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A sweeping cultural history, The Kentucky River reflects the rich tapestry of life along the banks. Flowing with tales of river ghosts and hidden treasures lying in the backwaters, the book records the myths and events the river has spawned. Bill Ellis also celebrates the Kentucky's influence on such figures as writer Wendell Berry and painter Paul Sawyier.

Beginning with an intriguing overview of the river's formation and characteristics, Ellis shows how the stream has helped shape Kentucky's environment, economy, and political culture. In centuries past, flotillas of flatboats carried whiskey, pork, and valuable raw materials downriver to markets in Louisiana. Later, the river became a source of entertainment as showboats brought theater, movies, music, and dancing to otherwise isolated communities.

The book describes the environmental impact of settlement, logging, mining, and industrialization, developments that have sometimes tainted the Kentucky's mighty waters with silt, sewage, and trash. In the last thirty years, however, Kentuckians have come together in major efforts to clean and preserve the Kentucky's waters and the life along its banks. Advocates for the river achieved a victory in protecting the stunning Kentucky River Palisades between Boonesborough and Frankfort, and efforts continue to preserve the irreplaceable river for future generations.

"Tells the story of the Kentucky from the perspective of those who work and play along it."—Filson History Quarterly

"Those who have stood by the river’s banks and watched the slow flow of the water, those who have fished it, and those who have simply listened to the sounds of the world that surround the river, know that this book rings true and that the Kentucky, once more, has found a worthy chronicler of its life."—James C. Klotter, North Carolina Historical Review

"Ellis has combined the skills of a historian with his concern for the Kentucky River to provide a traditional synthesis of the old river’s past that is suitable for a popular audience."—Journal of American History

"A comprehensive study of the river—its environment, people, culture, geography, and history."—Journal of Southern History

"Covers the idea of the river, the floods of 1937 and 1939, memories of showboats, and plans for use and preservation of the river."—Kentucky Living

"Makes an overwhelming case that the Kentucky River has been exploited, abused, misused, misread, and now neglected since the time of the first white settlements and especially in the past 120 years. . . . Belongs on the desk of every policymaker charged with rehabilitating the river and finding a role for it in 21st century life."—Kentucky Monthly

"Not only offers an insightful overview of the river’s history and its influence on the heart of Kentucky, but also chronicles the adventures of the Kentucky’s colorful personalities: the happiness, hardship, humor, and violence that were a part of everyday river life. Sets before the public a clear mirror reflecting its past abuses of the river, and a sound and calculated view of the river’s future."—Louisville Courier-Journal

"Provides keen insight into the lives of the people who have identified emotionally, culturally, and economically with the Kentucky River across the years."—Lynwood Montell

"A case study of problems which far too often afflict many waterways in North America."—Northern Mariner

"Chronicles a fascinating history of this particular place, examining the many ways we have tried to shape it . . . and the many ways it has shaped us."—Now & Then

"For fluid insights into the land and people of the Bluegrass State, pick up a copy of The Kentucky River , which documents the past and present of the 255-mile-long highway of water."—Southern Living

"Ellis gives a broad human dimension to the Kentucky River and its valley. With its wide variety of social settings, its basic importance to the land, and the earthy romance of its history, the river holds a special place in Kentucky history."—Thomas D. Clark

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Kentucky, Kentucky River, Oral history



The Kentucky River
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