Central Park nearly sold in 1865
By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff
Central Park is now recognized as one of the city's crown jewels, of course, but at one time it was considered more of a nuisance.
When Samuel Hopkins and Thomas Allin laid out Henderson in 1797 they originally designated as public land all of the property bounded by Green, Water, First and Washington streets. "We have left perhaps a larger proportion ... than might be judged expedient, but it is the lowest land in the whole (town) site and is much incommoded with ravines and ponds and is of course by far the least estimable for habitation," Hopkins wrote in his report to the Richard Henderson Co.
Two-thirds of that land went into private ownership in a compromise of some big land squabbles of the 1820s. The remainder, most of which is now Central Park, was called the Public Square. It wasn't really a park. It was more of an overgrown vacant lot where circus tents were pitched, scaffolds were set up for hangings, and where the militia drilled during the annual muster. During the Civil War, between late 1862 and early 1864, the land was used by the U.S. Army. A large horse lot was set up there, and cabins were built there one winter to house soldiers.
In 1864 the Henderson Reporter suggested in its May 12 edition that the land be sold and the proceeds used to improve the city wharf.
"The city square is no manner of benefit to the city -- it is neither ornamental or useful to the city authorities or the people in general. We would, therefore, suggest that the square be divided into suitable lots and sold, the proceeds to be appropriated to the opening and improvement of the wharf. What say the Mayor and Council?"
The newspaper periodically kept pushing that idea until action was taken. The city council petitioned the Kentucky General Assembly, which authorized sale of the land -- provided the voters ratified the idea at a May 1, 1865, election.
The voters approved, the square was divided into 26 lots, and on Aug. 10 the Reporter noted that auction of those lots would take place Sept. 9.
"A good opportunity will thus be offered to capitalists. We hope to see, on our city wharf, that the proceeds of the sale of the Public Square have been judiciously expended for the public good and the ornament of our proud and thriving city."
All but five of the lots were sold at the auction, according to city records, at prices ranging from $490 to $2,200. The total was $20,632 -- but not everyone paid their money. In 1868 the city council authorized lawsuits to be filed against seven buyers who had not paid the city.
Those suits backfired. The city not only didn't get its money, it had to give back all the money it had previously collected because the courts determined the sale had been illegal. Here is how E.L. Starling described the incident in his history:
"The act of the Legislature authorizing the sale of the square was worth no more than the paper upon which it was written. The city could make no title, and as a necessary consequence, was compelled to refund the money she had received, and pay for one or two buildings erected since the sale."
One of those buildings became the city police court, but the other, built by J.A. Hoffman, was used as a grocery store and saloon for about 15 years.
The transformation of the public square into Central Park took place in the mid-1880s, with the Reporter complaining as early as September 1883 that the square was "an eye-sore and a disgrace to the city." But by July 1, 1884, the scene had changed, according to the Reporter, and the transformation was under way:
"The (wrought-iron fence) enclosure around the park is completed, the old buildings have been removed, and all that now remains to be done to make it a delightful place of resort during the summer afternoons is clearing away the rubbish, fixing up the grounds and placing seats there under the trees. We learn that a fountain is already determined on," although that didn't materialize until 1892.
Here is how Juliet Alves Johnston described the park in a Dec. 30, 1928, article in The Gleaner:
"At one time Center Street ran through to Main Street. On it were situated Hoffman's Grocery and the Police Court, causing them to be in the heart of what is now our Central Park. Many of us remember when the park had a lake, much the shape of a figure eight, with an arched bridge over the center; the black asphalt walk, and the iron fence which enclosed the entire block."
75 years ago
Local ice plants were rationing ice in an "ice famine" in mid-August 1930 as high heat continued and Evansville ice plants refused to send any more across the river, according to a story in The Gleaner.
"Reserves at Nicholson's and Eckert's had been exhausted some days ago and (loss of Evansville ice) left an acute situation that was met by almost superhuman energy at the ice plant."
50 years ago
Work on what was to become W.C. Handy Pool was ready to begin, with the architect and the contractor fine-tuning the project, according to a 1955 article in The Gleaner. The pool for blacks was demolished in 1984 and the site is now W.C. Handy Park.
25 years ago
A jury award of more than $250,000 in 1980 was the largest verdict of its kind in this county up to that point, according to an article in The Gleaner.
Andrew Trimborn, 80, was awarded $200,000 from Sun Oil Co. and Wilson Swearer, 69, received $50,061. Trimborn was a hitchhiker Swearer had picked up; both had their necks broken when an empty Sunoco gasoline tanker rear-ended their pickup truck.
Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS