Throwback Thursday: When Bowling Green Was a River Town

A river town is defined as a settlement particularly dependent on a nearby river for commerce,
trade, travel, and all things giving the town life. In its infancy as a city, Bowling Green was
indeed a river town, given its reliance on the Barren River. Given the recent public
announcement of the new riverfront development coming to downtown Bowling Green, we
thought it would be fun to remember when Bowling Green was a booming river town, hoping the
new development can pay a little homage to the city’s roots.

Bowling Green was incorporated in 1798. It relied heavily on the Barren River to bring
necessary items for settlers paving their way through what was then considered a wild western
wilderness. Records show the first small steamboat landed in Bowling Green thirty years later, in
1828. In ten more years’ time, a series of locks was built to allow for even more steamboat and
flatboat commerce and travel by the 1840s. The Barren River is the Green River’s biggest
tributary. Completing that lock and dam system allowed for even the biggest of steamboats to
travel through Bowling Green, from the northern waters of the Ohio River all the way to New
Orleans along the mighty Mississippi.

One could float by raft from Bowling Green to the Louisiana bayous. Commerce, trade, and
travel thrived for over a century along these routes. Bowling Green’s growth stemmed from its
river port, and the construction of the L&N Railroad through the city in the late 1850s brought
even more opportunities for trade and travel. Boats were known to stop at port in Bowling Green
even through the 1960s.

But the Barren River’s source of trade and travel went out of style around the time the
automobile became more affordable for family travel after World War II, when the federal
highway system morphed into the new interstate highway system of the 1950s and 60s. Like
boat travel ending in Bowling Green, the final passenger train to pull out of Bowling Green’s
depot left in 1976. River activities fell out of fashion and later generations forgot this place was ever a river town.

Until now. Developers Patrick Reynolds and Kelley Coleman have released plans for a new
development in downtown Bowling Green. Called “The Launch” and approved at
City County Planning Commission, this development has the potential for a new brewery and
restaurant, apartments and hotel, entertainment space, and even a canoe and kayak outfitters
along the river. The developers also plan to transform the former VFW space out Highway 185,
also along the river, into a campground and amphitheater. They’re reminding us of this very
underutilized river resource for commerce and leisure. Let’s bring our rivertown back to life.