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The History of Augusta

After the Revolutionary War, Captain Philip Buckner was awarded a land-grant by the State of Virginia in reward for his service. After making his first visit to the area in 1781, Buckner returned fifteen years later with 40 other families to settle in the town he called Augusta (named, it is believed, in honor of his home in Augusta County, Virginia). At Buckner's request, a meeting was held to choose town trustees whereupon he deeded over to them the 600 acres on which the city is located. On October 7, 1797, the Kentucky Legislature issued the town its charter.

Augusta served as the seat of government in Bracken County until 1839, when it was permanently relocated to Brooksville. The first session of court was held in a log house that was built in 1803 and is still standing today at the corner of Parkview and Third Streets. Across the s

Augusta's 1811 Jail

Captain Philip Buckner's grave

Parkview and Third Streets. Across the street is the historic 1811 Jail, which is believed to be Kentucky's oldest jail still remaining on its original foundation. Visitors may tour the 1811 jail by contacting the Tourism Office.

Early Inhabitants

Perhaps one of the most interesting discoveries in Augusta occurred in 1792 when General John Payne, a cavalry officer during the War of 1812, began building his new home at the corner of Ferry Street and West Riverside Drive. In Historical Sketches of Kentucky by Lewis Collins (1847), Payne provided the following account:

The bottom on which Augusta is situated, is a large burying ground of the ancients. A post hole cannot be dug without turning up human bones. They have been found in great numbers, and of all sizes, every where between the mouths of Bracken and Locust creeks, a distance of about a mile and a half from the cellar under my dwelling, sixty by seventy feet, one hundred and ten skeletons were taken. I numbered them by the skulls; and there might have been many more, whose skulls had crumbled into dust. My garden was a cemetery; it is full of bones and the richest ground I ever saw. The skeletons were of all sizes, from seven feet to the infant...Who were they? How came their bones there? Among the Indians there is no tradition that any town was located near here, or that any battle was ever fought near here. When I was in the army, I inquired of old Crane, a Wyandott, and of Anderson, a Delaware, both intelligent old chiefs, (the former died at camp Seneca in 1813) and they could give no information in reference to these remains of antiquity. They knew the localities at the mouths of Locust, Turtle and Bracken creeks, but they knew nothing of any town or village near there. In my garden, Indian arrow heads of flint have been found, and an earthen ware of clay...Some of the largest trees of the forest were growing over these remains when the land was cleared in 1792.

Subsequent research has confirmed that Augusta was, in fact, built on an ancient Indian burial mound. State archeologists estimate there may be as many as 10,000 Indian remains still buried here. Most recently, at least six sets of skeletal remains dating back 3,000 years were exhumed from a construction site on Third Street.

Education

Prior to the Civil War, the Ohio River made up a major portion of the Mason-Dixon line separating slave and free states. Although Kentucky was a slave state, Augusta was populated with a large number of antislavery sympathizers who aided fugitive African Americans in their pursuit of freedom in Ohio. Two homes that served as Underground Railroad safehouses are Payne House and White Hall (212 Elizabeth Street). Captured fugitive slaves were held in Augusta's 1811 Jail as well. A walking tour of Augusta highlights several of these historical sites.   

The first school in Augusta was a private one begun in 1795 by Robert Schoolfield and held in the log cabin at 211 Riverside Drive. Community leaders established the Bracken Academy in 1798 and were awarded a charter and land grant by the state in 1799. The academy constructed several buildings, including a classroom on the southeast corner of Elizabeth and Third Streets. 

In 1822, Bracken Academy merged with Augusta College, which received its charter from the Kentucky Legislature that same year and was fully operational by 1825. As the first established Methodist college in Kentucky (and third in the nation), Augusta College had a reputation for excellence and attracted students from throughout the United States, including John G. Fee, noted abolitionist and cofounder of Berea College. Augusta College became the center of the antislavery movement in Kentucky and, as a result, the state legislature revoked its charter in 1849, forcing the institution to close its doors. Today, only the college's two dormitory buildings remain, including Echo Hall, which was recently saved from demolition by members of the community. For more information on the history of Augusta College and Echo Hall, visit SaveEchoHall.com

The Underground Railroad

Augusta College

The Payne House, located at the corner of West Riverside Drive and Ferry Street,  served as a safehouse for runaway slaves.

The Battle of Augusta

On September 27, 1862, Colonel Basil Duke led seven companies of Confederate soldiers to Cemetery Hill, above the small town of Augusta. With two pieces of artillery and 350 of Morgan's finest Raiders, Duke hoped to disperse the Union militia of 125 men stationed there (led by Colonel Joshua T. Bradford and known as the "Home Guard") before crossing the Ohio River and moving on Cincinnati.

The view from Cemetery Hill, where Confederate forces began their attack during the Battle of Augusta.

