California History

California History

By Jim Reis Kentucky Post Reporter, March 7, 1983

For more than 130 years the community of California has been tucked away in the southeastern corner of the county, along the Ohio River.  Its growth has been strangled by isolation, hampered by the lack of roads and the town often flooded to its rooftops.  But California prevails.

The settlement dates to the early 1800s. but no one knows exactly when the town started.  City records were lost in the numerous floods that washed over the city through the years. According to Leola Laycock Young, her husband Clyde has spent almost all of his 84 years in the California area.  He is the grandson of William Harrison Young, who floated down the Ohio River, with two of his brothers.  They settled in the area in the early 1800s.

Sometime before 1813, a settlement was established at California around James Kennedy's Ferry.  A post office was established June 6, 1813 with John Reed as postmaster.  The town was first known as "Fenngor's Ferry".

The origin of its name remains a mystery, but it may have been named after what is now the state of California.  Court records date the city to 1849 which coincides with the discovery of gold in California. A court order lists the supervisors for a road going from Washington Trace Road to California.

 Just up the river from California was a steamboat landing called Oregon. While California was being developed as a city, Oregon was used as a pick-up point for steamboats needing wood for their boilers.  The road leading from that area is still named Oregon Landing.

 The late Campbell County historian William "Rus" Stevens said the earliest record he had found is a property deed dated April 22, 1851. The item concerns the sale of 10 acres by James M Young to John H Nelson and E P Dameron.  The deed describes the site as "a tract being part of the town of California, laid out by the said Nelson and Dameron."

The city had a post office by 1852 with John H Nelson as the postmaster, succeeded by James M Young in 1854 and James G Kercheval in 1855.It had a two story school and regular steamboat stops by the late 1870s.  Rev Isaac Shelby of Carthage was the teacher. California was incorporated as a city on February 7, 1874, according to records in the Secretary of State's office.

An 1871 map shows eight streets with Front, Jefferson, Madison and Nelson running north and south, and Union, Washington, Jackson and Young going east and west.  Front Street has since slipped into the Ohio River and Young Street is no longer listed.  Newspaper accounts in the 1870s describe California as a busy community with daily mail delivery by water, a two story school house and a population of 50.  Residents were also upset at the county for enacting a county road tax and steamboat tax. The writer J G wrote that the taxes were cutting "us off from all communications with the outside world."

J L Young, representing the city officials, challenged J G's fact in the next issue of the Newport Local.  Young said the wharfage fee of $1 per week per steamboat was a common practice along the Ohio River and was needed to keep up California's public wharf.  He said the steamboats were actually making money by charging their passengers a 15 cent surcharge.

J G, however continued his written attacks citing other taxes on "huckster wagons and beef wagons" as examples of excessive taxation.  The city fathers apparently relented, because J G later wrote that all the taxes had been lift.

The town of California was incorporated in 1874.

 An article on November 28, 1878 in the Newport Local called for the construction of a turnpike along the Ohio River from Newport through California to Bellmont (now called Mentor).  The writer said California residents could travel to Newport only by steamboat, or by traveling over the Alexandria Pike (US 27), which ran from Alexandria to Newport.  The road was completed in 1948 and is called Kentucky 8 and the Mary Ingles Highway.

Another solution for California's transportation problems was offered in 1885 when work began on the California and Tibbatts Crossroads and Turnpike.  Organizers of the road project said upon completion an omnibus line, either a horse-drawn wagon or stagecoach, would be opened from Gubser's Mill to California, where travelers could make steamboat connections.

An 1883 map shows California being 1 mile wide and 1 mile long.  Due to an accident on California Cross Roads, the towns fathers were afraid of a law suit, so they moved the city limits to just the other side of the railroad tracks.

By 1889, the C&O Railroad was making five stops a day in California-three headed north to Cincinnati in the morning and two south from Cincinnati in the evening.  That same years the California Musical and Literary Society was formed, offering regular musical performances and lectures.  On of the first topics was women's suffrage.

A California business directory during the late 1800s listed;
J M Thomas-physician and surgeon
E D Hicks-dealer in bituminous coal
Mrs. Etta Preacher-merchant and dealer in millinery goods
F B Lehr-blacksmith
DeMoss and Jolly-dry good, grocery and tobacco dealers
S H Cooper-merchant and postmaster {of Mentor}
B P Tarvin-dealer in dry goods and groceries
A S McArthur-dealer in dry goods and groceries

While California's location along the Ohio River aided early development, floods in 1937 and 1945 inundated the city and discouraged further development. The stores went out of business and the Christian church moved out of town to escape the floods.  Only the Methodist Church remains and its sanctuary has been moved to the second floor.

Population in 1990 was 130.

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