing typhoid fever and unknowingly infecting others, was herself completely asymptomatic and in good health.

Isolation is established when those people who belong in the red circle are restricted in their movements.

Quarantine occurs when those people who belong in the yellow circle have their movement restricted as well.

One unique quarantine began on July 24, 1969. That marked the day the Apollo 11 astronauts returned to Earth, and NASA wanted to make sure that they didn’t bring back a lunar plague. Here’s how this worked: as soon as they splashed down, astronauts Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. (aka Buzz), Neil A. Armstrong, and Michael Collins had to don special biological isolation garments while still inside the capsule. Then the hatch was opened, and they were taken by helicopter, with as little contact as possible, to the USS Hornet, the awaiting recovery vessel. After disembarking from the helicopter onto the ship, they headed straight into a Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) already aboard the ship. It was a converted Airstream trailer “which was essentially a highly modified, wheelless, 35-foot vacation trailer equipped with elaborate air ventilation and filtration systems. It contained sleeping quarters, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The astronauts remained in the MQF for the duration of their journey to Houston, which was a long voyage. From the USS Hornet, the MQF was transported to the Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii, and from there to nearby Hickam Air Force Base. At Hickam, the MQF was loaded into the cargo hold of a C-141 aircraft and flown to Ellington Air Force Base. With the astronauts still on board, it was then transported to the NASA LRL where there were more spacious quarantine facilities.”

Apollo 11 astronauts, left to right, Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., Neil A. Armstrong and Michael Collins, wave as they walk a short distance from their recovery helicopter to the Mobile Quarantine Facility aboard the USS Hornet. UASC MSS 244-0479, the Lee William Jones collection

The LRL was the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, a large facility at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Left: Aerial view of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL). Right: Schematic of the LRL showing the major functional areas,
with the red line indicating the areas inside the biological barrier.

The LRL consisted of four major functional areas – the Crew Reception Area (CRA), the Sample Operations Area, the Radiation Counting Laboratory, and the Administrative and Support Area. The CRA and the Sample Operations Area were inside the biological barrier to prevent any accidental contamination of the Earth with any possible, however unlikely, lunar microorganisms. A complex vacuum system ensured that air could not escape from the facility and also that the terrestrial atmosphere would not contaminate any of the pristine lunar samples. The CRA included dormitories for not only the three returning astronauts but also for the staff who were in quarantine with the crew. The Apollo Command Module was kept in quarantine in its own room within the CRA. Medical facilities, a small gym, a kitchen and dining area, and a glass-walled room for holding debriefings and press conferences rounded out the CRA. The Sample Operations Area included a gas analysis laboratory, a vacuum laboratory, and physical and biological sciences test laboratories. In these laboratories, many including vacuum gloveboxes, lunar samples were put through a variety of analyses to test their structure and composition as well as their effects on biological systems. The Radiation Counting Lab housed a state-of-the-art gamma-ray spectrometry laboratory constructed of low-background radiation material and built 50 feet underground to minimize exposure to background radiation. The Administration and Support Area included offices and conference rooms for managers, technicians and secretaries supporting the LRL activities.” Quarantine lasted 21 days. There’s an amusing and informative video here about the whole lunar plague quarantine thing….enjoy!

Bird-beaked plague masks. The miasma theory of contagion. 40 days and 40 nights. Leper colonies. Typhoid Mary. Possible lunar plague. All are part of the history of quarantine/social distancing/isolation that we’re dealing with now. Here’s to a better 2021!

Resources Consulted

“Apollo mission quarantine procedures.” Spacecenter.org blog, March 24, 2020.

Drews, Kelly. “A Brief History of Quarantine.” The Virginia Tech Undergraduate Historical Review: 2, May 1, 2013.

“50 Years Ago, On the Way to the Moon…” NASA.org, October 31, 2018.

Frost, Natasha. “Quarantined for Life: The Tragic History of US Leprosy Colonies.” History.com, March 31, 2020.

History of Quarantine. NOVA (PBS science program)

Kliabonoff, Eleanor. A History Of Quarantines, From Bubonic Plague To Typhoid Mary. npr.org, January 26, 2020.

“Pandemics That Changed History.” History.com editors, April 1, 2020.

