CAMP NELSON — The historic community of Camp Nelson, which lies off U.S. 27 on both sides of the Kentucky River between Garrard and Jessamine counties, once was a booming place.
A Civil War camp, established in 1863 to recruit Union troops, and became a haven for black families, many of whom had escaped slavery. It was named in honor of Major Gen. William Nelson.
The draft of black soldiers in 1864 made Camp Nelson the most important recruiting station and training camp for blacks. It later became the chief center for issuing emancipation papers to former slaves.
Camp Nelson Cemetery was designated a national cemetery in 1867, and remains a military cemetery.
After the war ended, the community became the home of a whiskey distillery. E.J. Curley established a distillery in 1875 on the Kentucky River in a complex of connected buildings made of limestone. By 1884, Curley operated two distilleries, one on each side of the river. He had a mashing capacity of 1,100 bushels per day and production capacity of 100 barrels per day. Old Fitzgerald whiskey and Canada Dry ginger ale also were produced at Curley’s operation.
The operation continued production until 1971. The main building was destroyed by fire in 1972.
The area was important in pioneer days because a break in the palisades gave access to a ford across the Kentucky River below the mouth of Hickman Creek. Historians say the ford was a favorite place of Daniel Boone, and was known as Fitchport, named for Philonzo L. Fitch, operator of the landing.
A Fitchport post office operated on the south side of the river from 1839 until 1842. In 1843, a Boone’s Knob post office opened on the north side of the river, named for the area said to be used by Boone as a landmark. The post office closed in 1849.
The area along the river also was a gathering place for people who enjoyed fishing, boating, swimming and camping. It once had Riverside restaurant and motel and other businesses along the Garrard County side.
Over the years, flooding of the river damaged and destroyed many of the buildings and they were not rebuilt.
One of the most famous covered bridges in Kentucky was built across the Kentucky River at Camp Nelson in 1838 by Lewis Wernwag, a German native. The bridge was 240 feet long with two 12-feet wide lanes. The bridge cost $30,000 to build and was financed jointly by Jessamine and Garrard counties.
After more than 100 years of moisture and a leaky roof, a loaded truck broke through the rotted floorboards in 1926. The bridge was closed permanently and demolished in 1933.
Construction began immediately on a new steel bridge which opened in 1928. That bridge was later replaced when a four-lane concrete bridge was built near where the old covered bridge was located.
The steel bridge was damaged by the 1997 flood and closed to traffic.
Research for the Camp Nelson article was taken from “The Kentucky Encyclopedia” by John E. Kleber, editor in chief; and website: http://www.uky.edu/KentuckyAtlas/ky-camp-nelson.html