News and Tribune

January 3, 2013

NEW ALBANY BICENTENNIAL- Week 1: The Scribners Part 1


NEW ALBANY — It all began with three brothers — three Scribner brothers to be exact.

Without these men, New Albany wouldn’t be the place we know today. For starters, the city wouldn’t even be called New Albany. The Scribner boys, Joel, Nathaniel and Abner, named the town in honor of the capital of their home state. Let’s just say they were in a New York frame of mind.

Like many Americans of their day, the Scribner men wanted something more. It just so happened that they were born at a time in history where more was the buzz word of the day. Much, much more land and opportunities had become available to people of all social statuses, and all they needed to do was move West.

According to Anne Caudill, a member and former historian for the Piankeshaw Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution [DAR], we know about the Scribners’ journey because of a journal written by Dr. William Augustus Scribner, son of town founder Joel Scribner. William Augustus was a boy when the family decided to move from New York to the new frontier. He remembered the trip in detail, including when his father decided to travel in search of better prospects.

“Then [William Augustus] said, ‘My father concluded to move to the West.’ See, the West was really just opening up. This was 1811,” Caudill said.

At first, founding a town wasn’t in the picture. Neither were Joel’s other two brothers. He initially moved to Cincinnati in early October 1811 with his brother-in-law to start a tanning business. The War of 1812, however, broke out and his partner joined a local militia and ran off to fight, leaving Joel without a tanner and a partner.

In a bit of a pinch and unsure of what to do next, Joel summoned two of his brothers to come to Cincinnati and join him in a business venture. With land cheap and trade on the Ohio River booming, the men decided to purchase some land in hopes of creating their very own prosperous river town.

“At that time the government was urging people to move West and they were urging people to establish towns. So they concluded that they would try and start a new town and go into the real estate business,” Caudill said.

Once they settled on their plan, the entrepreneurs needed to find a place to actually settle. In 1813, these New Albany founding fathers made their first trek on a flatboat from Cincinnati. After searching around for a nice piece of land to buy, they decided on some waterfront property downriver from the Falls of the Ohio.

According to Caudill, the brothers selected the plot due to the success of a new emerging town in the same vicinity called Louisville.

“The Falls of the Ohio was a barrier to navigation except in times of very high water. Anything that came down the river or came up the river had to stop and be portaged around, which meant they had to have warehouses to store things and they had to have taverns to keep people overnight. [Louisville] became a kind of center of commerce,” Caudill said. “[The Scribners] thought they could do the same thing on this side of the river. They picked the land just below the falls.”

The only problem was this 800-plus acre parcel was owned by someone else. Col. John Paul decided to sell the land to the brothers and found another town, Madison, instead.

Like a riverboat hitting the bottom of the river in low water, the Scribners scraped together $8,000 to buy the land. How did this working class family come up with the money? Why, like many Americans today, they borrowed it of course. Lucky for them, their older brother had traveled to the West Indies and had found success in the sugar industry. Rich relatives are always an asset, so the brother sent a ship load of the sweet stuff to New Orleans where Abner traveled and sold the commodity to a guy named General Dent.

As he returned to their home with the much-need startup money, the boat carrying the sugar sank in a New Orleans harbor. Not a fortuitous sign for a fledging business venture. Nonetheless, the buyer had already assumed control of the sugar at the time of the sinking, so the Scribners suffered no loss. They kept the profits from the sale and bought the land they so desired.

Now they owned the land, the real work of developing the town would begin. Little known to the Scribners, the newly formed streets in New Albany wouldn’t be the only bumpy roads they would need to face.