Roos, Dave. How U.S. Cities Tried to Halt the Spread of the 1918 Spanish Flu. History.com, March 27, 2020.

Senthilingam, Meera. “Taken from their families: The dark history of Hawaii’s leprosy colony.” CNN.com, September 9, 2015.

Sehdev, Paul S. “The Origin of Quarantine.” Clinical Infectious Diseases 2002(35), November 1, 2002, p. 1071-1072.

Tognotti, Eugenia. “Lessons from the history of quarantine, from plague to influenza A.” Emerging Infectious Diseases, v. 19,no.2 (2013): p. 254-9.

Posted in American history, history, medicine | Leave a comment

The Twin Icons: Bi-State Vietnam Gold Star Bridges

*Post written by James Wethington, senior library assistant at the University Archives and Special Collections.

Another local icon in the Tri-State is the Twin Bridges, officially known as the Bi-State Vietnam Gold Star Bridges. For over eighty years, a bridge has connected Evansville, Indiana and Henderson, Kentucky. Many locals would talk negatively about the bridges because they have suffered numerous structural issues and traffic headaches for motorists over the years. Without the bridges, the cities of Evansville and Henderson may not have grown into what they have become today.

Audubon Memorial Bridge between Evansville, Indiana and Henderson, Kentucky.
Audubon Memorial Bridge between Evansville, Indiana and Henderson, Kentucky, n.d. Source: Evansville Postcard Collection (RH 033-313), n.d. University Archives and Special Collections, USI.

Construction started at the beginning of 1932 and was completed by mid-July 1932; however, there was only one span (the original span is the current north bound bridge). The bridge had a toll for many years. When the bridge was first built, it was referred to as the Henderson-Evansville Bridge because it connected the two cities together. Once completed, Indiana and Kentucky threw a huge celebration to launch the opening of it with a parade featuring Kentucky governor, Ruby Laffoon and Evansville mayor, Frank Griese. After them, the parade presented the advancement of cars (going from horse and buggy to gasoline cars). Once the bridge was opened, it was named the James John Audubon Bridge, honoring the famous ornithologist who lived in Henderson, Kentucky in the early 1800’s.

Audubon Memorial Bridge, between Evansville, Indiana and Henderson, Kentucky.
Audubon Memorial Bridge, between Evansville, Indiana and Henderson, Kentucky, n.d. Source: Evansville Postcard Collection (RH 033-315), University Archives and Special Collections, USI.

The bridge allowed traffic from US Route 41 to travel on because the route goes north and south from Miami, Florida to the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan (covering over 2,000 miles of road). Within its first year, it was estimated over one million people used the bridge and would increase by 48,000 cars in the following five years. The bridge did have a small toll, which would be eliminated in March 1941.

By the mid-1950’s, Kentucky and Indiana were exploring the idea of adding a second span to the bridge (currently the south bound bridge) to alleviate traffic congestion. The construction was supervised by Indiana and opened in July 1965. Unlike the original opening in 1932, there was no grandiose celebration. The following year, the north bound bridge was closed and underwent much needed repairs. The bridges would experience one more major change that would occur four years later.

Cars approach to Ohio River Bridge in Evansville, Indiana, 1937.
Cars approach to Ohio River Bridge in Evansville, Indiana, 1937. Source: Thomas Mueller Collection (MSS 264-2414), University Archives and Special Collections, USI.

Over Memorial Day weekend on May 31, 1969, the bridges were official named the Bi-State Vietnam Gold Star Memorial Bridge. It was an tribute to Vietnam War veterans for all Hoosier and Kentucky soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. The dedication began with a luncheon at the University of Evansville, where over 300 people attended (including local family members of soldiers who were killed in Vietnam). Major General S. H. Matheson from Fort Campbell, Kentucky spoke, and memorial poems were read shortly before the ceremony moved to the Twin Bridges. The northbound bridge was closed for the on-site ceremony. Carl Henze, whose son, Randall, was killed in Vietnam, stated, “I think the rededication of the bridge as a memorial to the war dead is wonderful. This is one of the finest things that could be done. It seems the boys who are killed in Vietnam don’t get much recognition. So, this is really wonderful” (Wersich, 1969). This had to be an honor to be a part of because renaming two bridges for those who fought and served in an unpopular war like Vietnam is a real tribute and sign of love to them. Though the bridges have been a sore subject for many, the bridges are a true icon for the Tri-State after eighty-eight years of faithful service.

