Historical Marker #1065 in Paducah remembers the importance of the waterfront to this river city where the Tennessee River flows into the Ohio River.
River towns are often established due to natural geographical distinctions. For example, cities and towns like Louisville dot rivers where a fall line occurs. The falls create a barrier to stream navigation and thus a center of population and commerce develops at those locations. Similarly, when two streams combine (like at Paducah), the land at the confluence becomes significant due to the potential trade with two arteries instead of just one.
Cities like Paducah developed strong ties to the river trade because the waterways were the location’s life blood. Without these rivers, the towns would not exist as they did. Before railroads and reliable roads, rivers were the quickest and most efficient way to navigate long stretches of territory. However, river navigation was practically limited to downstream travel until the invention and implementation of the steamboat, which allowed vessels to travel against the current.
Paducah's early growth resulted largely from steamboat navigation on the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers. The steamboats provided a two-way level of trade. Before steamboats, flatboats and keelboats transported goods and passengers to downriver locations like Natchez and Vicksburg, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana. But, with steamboats, cities like Paducah benefited from not only sending goods to distant downstream places, but also from receiving and then merchandizing those commodities from long distance downstream locales.
Unfortunately, the rivers at Paducah brought disasters along with the benefits. Frequent late winter and spring flooding was a constant threat to Paducah, especially before a series of dams were built to regulate seasonal rises in water on the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Ohio Rivers. Serious floods in 1884, 1913, and 1937, all resulted in enormous amounts of property damage and loss of life. A flood wall was constructed in Paducah in 1946 that further helped reduce the damage from quick rises in water.
Although the steamboats are no longer a vital part of Paducah's riverfront, its association with the Ohio and Tennessee River trade continue in the form of tugboats and long barges, often carrying coal from the state's western coalfields to power plants along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.