By MATT KOESTERS
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Clarksville?
If you’re like most people, the first thing you thought of is the town’s vibrant retail corridors, filled with malls, shops, big-box stores and restaurants. It’s understandable if you came to that conclusion, because the town’s most well-traveled parkways are packed with retail and dining opportunities.
But centuries before there was Lewis and Clark Parkway, there was George Rogers Clark, an American Revolutionary War general charged with defending the colonies from westward incursions. Clark was rewarded for his service to the revolutionary cause with a tract of 150,000 acres, 1,000 of which were set aside for Clarksville, the first American settlement in the Northwest Territory.
The site of the original town, set near the banks of the Ohio River, now sits fallow, with only a few markers here and there declaring the importance of the plot. Jane Sarles wants to change that, and she wants the town’s heritage to figure into its identity.
“When people think of Clarksville, they think of the malls, the stores and shopping,” Sarles said. “And I think that it would be very nice for Clarksville to be thought as, in addition to that, a place to go and revisit history and the past, and some nice cultural activities.”
HOPES FOR DISCOVERY CENTER
Sarles is a historian and the president of the town’s historic preservation commission. Her passion is Clarksville’s past, and she wants more residents to understand that their hometown was a key part of the United States’ expansion.
“It seemed the right thing to do to renew it and remind people that this is where the original pioneer town was,” Sarles said.
To that end, the Clarksville Historic Preservation Commission has plans to bring that history back to life by recreating the town’s original grid upon the land where it originally stood, along with a Discovery Center, a building with archeological and educational facilities on a hill overlooking the original town site.
“I think the town grid ... is an important thing, because so many people in Clarksville who had grown up in Clarksville don’t even know where the original town was,” Sarles said. “They knew it was there somewhere, but there didn’t know where it was. And this establishes, hopefully permanently, and gets the word out that this is the site where the town began.”
The unnamed park, currently referred to as the West Riverfront Development, is still in the planning stages, but the vision is becoming more clear thanks to a $10,000 grant from Duke Energy that was used to commission The Estopinal Group to create renderings of what’s to come.
The Discovery Center will occupy land recently acquired by the commission off of Croghan Street. The vision for the building includes stone and large timber components on the facade to provide a modern look sympathetic to the colonial period, said Estopinal Group architect Kyle Wilson.
“We just tried to develop a nice, clean aesthetic that would look a little modern but would reflect the materials that are local to the area,” Wilson said.
The Discovery Center will be well-equipped to handle visitors, with plenty of parking and outdoor recreational features like a sculpture garden, a children’s playground and a children’s garden. Inside, visitors can tour a display of artifacts, shop for gifts and observe archeologists performing their craft.
The area is archeologically rich, Sarles said.
“The most recent dig has uncovered something like 20,000 to 30,000 artifacts, everything from early homes, huts that people built, to a colonial privy,” Sarles said. “Of course, that’s always interesting.”
Wilson’s renderings of the city grid, located downhill from the Discovery Center, will feature recreated historic structures, archeological dig sites and street markers with the original street names.
But there’s still plenty of work to be done before the park can be constructed. Part of the plan for the park calls for the acquisition of land west of Mill Creek that is currently privately owned, and funding sources must be identified. Aside from land acquisition, environmental work and remediation will need to be completed because of the neglected state of the riverfront.
“We’ve had some past landfills down there and who knows what,” said Brian Kaluzny, Clarksville Parks and Recreation superintendent. “There’s obviously been some dumping that’s been going on through the years, so we need to do some environmental work so we know what we’ve got — or what we’re going to be getting.”
The proposed park’s proximity to other public parks will make it a natural fit with some funding sources, Kaluzny said.
“I’m sure we can partner with the [Indiana] Department of Natural Resources because of the [Falls of the Ohio] Interpretive Center,” Kaluzny said. “George Rogers Clark State Park is right next to it. Then we have the town facilities there with Lewis and Clark Park and the recently purchased Spond Property.”
Other funding could come from the Clark-Floyd Counties Convention and Tourism Bureau, grants from the state and federal governments and partnerships with local colleges and universities, Kaluzny said.
The creation of the renderings will help with forming those partnerships, he said.
“I think it definitely helps people visualize what can be,” Kaluzny said. “We’ve talked about it for quite some time, and the plan spells out everything, but until you get a picture in front of somebody, it’s hard to understand words sometimes, and pictures will help that.”
Under normal circumstances, the artistic and architectural work done by The Estopinal Group would cost in excess of the $10,000 charged by the firm, but the project was deemed worthy of a donation of time and effort, Wilson said.
“We take a lot of pride in doing things that are here in our backyard,” Wilson said. “When you see good people after good causes, it’s easy to chip in and want to be part of the process, part of the solution. We knew that this is only one small park, and they’re going to have to go out and do a lot of hard work in raising the money to be able to accomplish the masterplan.
“But they’ve got a great start on it, and we’re just happy to be part of the process.”