Construction of southbound twin bridge between Evansville, Indiana and Henderson, Kentucky, c. 1965.
Construction of southbound twin bridge between Evansville, Indiana and Henderson, Kentucky, c. 1965. Source: Sonny Brown Collection (MSS 228-0074), University Archives and Special Collections.

The photographs in this blog are from various collections at the University Archives and Special Collections (UASC) at the David L. Rice Library at the University of Southern Indiana. There are over 44,000 photographs, videos, audio files, and documents available for research. If you need assistance, please contact UASC at archives.rice@usi.edu or (812) 228-5048.

References Consulted

Boyett, F. (2019, May 23). Twin bridges renamed in 1969 to honor Vietnam War dead. The Gleaner. Retrieved from https://www.thegleaner.com/story/news/2019/05/23/boyett-twin-bridges-renamed-1969-honor-vietnam-war-dead/1208751001/

Bridge dedication. (1932, July 5). Evansville Press. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/351GGJX

Croft III, J. H. (1965, December 17). Dedication of span, bypass climaxes states’ program. Evansville Courier. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2zrPL2P

Lents, A. (2007, June 28). Twin bridges: 75 years old and counting. 14 News. Retrieved from https://www.14news.com/story/6723321/twin-bridges-75-yrs-old-and-counting/

Luncheon to start bridge dedication. (1969, May 31). Evansville Courier and Press. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2YnZ6TE

New bridge opens door to greatest era of progress. (1932, July 25). Evansville Courier. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2yHUGw6

New bridge over Ohio opened late in 1965. (1965, December 29). Evansville Courier. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2KAxm6k

Wersich, C. (1969, May 31). Relatives of Viet causalities proud of memorial. Evansville Press. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2KIbp5c

Posted in Architecture, Evansville, Indiana, Local history | Leave a comment

Walking the Plank

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Does this conjure up an archetypal bloodthirsty pirate saying, “Arrr!” as a scurvy knave faces a horrible, watery death? It does for me, but today I want to share with you another use of the plank.

Transportation has come a long way—just look at how much easier it is to get to parts of Indiana via Interstate 69! That said, it’s not always easy — witness the flooded streets in parts of Evansville after a heavy rain. At least those roads are paved … think of how much more difficult it was for our ancestors in pre-automotive (or early automotive) days as they attempted to go from place to place. Before any sort of paved roads, walking, riding a horse, or riding a wagon over dirt paths wasn’t easy. Depending upon the soil type, it could be muddy or sandy and just plain treacherous. And slow! “Slowly they dragged their way through timber, streams, and swamps and over prairies covered with native grasses until then marked only by the trails of Indians, trappers, and traders. Two or three miles a day was good progress even in the more settled areas. … Teams bogged down, then wagons were unloaded, the whole family carrying the contents forward and returning to put their shoulders to the wheels. With every passing group of settlers, however, such trails as these widened, for each immigrant wagon sought to avoid the mud holes caused by preceding vehicles by seeking a new and firmer foundation for wheels and animals. What had been a narrow buffalo trail or a single set of wheel tracks thus soon became a widely extended maze of ruts and quagmires.” Once a town was established or a farm settled, the inhabitants needed to get their goods to market and be able to acquire other materials–clearly this wasn’t going to suffice. One solution was a plank road.

Just what is a plank road? “A plank road is a dirt path or road covered with a series of planks, similar to the wooden sidewalks one would see in a Western movie. Wagon roads surfaced with plank, kept the road open for traffic during the entire year which otherwise would be impassable during wet weather. Plank roads are similar to corduroy roads. A corduroy road or log road is a type of road made by placing sand-covered logs perpendicular to the direction of the road over a low or swampy area. The result is an improvement over impassable mud or dirt roads, yet rough in the best of conditions and a hazard to horses due to shifting loose logs.

On the left, you can see people traveling along the plank road. On the right, there is a diagram of how the plank road was made.
Images courtesy of the Wade House.
Travel along the plank road during harvesting season.
Image courtesy of the Wade House.

