Both Sides of the Falls

FallsIt is very easy for a city’s development to hide its historical significance. There are many reasons for why people settled in the Louisville area, but the tucked-away Falls of the Ohio was the most natural of geological reasons for settlers to set up a port where we now live. Last week, I thought that visiting a museum relating to this history would be a good idea. As it happened, I visited two – on each side of the river.

The river was high during my visit to the Falls of the Ohio Interpretive Center, which recently re-opened after a massive upgrade. Located on the riverfront in Clarksville, the beautifully designed center can’t be missed.

The interior lobby entrance has new suspended glass sculpture work leading up to the Mammoth skeleton emphasizing the prehistoric significance of The Falls.

exibit1“One of the things we really tried to do with the new exhibits was to narrow down the focus,” says Interpretive Naturalist Jeremy Beavin, who works at the Center. “We had so many different stories in the old exhibits. We told the story of the Louisville Slugger and the Colgate factory, so we’ve really tried to focus it all down to four major themes.”

When you enter the first exhibit through the “time tunnel,” motion sensor sound effects respond to your entrance to let you know that you have entered “The Ancient Sea” of the Devonian period when everything was underwater. The next section – “The Changing Land” – explores the Ice Age, the shifting of land masses that formed the Ohio River and the earliest human inhabitants. There’s a Shawnee Wigwam with a recent recording of those who still know the language.

Everything in these exhibits features an array of creatively arranged interactive aspects often utilizing state-of-the-art technology to teach people of all ages the archaeological and paleontological significance of The Falls. There’s even an app for locating specific fossils when going outside to visit the beds.

portland ext2The rest of the museum focuses on European arrival with an immersive presentation of a Lewis and Clark Expedition movie. Outside the theatre, “The Falls Today” section explains the current ecosystem.

This is where the Louisville side of the story picks up, and there is a tremendous amount of recent history lessons to obtain at the Portland Museum, located on Portland Avenue in one of Louisville’s oldest neighborhoods.

The Museum is a modern piece of architecture built into the restored Squire Earick House, and it houses relics of people who made a home and a community when coming upon The Falls of the Ohio. Teresa Lee, the museum educator, showed me a map of the Ohio River and other images representing a time before the 1830 Canal allowed for easy passage.

“You even see it in prehistoric times. This is the one natural obstruction along the almost thousand miles of the Ohio River,” says Lee. “This is the one place where people had to stop. In Native American times, this was the nexus of a massive trading network. Whoever controlled the falls controlled the flow of resources.

exibit7“Portland was established … in 1811, and it was a happening place. And it’s really interesting just to see the changes in the neighborhood because this really was a prominent neighborhood at one point. In 1937, after the flood, the original wharf was declared a park. That’s when that area stopped being inhabited. There was never any rebuilding, and then when the floodwall went in, everything that was on the other side of the floodwall was raised. Basically, what you see is the historic landscape disappear from this neighborhood.”

There is an architecture gallery, a chimney pot gallery, a sports history display of local legends and many archival photographs depicting important social gatherings of the working class. There’s even an animatronic figure representing Captain Mary Miller, the first female steamboat pilot.

In the restored house section of the museum, there is a rather grand room devoted to John James Audubon, the portrait and wildlife painter.

Through my visits on this day, I learned so much about the evolutionary history connected with the water and land that surrounds it. I also learned a lot about our lost connection to the recent past. Both of these institutions are great places that bring visitors closer to knowing about where we live and that significant section of river in the middle of it all. VT

For more information, visit fallsoftheohio.org and goportland.org

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