Historic Downtown Paducah
Paducah was first settled as Pekin by James and William Pore c. 1821.
 The community – favorably located at the confluence of several waterways – occupied a site previously noted as a
Chickasaw trading center.
The town was laid out by
William Clark (of the famed
Lewis and Clark Expedition) in 1827 and renamed Paducah. Although local lore long connected this to an eponymous Chickasaw chief "Paduke" and his tribe of "Paducahs," authorities on the Chickasaw have since made clear that there was never any chief or tribe of that name, or anything like it, nor any words like them in the Chickasaw tongue. Instead, it is probable that Clark named the town for the
known at the time as the Padoucas, from a
Spanish transcription of the
Incorporation, steamboats, and railroads
Paducah was formally established as a town in 1830 and incorporated as a
city by the
state legislature in 1838.
 By this time, steam boats traversed the river system and its port facilities were important to trade and transportation. In addition, railroads began to be developed that entered the region. A factory for making red bricks, and a foundry for making rail and locomotive components became the nucleus of a thriving "River and Rail" economy. It became the site of dry dock facilities for steamboats and towboats, and thus headquarters for many barge companies. Because of its proximity to
coalfields further to the east in Kentucky and north in
Illinois, Paducah also became an important railway hub for the
Illinois Central Railroad. This was the primary north-south railway connecting the industrial cities of
East St. Louis to the
Gulf of Mexico at
Gulfport, Mississippi and
New Orleans, Louisiana. The Illinois Central system also provided east-west links to the
Burlington Northern and the
Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railways (which later merged to become the
The Illinois Central Railroad began construction of their largest locomotive
workshop at Paducah in 1924. Over a period of 190 days, a large ravine between Washington and Jones Streets was filled with 44,560 carloads of dirt to enlarge the site to include 23 buildings. The eleven million dollar project was completed in 1927 as the fourth largest industrial plant in Kentucky. It became the largest employer in Paducah with 1,075 employees in 1938. The Paducah shops were converted to maintain
diesel locomotives as
steam locomotives were replaced through the 1940s and 1950s; and a nationally known rebuilding program for aging diesel locomotives from Illinois Central and other railroads began in 1967. The shops became part of the
Paducah and Louisville Railway in 1986; and are operated by VMV Paducahbilt.
At the outset of the
Civil War, Kentucky attempted to take a neutral position. However, when a Confederate force occupied Columbus, a
Union force under General
Ulysses S. Grant responded by occupying Paducah. Throughout most of the war,
Stephen G. Hicks was in charge of Paducah, and the town served as a massive supply depot for Federal forces along the Ohio, Mississippi and Tennessee river systems.
On December 17, 1862, under the terms of
General Order No. 11, US forces required thirty Jewish families to leave their long-established homes. Grant was trying to break up a black market in cotton, in which he suspected Jewish traders were involved.
Cesar Kaskel, a prominent local Jewish businessman, dispatched a telegram of complaint to
Lincoln and met with him; together with similar actions by other Jewish businessmen and loud complaints by Congress, he succeeded in seeing the order revoked within a few weeks.
On March 25, 1864,
Nathan Bedford Forrest raided Paducah as part of his campaign northward from
Mississippi into Western Tennessee and Kentucky. He intended to re-supply the Confederate forces in the region with recruits, ammunition, medical supplies, horses and mules and especially to disrupt the
Union domination of the regions south of the
Ohio River. Known as the
Battle of Paducah, the raid was successful in terms of the re-supply effort and in intimidating the Union, but Forrest returned south. According to his report, "I drove the enemy to their gunboats and fort; and held the city for ten hours, captured many stores and horses; burned sixty bales of cotton, one steamer, and a drydock, bringing out fifty prisoners." Much of the fighting took place around
Fort Anderson on the city's west side, in the present-day
Lower Town neighborhood; most buildings in the neighborhood postdate the war, as most of the neighborhood was demolished soon after the battle in order to deny any future raids the advantage of surprise that they had enjoyed during the battle. Among the few houses that were not destroyed is the
David Yeiser House, a single-story
Greek Revival structure.
Later having read in the newspapers that 140 fine horses had escaped the raid, Forrest sent Brigadier General Abraham Buford back to Paducah, to get the horses and to keep Union forces busy there while he attacked
Fort Pillow in Tennessee. His forces were charged with a massacre of
United States Colored Troops who they defeated at the fort. On April 14, 1864, Buford's men found the horses hidden in a Paducah foundry, as reported by the newspapers. Buford rejoined Forrest with the spoils, leaving the Union in control of Paducah until the end of the War.
On January 21, 1937, the
Ohio River at Paducah rose above its 50-foot flood stage, cresting at 60.8 feet on February 2 and receding again to 50-feet on February 15. For nearly three weeks, 27,000 residents were forced to flee or to stay with friends and relatives in higher ground in McCracken or other counties. The
American Red Cross and local churches provided some shelters. Buildings in downtown Paducah still bear plaques that define the
high water marks.
Flood Marker on Broadway (top 1937, bottom 1913, below -> 1884)
Driven by 18 inches of rainfall in 16 days, along with sheets of swiftly moving ice, the '37 flood was the worst natural disaster in Paducah's history. The earthen levee was ineffective against this flood, and as a result, Congress authorized the
United States Army Corps of Engineers to build the flood wall that now protects the city.
In 1950, the
U.S. Atomic Energy Commission selected Paducah as the site for a new
uranium enrichment plant. Construction began in 1951 and the plant opened for operations in 1952. Originally operated by
Union Carbide, the plant has changed hands several times.
Martin Marietta, its successor company
Lockheed-Martin, and now the
United States Enrichment Corporation have operated the plant in turn. The
U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), successor to the AEC, remains the owner.
On April 25, 1991, the
National Quilt Museum opened in downtown Paducah. The museum is a cultural destination that annually attracts an international collection of more than 40,000 quilters and art enthusiasts to the Paducah area. The museum features professional quilt and fiber art exhibits that are rotated throughout the year. It is the largest single tourist attraction in the city.
For over 30 years, Paducah has been host to one of the largest Quilt Shows in North America, QuiltWeek Paducah. On November 21, 2013, UNESCO designated Paducah the world's seventh City of Crafts and Folk Art.