As primitive as it sounds to us today, the plank road was a boon to those early travelers. The earliest example of a plank road in the New World was built near Toronto, Canada in 1836. (The concept for such roads originated in Russia.) About 10 years later (1845-1846) the United States was able to claim its first plank road, built to cover the 14 miles between Syracuse, New York and the foot of Oneida Lake. Construction of these roads was done by private companies, not the federal or state government. Application was made to the state legislature for special charter plank road companies. “The provisions of the New York law, which was the pattern for many of the other states which likewise experimented with plank road construction, required that stock to the amount of at least $500 for each mile of proposed road must have been subscribed and at least five per cent of the subscription paid in cash before the articles of the company could be filed. The supervisors of the counties in or through which the road was to be constructed had to approve before work would commence. Stockholders were liable for an amount equal to their stock. Work on the project was required to be commenced within two years and completed within five.

Central Plank Road certificate of stock for a road to be built in Alabama.

From the late 1840s until the business depression of 1857 Americans invested some $10 million in more than seven thousand miles of plank roads concentrated mostly in New York and the Midwest….” Investors were paid back via tolls charged on the plank road. In Alabama, and this practice was probably similar for other plank roads, “there was a charge of 2 1/2 cents a mile for a four house private pleasure carriage; a loaded wagon with two horses was 3 cents per mile. Also there were bridges that charged tolls. However, there were no charges for funerals or for people going to church, to mill, to a blacksmith, or to a doctor.

Looking the at the list of Sources Consulted below, you can see ample evidence of some of those 7,000 plus miles of plank roads. One of the oddest experiments, in my opinion, was the road built across the Imperial Sand Dunes portion of the Algodones Dunes in Imperial County, California. The 8 miles must have been a nightmare to build—just picture vast amounts of constantly shifting, blowing sand! “From 1916 to 1926, crews of workmen struggled incessantly against nature to keep the road passable. Hard winds blew drifting sand across the road an average of two or three days a week, rendering the road nearly impassable about one-third of the time. The crew routinely worked the road with Fresno scrapers hitched to a team of draft animals, and travelers huddled in their vehicles while the sand swirled around them.

Pulling off the road onto the turnouts so that others might pass tried the patience of motorists. Traffic jams in the midst of desert vastness were not uncommon. On one occasion, a caravan of 20 cars encountered a lone traveler going in the opposite direction. Whether through timidity or stubbornness, the driver refused to back up to a turnout behind him. Finally, the party took matters in hand. The men lifted the car and set it on the sand, while the women proceeded to advance the caravan. When they were past, the car was lifted back up on the road, and all continued on their way.

In northeastern Indiana, the Lima Plank Road was constructed 1847-1849 “to connect Fort Wayne, the area’s center of commerce, to such promising outlying towns as Lima, Goshen, Yellow River, Kendallville, Piqua and Van Wert, Ohio, Winchester and Huntington.” In southeastern Indiana’s Floyd County, there were 5 plank roads built between 1851-1863: the New Albany, Lanesville, and Corydon Plank Road, the Old Vincennes Road, the New Albany-Jeffersonville Plank Road, the Slate Run Plank Road, and the New Albany and Charlestown Plank Road. Of more local interest was the September 1849 Indiana Plank Road Act which authorized construction in Posey County. Robert Dale Owen was one of the directors of this company. The road between New Harmony and Mt. Vernon (some 15 miles) was crucial to getting goods to market, but it wasn’t easy to travel due to mud, streams, etc. Why not use river transport? Well, there were dangerous rapids south of New Harmony on the Wabash River, so goods needed to be transported over land to Mt. Vernon to access the Ohio River. Owen hired an engineer to plan the road, following the path of least resistance and using the highest ridge possible to lessen drainage issues. Only perfect logs were used—hewn and floated down Big Creek to a steam sawmill called “The Mammoth.” The road was graded to 18 feet on its surface. There were actually two roads – one plank, one dirt. Which one you traveled on depended upon your mode of transportation. From Big Creek to Mt. Vernon the plank road was on the west side and the dirt on the east. This pattern was reversed in the Big Creek to Mt. Vernon stretch. Planks were 8 ft. long and 2 ft. thick, with width varying from 4 to 18 inches. Mile posts were painted white with black lettering and numbering. There were 3 toll stops – one just outside Mt. Vernon at Green Farm, then another in an old house ¼ mile south of Smith School, and a final one south from the Gentry house on Old New Harmony Rd. Toll houses were built with an extension over the roadway to protect the collector, who lived there with his family, collecting tolls and keeping records. The road was completed in 1851. Remley J. Glass provides these further details about its construction.

