PADUCAH, Kentucky — Founded near the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers, this western Kentucky town has always looked to the rivers for commerce, transportation and culture.
Paducah has been a destination for travelers in these parts since before the town’s founding in 1827 by William Clark. Clark, along with Meriwether Lewis and their Corps of Discovery, were floating down the Ohio River when they stopped to camp in the area in 1803 on their way to St. Louis and their epic journey west.
Today, many more visitors arrive by highway than on boats, but river-faring cruise ships still pull up to the landing in downtown Paducah, disgorging travelers to explore the town’s plentiful delights — many of them still centering on the river.
A statue commemorating Lewis and Clark stands outside the National Quilt Museum, where visitors will find a lot fancier — and undoubtedly warmer — coverings than anything Lewis and Clark had on their voyage. But these quilts aren’t for snuggling under.
The popular museum showcases some amazing modern artistry that will dazzle even those who don’t count quilting or quilt collecting among their hobbies. The hundreds of quilts, professionally displayed and curated, feature imaginative stitchery, patterns ranging from traditional to avant-garde and colors from subdued to bold and fantastical.
Paducah also hosts the American Quilter’s Society’s Quilt Weeks each April and September. And the town features several shops catering to visiting and local quilt makers. (One museum visitor, examining an especially intricate work, commented to her companion, “It looks like I’ve really got to up my game.”)
Paducah has long served as a major Ohio River port and as a site of large boat yards. The city is also home to the high-tech Center for Maritime Education, training more than 1,000 mariners each year.
But the rivers haven’t always been friendly to Paducah. After a massive flood devastated the town in 1937, a large floodwall was constructed. Today’s visitors can get a pretty good lesson on the city’s history just by strolling along that floodwall, which is covered with more than 50 life-size murals depicting scenes and events from Paducah’s past.
The murals, by artist Robert Dafford and his team, extend for three city blocks along Water Street and are accompanied by interpretive signs explaining the significance of the scenes, from prehistoric Indian days through the heyday of river life to today.
A lot more river history can be found at the River Discovery Center on Water Street across from the flood wall. The two-story building is Paducah’s oldest, built in 1843, and has housed a bank, a hotel and a steamboat supply company.
The museum features a wide variety of exhibits centering on the river, including a state-of-the-art audio-visual simulator that allows visitors to “captain” various kinds of boats on the Ohio River. (My attempt to navigate a speedboat through a series of hairpin turns under a bridge turned into a virtual disaster, but was much fun.)
Train buffs will also want to stop in at the downtown Paducah Railroad Museum, which celebrates the city’s history as a railroad and transportation center.
Other downtown museums include the William Clark Market House Museum, a local-history museum in the lovely and historic 1905 Market House; and the Lloyd Tilghman House and Civil War Museum, located in the architecturally significant 1852 Greek Revival Home of Tilghman, a West Point grad and Confederate general during the Civil War.
Plenty of restaurants can be found in downtown Paducah. I really enjoyed the coffee and pastries at Kirchhoff’s bakery and deli, which also features al fresco dining on a shady downtown sidewalk.
And for thirsty visitors, I recommend a stop at the friendly and award-winning Paducah Beer Werks, a craft brewery located in the old downtown Greyhound Bus station.
Those who prefer the harder stuff should check out the Moonshine Company, a craft distiller offering tours and tastes of their unaged corn whiskey.
Plenty of other interesting eateries, shops and galleries also await visitors who are willing to take their own voyage of discovery through the pleasant streets of downtown Paducah.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.