Paducah is a 2nd-class city in and the county seat of McCracken County, Kentucky, United States. The largest city in the Jackson Purchase region, it is located at the confluence of the Tennessee and the Ohio Rivers, halfway between St. Louis, Missouri, to the northwest and Nashville, Tennessee, to the southeast. The population was 25,024 during the 2010 U.S. Census. Twenty blocks of the city's downtown have been designated as an historic district and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Paducah was first settled as Pekin (a former name of Beijing, China) by James and William Pore . The community favorably located at the confluence of several waterways occupied a site previously noted as a Chickasaw trading center.
The town was laid out by William Clark (of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition) in 1827 and renamed Paducah. Although local lore long connected this to an eponymous Chickasaw chief "Paduke" and his tribe of "Paducahs", authorities on the Chickasaw have since made clear that there was never any chief or tribe of that name, anything like it, nor any words like them in the Chickasaw tongue. Instead, it is probable that Clark named the town for the Comanches (known at the time as the Padoucas, from a Spanish transcription of the Kaw Pádoka or Omaha Pádoⁿka).
Incorporation, steamboats, and railroads
Paducah was formally established as a town in 1830 and incorporated as a city by the state legislature in 1838. By this time, steam boats traversed the river system and its port facilities were important to trade and transportation. In addition, railroads began to be developed that entered the region. A factory for making red bricks, and a foundry for making rail and locomotive components became the nucleus of a thriving "River and Rail" economy. It became the site of dry dock facilities for steamboats and towboats, and thus headquarters for many barge companies. Because of its proximity to coalfields further to the east in Kentucky and north in Illinois, Paducah also became an important railway hub for the Illinois Central Railroad. This was the primary north-south railway connecting the industrial cities of Chicago and East St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico at Gulfport, Mississippi. The Illinois Central system also provided east-west links to the Burlington Northern and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railways (which later merged to become the BNSF Railway).
During the Civil War, Kentucky as a border state maintained neutrality, staying in the Union. Its slaveholders kept their slaves. On September 6, 1861, forces under Union General Ulysses S. Grant captured Paducah and took control of the mouth of the Tennessee River. Throughout most of the war, Col. Stephen G. Hicks was in charge of Paducah and the massive Union supply depots and dock facilities for the gunboats and supply ships that supported Federal forces along the Ohio, Mississippi and Tennessee river systems.
On December 17, 1862, under the terms of General Order No. 11, US forces required thirty Jewish families to leave their long-established homes. Grant was trying to break up a black market in cotton, in which he suspected Jewish traders were involved. Cesar Kaskel, a prominent local Jewish businessman, dispatched a telegram of complaint to Pres. Lincoln and met with him; together with similar actions by other Jewish businessmen and loud complaints by Congress, he succeeded in seeing the order revoked within a few weeks.
On March 25, 1864, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest raided Paducah as part of his campaign northward from Mississippi into Western Tennessee and Kentucky. He intended to re-supply the Confederate forces in the region with recruits, ammunition, medical supplies, horses and mules and especially to disrupt the Union domination of the regions south of the Ohio River. The raid was successful in terms of the re-supply effort and in intimidating the Union, but Forrest returned south. According to his report, "I drove the enemy to their gunboats and fort; and held the city for ten hours, captured many stores and horses; burned sixty bales of cotton, one steamer, and a drydock, bringing out fifty prisoners."
Later having read in the newspapers that 140 fine horses had escaped the raid, Forrest sent Brigadier General Abraham Buford back to Paducah, to get the horses and to keep Union forces busy there while he attacked Fort Pillow in Tennessee. His forces were charged with a massacre of United States Colored Troops who they defeated at the fort. On April 14, 1864, Buford's men found the horses hidden in a Paducah foundry, as reported by the newspapers. Buford rejoined Forrest with the spoils, leaving the Union in control of Paducah until the end of the War.
On January 21, 1937, the Ohio River at Paducah rose above its 50-foot flood stage, cresting at 60.8 feet on February 2 and receding again to 50-feet on February 15. For nearly three weeks, 27,000 residents were forced to flee or to stay with friends and relatives in higher ground in McCracken or other counties. The American Red Cross and local churches provided some shelters. Buildings in downtown Paducah still bear plaques that define the high water marks.
Driven by 18 inches of rainfall in 16 days, along with sheets of swiftly moving ice, the '37 flood was the worst natural disaster in Paducah's history. The earthen levee was ineffective against this flood, and as a result, Congress authorized the United States Army Corps of Engineers to build the flood wall that now protects the city.
In 1950, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission selected Paducah as the site for a new uranium enrichment plant. Construction began in 1951 and the plant opened for operations in 1952. Originally operated by Union Carbide, the plant has changed hands several times. Martin Marietta, its successor company Lockheed-Martin, and now the United States Enrichment Corporation have operated the plant in turn. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), successor to the AEC, remains the owner.
On April 25, 1991, the National Quilt Museum opened in downtown Paducah. The Museum is a cultural destination that annually attracts an international collection of more than 40,000 quilters and art enthusiasts to the Paducah area. The Museum features professional quilt and fiber art exhibits that are rotated throughout the year. It is the largest single tourist attraction in the city.