The concrete expanse of the McAlpine Locks and Dam has obliterated the view Abraham Lincoln saw as he helped dig the Portland Canal. Unlike the slaves toiling near him in 1827, the young Honest Abe was paid in silver dollars, likely his first cash wages.
The future president’s cameo offers one glimpse of a parade of characters James Higdon lines up in his new book, “The Nearly Forgotten History of Portland, Kentucky.” Higdon, who wrote “Cornbread Mafia” — a true-crime tale of Marion County omertà — will talk about Portland’s past at the Filson Historical Society, 1310 S. Third St., on Tuesday at 6 p.m.
“If the city wanted to commission a statue of an 18-year-old Abraham Lincoln with a shovel on his shoulder, the south wall of the canal would be the place for it,” Higdon said on a recent tour of the neighborhood.
The book was commissioned and published by Gill Holland, the film producer and developer who sparked the creation of NuLu and has for the past half decade directed his energy into Portland. Holland recently ratcheted up his ambitions for the west Louisville neighborhood. After his Portland Investment Initiative raised $30 million — surpassing his original 2013 goal — Holland said last month that he was aiming to raise and invest a total of $100 million in a raft of projects by the middle of 2023.
“There’s a built environment in bricks and mortar, and there’s an intellectual and cultural environment, and both have to be built up,” Holland said of his interest in getting the book done. “You could say it’s pure marketing, but the history is so great … it markets itself.”
That history is dense with energetic characters — real and probably imagined — who wheeled, dealt and fought along the waterfront of what was once an independent city. A city so independent it sought to secede not just from Louisville but from “all the nations of the world” shortly before the Civil War put an end to such notions.
Among the notables was the real Jim Porter, who stood a gaunt “six foot, twenty inches” and whose made-to-fit firearm inspired the name of his “Big Gun Saloon” in the mid-19th century. A few items including the gun will be on display at the Filson immediately before Higdon’s talk Tuesday evening.
Four years before Porter died in 1859, Pinkney “Pink” Varble helped make a dramatic rescue of passengers off an ice-stuck ferry, on his way to becoming the most sought-after pilot throughout the Falls for steamboats too big for the canal. He sealed his fame in 1861, steering 13 Union steamboats and 120 barges over the Falls in a single day and by building two pontoon bridges across the Ohio River ahead of a deeply feared but ultimately aborted Confederate attack.
“That shipping captain Pink Varble, I love that guy so much,” Holland said. “I want to open up Pink Varble’s Bar and Lounge.”
Higdon doesn’t shy from the ghastly fact shadowing the neighborhood’s history: When slaves were “sold down the river,” they departed from Portland, often after deals were cut three miles to the east at Garrison’s Slave Pen, across from the original Galt House.
Each year through 1850s, 3,400 slaves were shipped from Kentucky to the Deep South, most of them by river, “making the Portland wharf busier than ever with human trafficking,” Higdon wrote. Its location also made it a critical station on the Underground Railroad, and Higdon reveals the surprising role played by members — black and white — of a secretive fraternal organization in its operation.
After the Civil War, the rise of the railroads and massive floods, “the 20th Century history of Portland is all downhill,” Higdon said as he guided Insider under the Interstate 64 overpass into Portland Wharf Park. “Portland used to be this vibrant community connected to the water,” Higdon said. “The highway cut it off, then it just became this backwater part of Louisville.”
Now, thanks to the efforts of many longtime residents and transplanted neighborhood boosters, interest and investment in Portland is growing.
In addition to the Filson lecture, Higdon will sign books at Carmichael’s Bookstore on Frankfort Ave. at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 31.
—This article has been updated with additional details.