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America. Enterprise. Metropolis. Cairo. Rome. These are a few of the grandly named villages and towns along the lower Ohio River. The optimism with which early settlers named these towns reveals much about the history of American expansion. Though none became the next great American city, it was not for lack of ambition or entrepreneurial spirit. Why didn’t a major city develop on the lower Ohio? What geographic, economic, and cultural factors caused one place to prosper and another to wither? How did Evansville become the largest and most influential city in the region? How did smaller cities such as Owensboro and Paducah succeed?

Regardless of how appealing a locale looked on the map, luck, fate, culture, and leadership all helped determine success or failure. The fate of Cairo, Illinois—on paper an ideal site for a metropolis—emphasizes the extent to which human decisions, rather than physical landscape, affected a town’s prosperity. The location of a canal or railroad terminus, the construction of a factory, or the activities of local boosters all mattered greatly. Darrel Bigham examines these towns and villages from the 1790s, when the first settlements appeared, to the 1920s, when the modern pattern of life associated with automobiles, economic upheaval, and mass culture emerged. Bigham's intimate knowledge of the area offers a true sense of the towns and villages and discloses fundamental truths about the workings of the American dream.

Darrel E. Bigham, professor of history at the University of Southern Indiana and director of the Historic Southern Indiana Project, is the author of An Evansville Album: Perspectives on a River City.

"Explains in detail the people who came to the area, how they got there, and what happened to them."—Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal

"Brilliantly conceived and well executed."—American Historical Review

"A significant contribution to regional and social history. . . . Highly recommended."—Choice

"Not only has Bigham provided valuable insights into the dynamics of urbanization on the lower Ohio, he also has helped frame important questions for future research of small cities and towns across the country. This is a truly ground-breaking book."—Filson Club History Quarterly

"Bigham has provided us with a very detailed model of a regional study. . . . Will send local historians, especially those in small towns, scurrying to . . . find sources that will document their own communities as Bigham has documented these along the Lower Ohio."—H-Net Reviews

"The first history of community building on the least-known section of the Ohio River—the 300-plus miles below the Falls of Louisville."—Indiana History Bulletin

"Bigham makes his greatest contribution to our understanding of the lower Ohio River valley when he discusses the river's effect on the social and cultural relationships of the people who lived along it."—Indiana Magazine of History

"Bigham never loses sight of his subject's remoteness from the main thoroughfares of America, referring often and wisely to outside, external, and exogenous trends that shaped this increasingly marginal region."—Journal of Illinois History

"Provides wonderful insight into the development of towns, cities, and counties along the lower Ohio, as well as describing the people who occupied these historic entities."—Lynwood Montell, Western Kentucky University

"A well-crafted comparative history of community building on the lower 350 miles of the Ohio River."—Public Historian

"Gives us perspective on a unique regional river culture and economy, as if somehow Bigham could sift layers of top soil deposits and come up with explanations and residue from the past that inform the present."—Southern Seen

"Those wishing to find a sampling of the published information available on the beginnings of a truly comprehensive roster of towns and villages on the lower Ohio from the first days of Kentucky's statehood to the end of World War I may wish to begin with this book."—The Journal of American History

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Ohio River Valley, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky


United States History

Towns and Villages of the Lower Ohio
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