Although it was thirteen years after the first plank road was built in Canada, Owen realized his, and his fellow directors’, abysmal ignorance of plank roads all too well, and began an investigation of highway problems and plank road construction in the Empire State where such roads had been in use for two or three years. Fortunately, he embodied the information he gained in a thin, little sedecimo volume with the title Owen on Plank Roads embossed in gold on its cover. … Twelve or fifteen men formed a crew in charge of a foreman, equipped with “a wooden roller composed of a butt end of a large burr oak,” shovels, a “stout road plow of large size,” a strong iron rake, and iron crowbar, a heavy wooden maul, a scraper requiring two horses and two men, “a stout ox cart and three or four good yoke of oxen.” Two and one-half or three-inch planks sawed in eight-foot lengths were placed in convenient piles on one side with the stringers on the other, ready for the men to put them in place. Short lengths of plank were put under the joints of the stringers to avoid sinking during wet weather. Mr. Owen reckoned the cost of this lumber, “good and sound timber free from sap, bad knots, shakes, wanes and other imperfections impairing its strength and durability,” at $7.00 to $8.00 per thousand board feet. The eight-foot strip of hemlock, pine, or oak planking, with yellow poplar on the steeper inclines to give the horses a surer footing, was laid on one side of the grade on stringers imbedded in the earth with additional sections every two hundred yards or so for turn-outs. With this equipment of men and machinery thirty or forty rods a day, or perhaps half a mile a week, allowing for rainy weather, could be constructed at a labor cost of about $200 per mile.

Plank roads, as it turns out, were somewhat like a fad—very popular, with many areas jumping on the bandwagon, but short-lived. “From the late 1840s until the business depression of 1857 Americans invested some $10 million in more than seven thousand miles of plank roads concentrated mostly in New York and the Midwest, an investment which literally rotted away before their eyes. … Builders had projected a life span of at least seven years for the wooden roads, in reality they lasted only one or two years in the wet prairie areas of Indiana and Illinois. Even in drier areas the sun warped the top boards while ground moisture rotted the stringers.” Maintenance was troublesome: “after a few years of wear, the planks began to warp and rot away. The cost of repair, more lumber, gravel, toll buildings, employees, and management all came into play. As the planks deteriorated, gravel was used to compensate, making for a slower and bumpier ride.” Alabama’s plank roads suffered from warping in the winter and dry rot and insect damage in the summer. Plank roads there were used for only some 5 years. The Old Plank Road in California across the sand dunes lasted 10 to 12 years.

Timing, as they say, is everything. “It was the misfortune of these road projects … to come quickly into competition with the railroads, actual and dreamed of, which spanned Iowa. The expense incident to grading and planking of turnpikes coupled with the ever-present danger that a railroad might parallel the highway was a serious deterrent. The financial and civic interest in plank roads was unable to withstand the more compelling interest in subsidized railroad construction which would connect the newer regions not only with the Mississippi River, which was all the plank roads could do, but also with Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and the Atlantic seaboard. The final construction of railroads in and across Iowa marked the end of the Plank Road.” What was true in Iowa was true elsewhere. “Scholars suggest that plank roads were doomed from the start. First, they competed with railroads, a faster mode of transportation. Also, the timing of plank road construction was bad; in 1856 the North Carolina Railroad connected the mountains with the coast. Second, travelers cheated road companies by avoiding tolls. Third, the economic panics of the 1850s discouraged many investors. Fourth, plank roads required continual and costly maintenance. And fifth, the circumstances of the Civil War damaged or destroyed many plank roads.

Doomed as they were by the advent of railroad travel, plank roads still serve a purpose, some of today’s highways and roads are built atop the old foundations. You may not walk these planks, but apparently you can still drive them!

