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Portland Wharf Park

Site no.:
Research focus:
Public access:
Historic (ca.1800s -1940s)
Louisville Metro Parks
Louisville Riverwalk bike path, interpretive signs
Off Northwestern Parkway at N. 31st Street, Portland, KY
Portland Wharf Park showing Riverwalk and "ghost" stones marking strreets

Portland Wharf Park preserves the remains of the original town of Portland once a thriving and bustling nineteenth century river town. The park encompasses 55 acres along the banks of the Ohio River, just below the Falls and the entrance to the Portland Canal.  It is primarily a forested environment with dense trees and undergrowth interrupted by symmetrical swaths of mowed grass and an open meadow. The site is bound by a railroad bridge on the east, the Ohio River on the north, a golf course on the west, and an earthen levee and elevated interstate highway on the south. Portland Wharf Park is maintained by Louisville Metro Parks.

The Portland Wharf Site encompasses the entire Portland Wharf Park.  The site contains the remains of the oldest part of the town of Portland and its wharf, consisting of six city blocks.  The archaeological remains of the town, including streets, sidewalks, building foundations, privies, cisterns, and thousands of artifacts dating from the early 1800s to the early 1900s are preserved in several areas of the site.

Fieldwork at Lot 56

Fieldwork at Lot 56, (historic 33rd Street) at Portland Wharf Park, courtesy KAS, 2005.


Portland was founded in 1811 at the base of the Falls of the Ohio River by Cincinnati businessman William Lytle. The town and its wharf were well situated to benefit from booming steamboat trade and the lucrative portage industry that developed around the falls.  By the 1840s, Portland was a thriving port with many residences and stores to accommodate dozens of steamboats that arrived daily.  The Portland wharf was the center of activity.  The success of Portland instigated a long and contentious relationship with its neighbor Louisville at the head of the Falls.  Louisville annexed Portland for a brief period in the 1840s only to have the town become independent.

In the 1850s, Portland boasted a large five-story hotel and several industries.  Louisville successfully annexed Portland in 1856.  When the Portland Canal was improved in 1870, the portage industry was no more and the Portland wharf began a decline that was most evident after a series of major floods in the 1880s and 1890s.  After the 1937 flood, Portland’s birthplace and main economic hub in the nineteenth century was gone buried beneath feet of silt in front of the floodwall that now protects Portland the neighborhood.

Sketch of Portland Wharf near its peak of steamboat activity in 1853

Sketch of Portland Wharf near its peak of steamboat activity in 1853, courtesy Special Collections, Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville.


The Portland Wharf and portions of the Portland Neighborhood has been the subject of several archaeological investigations in the past.  In 1982 and 1983 the University of Louisville conducted a surface reconnaissance and test excavations at the Portland Wharf.  Four backhoe trenches were excavated in the wharf area primarily on a lot owned in the nineteenth century by Paul Villiers, an upper-class resident of the town.  Hewn cedar log floor-joists of the cellar floor was found intact, as were many wine bottles.  Also, a commercial lot was observed archaeologically at the St. Charles Hotel where the glazed tiles known to have been on the floors of the public rooms were in evidence along with ceramic dishes.  Foundations and other architectural features with a wide range of artifacts dating to the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century were found during the excavations.  Also documented during the project were stone curbing and pavement associated with streets and walkways. Large remnants of the stone paved wharf and iron mooring rings were visible along the river’s edge at the time of the project.

In 2002, Metro Parks and the Portland community asked the Kentucky Archaeological Survey to revisit the site and examine more of the Portland Wharf for its archaeological potential.  Over 60 backhoe trenches were excavated over the entire 55-acre property.  Based on the results of the survey it was determined that construction of the floodwall in 1947 disturbed portions of the site, as soil was removed to build the floodwall.  However, much of the site contains intact archaeological deposits associated with the wharf, residences, businesses, streets, and sidewalks that were part of Portland during the nineteenth century.  One particular city block between 33rd and 34th Street has the most archaeological potential and is the location of Lot 56, which has the remains of residences dating back to the early 1800s.

Exposed brick sidewalk and foundation of shotgun house

Archaeologists Lori Stahlgren and Ann Moore exposed a brick sidewalk and foundation of a shotgun house at Lot 6,courtery KAS, 2005.

Lot 56

In 2005 and 2006, the Kentucky Archaeological Survey conducted archaeological excavations focused on Lot 56 located on 33rd Street between Florida Alley and Missouri Street. Lot 56 was first developed during Portland’s rise at the beginning of the steamboat era in the early 1840s. Francis and Barbara Mangin lived at Lot 56 during Portland’s most prosperous time. Shortly after her husband’s death, Barbara Mangin lived there until the house burned in 1856. According to court records, it burned just one day after it was sold to John Young, a wealthy land speculator and businessman from Louisville, who had pressured the widowed Mrs. Mangin to sell the property for half of what it was worth.

