Lawson's "Grand Rivers" Boom
Recalled In Western Kentucky
Plans Were To Make Grand Rivers Another Pittsburg
Editor's Note: Thomas Lawson came to Grand Rivers, Livingston County, Kentucky, in the 1890s. There he saw the area as being an iron producer. During his promotion days of the town, Lawson was accompanied there by many businessmen from Boston, Massachusetts. Among those businessmen was a professional photographer who captured scenes of the town and the surrounding area. The Grand Rivers Tourism Commission has compiled the scenes into a pictorial history available on compact disc. Throughout the coming months some of the photographs will be shown in The Kentucky Explorer . The proceeds of this project go to the Grand Rivers History Club to assist with the preservation of the original copies of these photos. If any readers are interested in the pictorial CD, feel free to contact the Grand Rivers Tourism Commission, P. O. Box 181, Grand Rivers, KY 42058; 888/493-0152.
By Walter Pannell - March 1932
Kentucky Progress Magazine
If one will take a map of Southwest Kentucky, he will find that, at a point about 20 miles from Paducah, McCracken County, Kentucky, the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers attain a nearness to each other of approximately two miles; and at this point stretching from river to river old maps indicate a prospective city with streets, alleys, and avenues laid out for a town of 20,000 population. This expanse of vacant lots, with here and there a dwelling or store, is all that is left of Grand Rivers, Livingston County, Kentucky, which in the early 1890s was a pet financial project of Thomas W. Lawson, famous for his "frenzied finance," a village of some 400 souls. Here is where, he tells us in his book, Lawson dropped his "wad" and was caused to end his days a penniless old man.
Grand Rivers' greatest boom days were in 1898 when Thomas W. Lawson, a young financier who liked nothing so much as a gamble with the fortunes of luck, backed by an array of capital from his home city of Boston, Massachusetts, undertook to establish between the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers a second Pittsburg. The main impetus for the mammoth enterprise was the deposits of iron ore that had recently been discovered in Southwest Kentucky. Development of these resources spurred Lawson on to the starting of the project, the construction of the "Grand Rivers smelter," then one of the best equipped in the country, but now (1932) being raised and sold for scrap iron. A few miles from Grand Rivers, near Kuttawa Mineral Springs, is the ruins of another old smelter where, it is claimed, Bessemer Steel was developed. Other smelter sites that dot the country indicate that Lawson was not alone in believing in the future of Southwest Kentucky as an iron producing section.
Grand Rivers, Livingston County, Kentucky, in the 1890s, was a pet financial project of Thomas W. Lawson. Lawson saw the future of Southwest Kentucky as an iron producing area. (Grand Rivers Tourism Commission photo.)
Grand Rivers was to be the home of many other enterprises, which were to be brought from Boston by its founder, according to early promotion claims, and a city to accommodate them was laid out from river to river. A building program of city-size magnitude followed and many large buildings and fine residences were constructed. A large brick building, now (1932) occupied by the Basic Remedies Company, is practically the only one of the substantial buildings constructed during the boom days that has been left standing. It is called the "Boston Block" from the fact that it was financed by Boston capital. The "Grand Rivers smelter" office building, which is unique in that it is partly constructed of iron ore, has also been acquired by the company mentioned and remodeled as a residence for its president, E. W. Dodge. Several fine residences built during the "boom days" attest the city that was to be.
It is said that during the promotion days of Grand Rivers, Lawson loaded several hundred prospective investors on a steamboat, took them down the Tennessee River to Paducah, then back up the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers, and unloaded them on the other side of the town, just two miles from where they had started. The trip was ostensibly made for the purpose of demonstrating the water transportation facilities that the prospective industrial city afforded. As an illustration of the care-free way in which Lawson spent money on his "pet project," it is claimed that he bought dinners for the boat load of some four or five hundred prospective investors at the then famous Palmer House in Paducah at one dollar per plate. Another relates how, when the Palmer House, once the most famous hostelry in Southwest Kentucky, was opened to the public, Lawson gave a check for $100 for the first drink sold over the Palmer House bar. Old timers relate how the check was framed and hung over the bar for many years.
Just what stopped the expansion of the bubble it is hard to say at this time. Boston and other eastern capital was pouring into the project by the thousands of dollars when, like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, the bubble burst and work instantly ceased, with numerous buildings started that were never completed. Some old timers say it was the hard times during the Cleveland administration. Others lay it to the fact that the iron ore in this section proved to be of such doubtful value and limited quantities that it was necessary to ship in order to provide working material for the smelter. The historical facts are that the furnace closed down after Lawson had operated it only a short time, reopening again for a brief period after being acquired by the Hillman Land and Timber Company. During WWI the Suwanne Iron Company operated the smelter, which has been closed down since that time, pending negotiations for its sale. In 1930 the smelter was acquired by Lui Heimansohn and Son, junk dealers of Clarksville, Tennessee, who immediately began wrecking and shipping the machinery as junk.
Lawson's iron smelter was constructed with two 60-ton charcoal furnances. This photo was taken five months after the beginning of the furnaces' erection. In the 1890s, it was consisered one of the best-equipped smelters in the country. (Grand Rivers Tourism Commission photo.)
The material that composed the initial project that was to make a second Pittsburgh of Grand Rivers is now (1932) being used in a variety of ways. Some is being shipped to foundries where it will be converted into everything from cook stoves to iron fences. Iron pipes from the smelter are being used as culverts in a number of adjoining counties in Kentucky. Brick and stone from the engine room now comprise the new high school gymnasium at Gilbertsville, Marshall County, Kentucky. Other brick that housed the boilers is being used to construct walks and fences, and in a variety of other ways in the surrounding towns.
The gravel pit near the Tennessee River, which was opened by the railroad lines about the time of Grand Rivers' boom days, is the only industrial enterprise that has continued operational. It has since been acquired by the Memphis Sand and Gravel Company, and loads from 20 to 30 carloads of gravel daily during peak operations. Some few years ago, the Basic Remedies Company acquired considerable property in Grand Rivers, including the "Boston Block," where the company operates its business. In 1931 the West Kentucky Coal Company acquired property adjacent to Grand Rivers, where they have constructed a large coal cleaning plant, having trackage facilities of 200 cars and a large potential daily production. Thus Grand Rivers still has industrial ambitions.
Lawson's frenzied finance and gambling proclivities eventually reduced his once large fortune to a meager livelihood, some authorities claiming that he died penniless and that his funeral expenses were borne by relatives. In his book, he mentions Grand Rivers as a place where he lost considerable money, but adds that the friendships gained there were sufficient recompense for his losses. Promotion prospectuses issued by Lawson on the Grand River project describe Southwest Kentucky in the usual glowing terms and furnish an inkling of what Lawson expected to accomplish between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.
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