Check out this link for a blog on another infrastructure project doomed by its timing.

Sources Consulted

Causey, Donna R. “Imagine Traveling on Plank Roads Like This Between Cities in Alabama.” Alabama Pioneers website.

DeLeers, Michael. Plank Roads. Wisconsin 101: Our History in Objects online.

Gagen, Bob. “Traveling the Lima Plank Road.” kpcNews.com. November 29, 2007.

Glass, Remley J. “Early Transportation and the Plank Road.” The Annals of Iowa 21 (1939), 502-534.

Kelley, Anna E. The Plank Road. Greenfield, Ind.: Old Swimmin’ Hole Press, 1951. General Collection F526 .K3

Kickler, Troy L. Plank Roads. Encyclopedia entry in the North Carolina History Project online.

Longfellow, Rickie. Back in Time: Plank Roads. Highway History–United States Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration.

Old Plank Road. dangerousroads.org

Old Plank Road:Imperial Sand Dunes. DesertUSA.com

“The Plank-Road Craze .” American Eras . Encyclopedia.com.(May 19, 2020).

”Plank Road, New Albany to Corydon.” Southern Indiana Genealogical Society Quarterly, v. 9:no.4, October 1988.

Posted in American history, Transportation | Leave a comment

Raymond Frederick Diekmann Chrysler Wartime Collection

University Archives/Special Collections (UASC) at the David L. Rice Library is pleased to announce the acquisition and publication of the Raymond Diekmann photographic collection, MSS 253.  Diekmann (1913-1993) is probably best known as the owner of RaJo’s Gun Shop, but earlier in his career he was in charge of security at the Chrysler Plant/Evansville Ordnance Plant at 1625 North Garvin Street.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, “the Army Ordinance Department asked Chrysler if the Evansville plant could produce vast amounts of .45 automatic ammunition to supply the war effort. Chrysler President Kaufman Keller replied that they could.  Keller’s confidence in the Evansville plant’s abilities paid off. Between 1942 and 1944, the Evansville Ordinance Plant produced more than 3.26 billion cartridges – about 96% of all the .45 automatic ammunition produced for all the armed forces. In addition to the ammunition, the Evansville Ordinance Plant rebuilt 1,600 Sherman tanks and 4,000 military trucks. Plymouth car production resumed after World War II.” The plant closed in 1959.

Although he was not the photographer, Diekmann, in his role with security, would have been in many, if not all parts, of the plant and seen what is pictured in the more than 900 images of this collection, which all deal with the World War II work at the plant.

August 3, 1944 saw the arrival of the largest number of tanks needing repair, 32 train flatcars. MSS 253-0478
After repair and/or retrofitting, tanks were tested on this track. MSS 253-787
After repair and/or retrofitting, tanks were tested on this track. MSS 253-787
The “powder farm” for the ordnance plant was the current location of the Vanderburgh County 4-H Center. MSS 2583-586
Women working on wire harness assembly. MSS 253-805
African American man and women packing 30-caliber ammunition into boxes. MSS 253-433
African American man and women working at a 30--caliber carton machine. MSS 253-254
African American man and women working at a 30–caliber carton machine. MSS 253-254

If this brief peek at the collection intrigues you, click here to browse the Raymond Frederick Diekmann Chrysler Wartime Collection, which is also keyword searchable.  These photographs will be of use for sociology, history, engineering, and gender and race studies purposes.  And besides, it’s just plain fascinating!  It’s a portion of the more than 40,000 digitized images and documents held by UASC, covering the history of the University of Southern Indiana (USI), formerly Indiana State University Evansville (ISUE), as well as the history of Evansville, Indiana and the Midwest Region, along with various communal groups in the United States and around the world. Of particular interest is the African Cultural Diversity Showcase, a collection of 233 artifacts from Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon, South Africa, and Ghana.  To explore any or all of these other collections, visit the Online Digital Galleries at the University Archives and Special Collections. In the future there will be other blogs that delve a bit deeper into the tank, truck, and ammunition work at the Evansville Ordnance plant…in the meanwhile, enjoy!

Posted in American history, Evansville, Indiana, history, Local history | Leave a comment