Young did not rebuild the house and held the lot until the 1870s when he began to subdivide it into smaller lots. In 1873, a portion of Lot 56 was sold to Henry and Katherine Viet, immigrants from Prussia. Henry ran a shoemaking business on Water Street and built a small shotgun house on a portion of Lot 56. Katherine Viet lived in the house after Henry’s death in 1878, until 1921. The house was demolished in 1934.

The layers of soil documented at Lot 56 during the archaeological excavations tell the story of development there. Approximately six feet from the present day ground surface, archaeologists found layers of soil that contained artifacts and features associated with the Mangin house, such as brick, nails, window glass, and post holes. Included in these layers was a distinct burned layer that included charcoal and burned artifacts. The layers of soil from the Mangin house were covered by several feet of fill and debris. Above the fill were layers and features associated with the construction, occupation, and demolition of the Veit’s shotgun house. They consisted of thousands of artifacts and features, such as the foundation of the house, brick sidewalk, water cisterns, and several privies.

Over 45,000 artifacts were recovered from the archaeological excavations at Lot 56. Most of these were related the buildings that had been constructed and demolished over time, including nails, window glass, and brick fragments. Also, a large amount of artifacts associated with the lives of the people who lived at Lot 56 also was found, such as ceramic dishes, glass bottles, animal bones, buttons, marbles, smoking pipes, oil lamp parts, etc.

Deep stratigraphy at Lot 56

The six foot deep stratigraphy preserved at Lot 56 allowed archaeologists to document life at Portland Wharf from the early 1800s to the mid 1900s, courtesy, KAS 2006.

Archaeologists recover a bottle from Lot 56

Archaeologist Jay Stottman recovers a bottle from Lot 56, Portland Wharf site, courtesy KAS, 2005.

Mangin Episode

The artifacts recovered from the layers associated with the Mangin household included fragments of burned ceramic dishes, bottle glass, and smoking pipe parts, representing items present in the house when it burned in 1856. The ceramics recovered were typical of the 1840s and 1850s, including a large amount of undecorated dishes and examples of mocha and transfer printed decorated dishes. Artifacts associated with the Mangin house also were recovered, including nails and window glass.

Veit Episode

Similar artifacts were recovered from the archaeological deposits associated with the Veit family, but were reflective of the 1870s to early 1900s. Their ceramics included a large amount of undecorated white granite and whiteware, the most common type of the period, as well as, porcelain. Some decorated ceramics included late transfer prints, handpainted, and decal types. A large amount of bottle glass was recovered from the Veit deposits, especially from the privies. They included wine, liquor, medicine, pickle, and condiment bottles. Animal bones recovered from one of the Veit’s privies indicate that they preferred chicken over other meats. Most of the artifacts recovered were associated with the Veit’s shotgun house, including mainly nails, window glass, and brick.

The artifacts recovered from Lot 56 show that despite their rather modest incomes, especially the Mangin family, they readily participated in the consumer economy and were able to purchase at least some of the more popular and expensive dishes of the day. It also shows us that there were a wide variety of goods available to them, which demonstrates Portland’s importance as a port. Just about any kind of good was available to the residents of Portland.

Burned mocha and transfer printed ceramic dish fragments and a clay smoking pipe stem from the Mangin episode at Lot 56 (ca. 1830s to 1860s)

Burned mocha and transfer printed ceramic dish fragments and a clay smoking pipe stem from the Mangin episode at Lot 56 (ca. 1830s to 1860s), courtesy KAS, 2008.

A variety of glass bottles from the Veit episode at Lot 56 (ca. 1870s to 1890s)

A variety of glass bottles from the Veit episode at Lot 56 (ca. 1870s to 1890s), courtesy KAS, 2008.


The archaeological excavations at the Portland Wharf site have revealed the remains of the town of Portland during the nineteenth century and information about the people who lived and worked there.  Archaeology has demonstrated that literally a town is buried beneath the fields and forests of the Portland Wharf Park.  Its streets, sidewalks, building foundations, and parts of the wharf itself still exist and have much to tell us about life when Portland was a prosperous river town. 

Archaeology at Lot 56 demonstrated that the story of this property and the people who lived there is documented in the layers and artifacts present at the site.  We have an opportunity to examine the Portland Wharf’s history from its heyday to its decline.  The Mangin family represents early days of Portland settled mainly by French immigrants and its quick expansion commercially and residentially as the steamboat traffic and the portage industry increased.  The tragedy of their home’s demise and of a recent widow’s life is documented in the archaeological record.  The Veit family represents the end of the prosperous time and of independence.  They arrived in Portland during the pinnacle of commercial activity opening a shoemaker’s shop, eventually building and owning a house just down the street from the business.  The archaeological remains have allowed archaeologists to reconstruct their modest shotgun house and examine the effect of severe flooding and the decline of the portage industry.  The Veit family represented the new Portland with its many successful businesses and its transformation into one of Louisville’s neighborhood after 1856. 

