Today I have been immersed in study of riverboat captains and river travel on the Ohio River at Paducah in McCracken County. I fondly remember a week Ritchey and I spent there last spring. It is a city filled with friendly people who go out of their way to make your visit one you will always remember.
The flood wall, which was closed during our time there due to so much rain that spring, has murals of the city’s history that are most interesting. In the early days of the city, beginning about 1830, across-river transportation was important. Wagons, passengers, goods, etc., were ferried across the river to Illinois. Captain Valentine Owen, who came from Virginia, down the Ohio River to Paducah, was the first to offer his services.
In 1831 Captain Owen married the very beautiful Miss Elizabeth Walters. And the same year he built the Rising Sun Tavern (or hotel) at the northeast corner of First and Kentucky Avenue. As a three-story structure it was the tallest building in town and was the first to greet the rising sun, and thus the name was given. From the levee it was the most prominent building in Paducah.
From a newspaper article in The Paducah Sun, Monday, November 28, 1949, Fred G. Neuman, who wrote The Story of Paducah, gives us the following story of the young couple’s beginning.
‘How Capt. Valentine Owen met Miss Elizabeth Walters, his bride-to-be, is a romantic story in itself. She was one of the four attractive daughters of James Walters (1769-1836) and Mrs. Mary Walters (1778-1860), who left Leesburg, Virginia, to settle in the new country. They came down the river by steamer and landed at Paducah in 1828, a year after the town was platted. Mr. Walters had been a merchant in Virginia and brought a stock of goods with him, setting up shop soon after his arrival.
‘It was a long trip down the Ohio River from Louisville in those days, since the river was snag-strewn and the boat tied up at night. The journey was especially monotonous to the Walters girls and on the last day as they neared Paducah one of them suggested a fortune game. When it came the turn of Miss Elizabeth Walters to inquire about the future, the answer was that the first man who came up the gangplank on landing would become her husband. The girls laughed heartily at the prediction and forgot all about it.
‘As fate would have it, Capt. Valentine Owen was standing on top of the hill at Broadway when the steamer pulled in. He recognized the craft as being new to the harbor and, thinking he might be of some service, decided to volunteer any aid which might be needed. When the gangplank was let down, he was the first Paducahan to step aboard. He met the crew and passengers – and must have been fascinated by the glances of Miss Elizabeth Walters, and three years later he led her to the altar as his bride.
‘After the ceremony and during the festivities, the bride and her sisters recalled the prophecy with much merriment.’
A list of the children of Captain Valentine Owen and Elizabeth Walters:
- Cornelia Owen, July 1830-August 1869, married Elbridge Palmer.
- Albina Owen, September 10, 1832-July 1, 1897, married Nicholas Alexander Woolfolk.
- Angeline Owen, November 1, 1834-May 28, 1927, married George William Woolfolk.
- Marcella Owen, October 15, 1837-June 3, 1885, married Scott Walter Laurie.
- Adolph Owen, 1841-January 30, 1864, died while in Civil War.
- Robert Owen, February 23, 1843-September 18, 1929, married Ella Johnston. Riverboat captain.
- James Owen, October 15, 1846-May 5, 1908, never married. Riverboat captain.
- Henry Owen, September 2, 1849-February 11, 1899, married Mary Elizabeth Lee.
- Brackett Owen, August 20, 1853-January 18, 1942, married Laura Covington Chapeze. Riverboat captain.
Valentine and Elizabeth Owen had three sons who followed their father in the ferryboat business – Robert, James and Brackett Owen. Valentine passed away in 1872 and the brothers continued their father’s business. In the spring of 1891, the brothers completed a newer and larger ferryboat to replace the outdated Valentine Owen then in operation. They decided to name this craft for their mother and thus the Bettie Owen was christened. The ferryboat was 137 feet long by 40 feet. Those unusual proportions and sturdy construction weathered any storm that might blow up on the river. It was said that on her maiden voyage to Cairo, Kentucky, ‘she encountered rough winds and choppy waters, but her human cargo was not the least excited as she pulled through and tied up at the old wharf on schedule.’ The Bettie Owen traveled back and forth to the Illinois shore until she was destroyed by fire in 1909.
The Paducah Sun, McCracken County, Kentucky
Wednesday, May 6, 1908
Capt. Owen Will Be Laid to Rest
In Oak Grove Cemetery at 4:30 This Afternoon
The Life History of Busy Member of One of Paducah’s Pioneer Families
All Family Remained Here
Captain James Owen was one of the best-known river men along the Ohio River. He took charge of his father’s business at the age of 18 and was on the ferryboats that run out of Paducah for 36 years. The ferryboats that Captain James Owen worked on were Market Boy, Blue Bir, Ferry, V. Owen and the Betty Owen. The ferryboat V. Owen was named in honor of Captain Valentine Owen, the founder of the ferryboat business at this city and the father of the late Captain James Owen. The ferryboat Bettie Owen, which is now in use was named in honor of Mrs. Bettie Owen, the mother of Captain James Owen.
Captain James Owen was active in the river business till about 10 years ago when his brother, Captain Robert Owen, took his place. Captain James Owen has not been strong for several years, but he was able to be around and do light work. Up to last Thursday he made it his duty to go down street in the mornings and visit the post office for the Bettie Owen. Last Thursday morning the Captain was taken seriously ill with kidney trouble, which caused his death yesterday. He was a member of the Masonic Lodge. He had license first of pilot and master, second that of engineer and then captain’s license.
