The Wharf That Time Forgot
Old Paving and Mooring Ring from the Portland Wharf
Portland Wharf Park is a mostly forested, 56-acre natural oasis within Louisville’s urban landscape. Part of the Metro Park system, it lies along the Ohio River in the Portland Neighborhood and features the Riverwalk Trail.
Over 150 years ago, the park was the heart of the independent City of Portland. Archaeological investigations of the park have Kentucky Archaeological Survey archaeologists have uncovered evidence of this thriving river town just beneath the ground surface. Portland residents, many area volunteers, University of Louisville students have pitched-in to help.
Portland Wharf Park was originally the riverboat landing and wharf for the City of Portland, founded in 1811. Portland thrived as an autonomous shipping port at the western end of the portage route around the Falls of the Ohio River, and later the Portland Canal. Its hotels, taverns, warehouses, and many businesses catered to the steamboats and their passengers.
Despite Portland’s success early in the 1800s, by the late 1850s, the larger City of Louisville had annexed it. Today, Portland is just one of many historic Louisville neighborhoods.
The city’s location on the banks of the Ohio River made it susceptible to frequent flooding. Several devastating floods in the late 1800s and early 1900s destroyed much of the wharf area. The 1937 flood was the worst, prompting the construction of a floodwall between 1948 and 1954. Any buildings still left in the wharf area were razed and buried at that time. Today, separated from the river, Portland and its wharf have been nearly forgotten.
An 1883 View of Portland and Its Wharf (Library of Congress).
||The Portland Wharf Archaeology and Education Project
Kentucky Archaeological Survey archaeologists have focused their research in two spots: a houselot located at 124 33rd Street, and a commercial lot located at the corner of 34th Street and Florida Alley. They found the remains of building foundations and sidewalks lying just beneath the surface. Thousands of artifacts, such as window glass, nails, bottles, dish fragments, and personal items also were found, providing clues about Portland’s past.
At the houselot, they uncovered the footprint of a small shotgun house built during the late 1800s, as well as the remains of a small shed and several outhouse pits. Evidence of a building constructed in 1856 and demolished in the late 1880s was uncovered at the commercial lot. It had once been a tavern run by Jim Porter, known as the “Kentucky Giant”. At 7 feet, 8 inches tall, Porter was famous worldwide in the early 19th century. A large cellar underneath the building contained many artifacts dating to the mid- to late 1800s, including bottles and dish fragments.
Sidewalk and Foundation at 124 33rd Street
A Glass Bottle Being Uncovered at Jim Porter's Tavern
Metro Louisville has big plans for Portland Wharf Park. Portland’s rich past and on-going archaeological excavations directed at investigating it will be the focal point for future development. These plans call for making Portland Wharf Park one of only a handful of archaeology/history parks in the United States. Through archaeology, the residents of the Portland neighborhood, as well as tourists from the region and across the nation, will be able to participate first-hand in the process of discovering the history of Portland.
Conceptual Drawing from the Master Plan, Showing an Archaeology Activity at the Park
||You Can Dig It!
During archaeological excavations at the Park, many volunteers assisted in the field and in the laboratory. If you want to get your hands dirty, KAS offers many other opportunities for the public to particiapte in archaeological research at Portland Wharf and at other archaeological sites in the Louisville-Metro area. To learn how you can participate in these projects contact Jay Sottman.
Volunteers Working with Professional Archaeologists at Portland Wharf Park