We have learned that there is a great deal of archaeological potential at the Portland Wharf site.  As we continue to study the artifacts that have been recovered and conduct more excavation in the future, we will be able to learn more about the town that was located there and the people who lived there.

Old paving and mooring ring from Portland Wharf

Old paving and mooring ring from Portland Wharf, KAS, 2005.

The archaeological projects conducted at the Portland Wharf are a part of a community wide effort to develop Portland Wharf Park into a unique history and archaeology park that will benefit the Portland community.  As part of this effort, Louisville Metro Parks, The Portland Museum and the Kentucky Archaeological Surveys have sponsored various educational programs related to the archaeology of Portland Wharf.  These programs have helped people participate in and better understand the rich history that is a part of the community.  More education and public outreach programs are in the works for Portland Wharf Park.

The Kentucky Archaeological Survey offers many opportunities for the public to participate in a variety of aspects of the archaeological process, including those related to the Portland Wharf archaeology project. 

The Portland Museum sponsors many programs at and related to the Portland Wharf and other historic sites in Portland. 

The University of Louisville Department of Anthropology has held field schools at the Portland Wharf Park, where students learn how to excavate and research archaeological sites.  To learn more about the University of Louisville Department of Anthropology visit:

Public archaeology program at Lot 56, Portland Wharf Park, KAS 2005.

Public archaeology program at Lot 56, Portland Wharf Park, KAS 2005.

Computer Animation

The Kentucky Heritage Council commissioned staff from The Center for the Electronic Reconstruction of Historical and Archaeological Sites, University of Cincinnati, to create 2-D graphics and 3-D animation for the one-hour documentary “Historic Archaeology: Beneath Kentucky’s Fields and Streets,” Volume III in the Kentucky Archaeology Video series. The documentary and these single frame images from the graphics are available to download for personal or educational use.

Viet Shotgun House, ca 1873Reconstructed from archaeological surveys and historical documents, this “shotgun” style house was built in 1873 by Henry and Kathryn Veit on Lot 56 off historic 33rd Street in old Portland near the wharf.

Viet Shotgun House ca 1873

Portland Community, ca, 1870s. Reconstructed from archaeological surveys and historic maps, this 3-D animation depicts Portland Wharf (Old Portland) as it may have looked at the beginning of its decline in the 1870s.

Portland Community ca 1870s

Archival maps and images

Archaeologists often use archival sketches and paintings to better understand the development of historic sites. Here are some archival images of Portland that are also available to personal or educational use. Please check the cited source for further information.

 “Map of the Falls of the Ohio,” showing Louisville, Shipppingport, and Portland,” from Flint, 1824. This archival map shows the portage road between Louisville and Portland, and the proposed route of the first Louisville and Portland Canal, which was completed in 1830. Courtesy Library of Congress, The Filson Historical Society, Kentucky.

1824 map of the falls of the ohio

(Inset from) “View of New Albany,” landscape by George Morrison, 1849, courtesy, New Albany-Floyd County Public Library. This digital image is an inset from a large landscape depicting New Albany, Indiana, the Ohio River and Portland, Kentucky in 1849. Portland is seen on the upper right with its deep-water port full of steamboats. The original artwork (including the Indiana shore) may bee seen in the gallery of the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library.


1849 view of Portland from across the river

“Portland KY taken from Sand Island 1953.” Sketch showing Portland Wharf near its peak during the golden age of steamboats. Large steamboats were unable to use the first, narrow canal built around the “Falls of the Ohio.” Portland’s deep-water wharf . Sketch courtesy Specials Collections, Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville.

1854 sketch of Portland

“Birds-Eye-View of Louisville from the River Front and Southern Exposition, 1883” (Panoramic Maps, Digital Collection, Library of Congress). This digital inset shows the lower portion from a large lithograph depicting the Louisville area in 1883. Portland (far right) is shown at the downriver entrance to the Louisville and Portland Canal. The expansion of the canal in the 1870s allowed large steamboats to by-pass Portland Wharf, marking the decline of this once thriving port.

1883 Birds-eye-view of Louisville


Related Resources

- KA Volume III


The Portland Neighborhood and Portland Wharf Park The Portland history and landscape summary.pdf

Streets to the Past -article by Stottman and Prybylski, published by the Ohio Archaeological Society, 2004FOAS 2004 article Stottman.pdf


Last Updated 12/11/2012