Three members of the immediate family survive Captain Owen: Mrs. Angelina Owen Woolfolk, of 721 Broadway, Captain Robert Owen and Mr. Bracket Owen. Mrs. Henry Owen, of 822 Jefferson Street, is a sister-in-law. Mrs. Wynn Tully, a niece, Mrs. Lizzie Quick, Mrs. Minnie Rankin, Mrs. Lemuel Ogilvie, Miss Fanny Woolfolk, little Anna Bracket Owen, Mrs. Will Cochran and Miss May Owen are nieces of Captain Owen. Mr. Tarbel Laurie, Dr. Will Owen and Harry Owen are nephews.
Captain James Owen was one of a family of ten children, five girls and five boys: Albina, Angelina, Marcella, Aurelia, Cornelia, Adophus, Robert, James, Henry and Bracket. Of this family there was not a one who ever lived outside the city of Paducah. The Owen family is one of the oldest and best known in western Kentucky. Captain Valentine Owen was one of the settlers of Paducah and lived in Paducah all his life.
Captain Robert Owen died in 1929.
The Paducah Sun Democrat, McCracken County, Kentucky
Thursday, September 19, 1929
Captain Bob Owen, Veteran of River, Answers Summons
Prominent Steamboat Man and Skipper of “Betty Owen” Dies at Home
Robert Owen, better known as “Captain Bob,” and for many years Captain on the old steamer Betty Owen, died suddenly last night at 6 o’clock in his home here, death resulting from cardiac trouble. Captain Owen, who was past eighty-five years of age, had been in fairly good health for the past year and his death was unexpected and came as a shock to his many friends.
He was born and reared in Paducah, the son of the late Valentine and Betty Walters Owen, pioneer citizens of Paducah. He was a member of the Baptist church and was a familiar figure up and down the river as “Captain Bob.”
Mr. Owen married Miss Ella Johnston of Paducah who died in 1877. He is survived by one son, Dr. William V. Owen, Paducah dentist, a brother, Brack Owen and several nieces and nephews. The nieces are Mrs. L. B. Ogilvie, Miss Fanny Woolfolk, Mrs. Wynn Tully, Mrs. C. O. Brown, Mrs. Ed G. Scott and Miss Lydia Woolfolk of Paducah and Mrs. Dye B. Long of Russellville. He is survived by the following nephews: Will E. Cochran of Paducah and Harry Owen of Michigan.
Funeral services will be held Friday morning at 10 o’clock at the Roth funeral parlors with interment in Oak Grove Cemetery.
Mr. Owen came from one of the oldest pioneer families of Paducah, and was well known and admired by many friends.
The pallbearers will be Captain G. W. Wilson, Waddie Lang, Lem Ogilvie, Dick Davis, John K. Bonds, Pete Beckenbaugh, Frank Brown and Frank Kirchhoff.
The Paducah Sun Democrat, McCracken County, Kentucky
Monday, January 19, 1942
Capt. Brackett Owen Dies; Was Pioneer Resident
Born Here In 1853; Active in Business Over Half A Century
Captain Brackett Owen, 88, member of one of Paducah’s oldest pioneer families, who died early Sunday morning at his residence, 739 Broadway, was buried this morning at 10 o’clock in Oak Grove Cemetery.
Captain Owen, whose death followed an operation performed in Memphis seven weeks ago, had been seriously ill at his home since his return from the hospital, and his death was not unexpected.
Prominent in the business, civic and social life of Paducah during his long life, Captain Owen was born here August 8, 1853. He was the son of Valentine Owen, who came to Paducah from Shelbyville, Kentucky, in 1823, and Elizabeth Walters, who was born in Leesburg, Virginia.
Keenly interest in river activities which were at their height in his young manhood, Mr. Owen earned his pilot’s license on the Ohio River at the age of 19 and for many years was associated with river transportation here.
Captain Owen was actively engaged in business in the city for more than half a century, 40 years of which time he served as a director of the City National Bank. He served the city of Paducah as alderman and it was during his term of service that the first motorized equipment was purchased for the city fire department. He was also president of the Carbondale Coal Company, and, until the past few years, had been active in the real estate business. He was one of the developers of the Avondale subdivision of the city.
The owner of large farming interests, Captain Owen had for many years been interested in agricultural developments of the section, and was one of the most ardent advocates of fruit growing for Western Kentucky.
Surviving are his widow, Mrs. Laura Chapeze Owen, a daughter, Miss Ann Brackett Owen, and a son, John C. W. Owen, five nieces, Mrs. Floss Owen Tully, Mrs. C. O. Brown and Mrs. E. G. Scott, all of the city, Mrs. Diana Woolfolk Long, of Russellville, Kentucky, and Mrs. George McCandless, of Toronto, Canada, and a cousin, Henry Enders, Jr., of Paducah.
Funeral services were held at the graveside in Oak Grove Cemetery with the Rev. James Jenkins, pastor of the Broadway Methodist Church, officiating. Pallbearers were: active, Robert D. Brown, George C. Hughes, R. A. Tweedie, Jackson B. Worsham, Arthur E. Krug and George Thomas; honorary, Robert L. Reeves, W. L. Young, J. A. Gardner, Armour Gardner, George W. Lamon, Hughes McKnight, R. G. Matheson, B. D. Dalby, H. Reams, K. E. Spears, S. J. Snook, William Trevathan, Gil Mooreman, D. E. Wilson and Harry Meyer.
With the death of Captain Brackett Owen, the more than century long running of ferryboats by the Owen family came to an end.
Categories: Family Stories