After driving off a handful of Union gunboats with a few rounds of artillery, Duke's horsemen rode into town, expecting a quick surrender. Instead, the residents of Augusta met the Rebs with a hail of gunfire, mounting a stiff defense that ultimately resulted in hand-to-hand fighting. Duke later reported, "The hand-to-hand fighting in the houses...was the fiercest and hottest I ever saw. I witnessed in some of them the floors piled with corpses and blood trickling down the stairways."

About fifteen Union soldiers were killed or wounded in the battle. Duke's losses were considerably more severe, with seventy-five to one hundred of his soldiers wounded or killed.  Although the Confederates eventually forced the militia to surrender, the battle caused Duke to abandon his plans of taking the war onto Northern soil. Additional details can be found at www.battleofaugusta.com.

Commercial Interests

Early in its history, Augusta was a popular shipping port. Products shipped from Augusta included tobacco, hemp, livestock, and wine. During the mid-1800's, European immigrants helped establish a thriving wine industry in Augusta. At the center of the enterprise was Abraham Baker, Jr., who built what is today Baker-Bird Winery, the oldest commercial estate winery in America. By the 1870's, Bracken County was the nation's leading wine producer, squeezing out 30,000 gallons annually. Today, the surrounding hillsides are still terraced like those in Germany's famous Rhine Valley. 

The story of Baker-Bird Winery

Agriculture has always been an important facet of the Bracken County economy. Augusta's greatest period of growth began in the late 1800's, when Bracken County became the nation's top producer of white burley tobacco, a product which commanded the highest price on the market. By the early 1900s, tobacco growers were getting low prices for their crop from the Duke Trust tobacco monopoly, to the point that they were paid less than what it cost to grow. In response, the growers banded together to boycott the monopoly, resulting in the Night Rider movement that urged farmers to oppose the Trust. In the summer of 1908, the state militia was called to Augusta and the surrounding Bracken County area to quell violence between the Night Riders and farmers who sold to the Trust. The tobacco monopoly was eventually broken up in an antitrust ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1911.

The preservation efforts of Augusta's waterfront with its 19th-century buildings have also attracted the attention of the film industry. Portions of the TV series "Centennial" were filmed here (Augusta serves as a stand-in for St. Louis) as well as the PBS movie "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers."   

Notable Persons

Augusta can boast its fair share of famous sons and daughters, as well as visitors who were indisputably influenced by their visit to our fair shores. Famous songwriter, Stephen Collins Foster, visited his uncles, Dr. John Tomlinson (a physician) and Rev. Dr. Joseph Tomlinson (then-president of Augusta College) on numerous occasions. During these visits to Augusta, young Stephen would "listen to the musical and harmonious voices that floated softly from the old negro church on the hill." It is believed that these early musical impressions greatly influenced his later compositions, such as our state song My Old Kentucky Home.

Noted playwright Stuart Walker grew up on West Riverside Drive. He also patented the portable stage and introduced the individual spotlight system used in theaters today. 

The town's foremost artist was Stephan Alke. A student of the nationally-known Kentucky artist, Frank Duveneck, Alke was an oil painter whose central themes were landscapes and portraits.

The personal narrative of General George C. Marshall, Jr., former Secretary of State, author of the Marshall Plan, and recipient of the 1953 Nobel Prize for Peace, is intrinsically linked to Augusta. His grandfather, Martin Marshall, raised his family at the large Federal-styled home known as White Hall. During the Battle of Augusta, sixteen-year-old George C. Marshall, Sr. fought in the Civil War as a member of Augusta's Home Guard. He was taken prisoner by Confederate troops, led by another Marshall cousin, Colonel Basil Duke. Duke paroled young George Senior on the condition he not rejoin the war. In Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower, author Nicolaus Mills observes, "These Civil War memories gave (General George C. Marshall, Jr.)...a deeply personal sense of American history. But they also shaped his early belief in the virtues of the citizen-soldier."  Marshall Park in Augusta is named in honor of this great man.   

Born in Augusta, Heather Renee French was crowned Miss America in 2000 - the only Kentuckian to achieve this honor to date. She continues to bring attention to veterans issues and oversees operation of the Rosemary Clooney Museum in Augusta.

Over the years, our small town has also been home to several members of the Clooney family. American television journalist, anchorman, game show and American Movie Classics (AMC) host, Nick Clooney and his wife, Nina, are proud to call Augusta 'home.' Their son, George Clooney, actor, entrepreneur and philanthropist, is a proud graduate of Augusta High School. Augusta is also the former home of Kentucky's own "Girl Singer" and star of multiple films, including the holiday classic, White ChristmasRosemary Clooney. Her home at 106 Riverside Drive has been converted to the Rosemary Clooney Museum, which is dedicated to preserving her legacy through its collection of memorabilia and artifacts related to Rosemary's life and career.

The Rosemary Clooney Museum

Sources: The Kentucky Encyclopedia, edited by John E. Kleber (University Press of Kentucky, 1992); The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, edited by Paul A. Tenkotte and James C. Claypool (University Press of Kentucky, 2009); The Bracken County Historical Society.