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Providence the town: History, now for sale

Saturday, August 8, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 2:47 p.m. CDT, Sunday, August 9, 2009
Shown at left is the former home of William A. Thornton, a night patrolman on the MKT Railroad, and a one-time general store and warehouse, later used as a barn, on Oct. 8, 1956.

COLUMBIA — “No Trespassing” signs and wire fence border either side of Old Plank Road as the narrow strip of pavement crosses Katy Trail State Park and stops at a small boat ramp at Perche Creek about a half-mile inland from the Missouri River. A lone, red-brick chimney, battered by time, reminds passers-by that something more was there once.

The vacant land on either side of Old Plank has been mostly left alone, four years after Jose Lindner of Forum Development Group began buying it up a few years back. At the beginning of June, the Lindners began looking for a buyer of their own and moved the 1,200 acres from Providence Farms, LLC, to HMI RIMIC, LLC.

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The land is wild, hilly and green, but a thick canopy of forest hides it from the view of anglers passing through to try their luck on Perche Creek. Forum’s property listing on the commercial real estate Web site LoopNet.com boasts that it’s some of the most beautiful land in the state and that the original plats for the abandoned river town of Providence still exist. It even asks buyers, “Want to start your own town?” There’s definitely enough acreage for that, but Boone County Planning and Building Director Stan Shawver said the individual Providence plats are too small to meet modern building codes. One of the listings says there’s the potential for a 200-acre lake on the property, and lists the property for $36 million.

It’s unclear what plans — if any — the Lindners had for the land.

W.B. Smith, who owned the 840 acres that was home to his hatchery and feed mill before he sold the land to Lindner, said the buyers were always tight-lipped about their intentions. But the Lindners still owe him money, he said, and he’s not interested in buying it back.

Boone County Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller said the Lindners’ plans have remained a mystery to her.

“They always told me, when they had a plan, they’d show me,” she said, adding that she didn’t want the land leveled for cookie-cutter houses. “I wanted them to develop with the land, not against it.”

Whatever the Lindners wanted to do with the 1,200 acres that lie just south of Columbia and stretch nearly all the way to the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge didn’t work out. But none of the business ventures around Providence ever really did.

 

Remnants of the past

The few acres where Providence sat — its outlines still on record in a battered deed book that sits on the shelves of the Boone County recorder’s office — once bustled with activity. The town was Columbia’s primary connection to the rest of the country for almost 20 years. Now, there’s a small cottage next to a garden planted on an ivy-covered stone foundation. It, a small shed and the solitary chimney are all that remains of the mid-Missouri river port.

L.J. Perkins and his wife, Brenda Kay Perkins, own lots 41, 42 and 43, which include the house that sits just off the Katy Trail at the bottom of Old Plank Road. The pink cottage, with a boat in the yard, an NRA sticker on the window and the pretty little garden built on top of an old stone foundation, is the only house left in Providence.

“It’s been redone and redone and redone,” said L.J. Perkins, who bought the house a couple of years ago and leases it to some family friends.

“The wife and I kept it for a getaway cottage,” he said. “We’d go there and clean up, talk to people on the trail. I grew up there — lots of good memories.”

It was 1959 or 1960 — he can’t say when for sure — when 10-year-old Perkins, his brother and his sister moved into the house with his parents. It was the same house where his mother and 14 siblings had lived. It changed hands a couple of times, Perkins said, but he wound up spending his childhood there, back when the brick chimney was still attached to the old hotel built by one of the town’s founders. As children, he and his siblings would play in the abandoned hotel up the street all the time.

“I remember there were a lot of books there,” he said of the hotel. “I wish someone had collected those.”

 

The birth of a river town

The death of another town led to the birth of Providence. Ira Nash established the river port of Nashville in 1820. According to historical documents compiled by Mike Cooper, owner of Cooper’s Landing, Nash was known as eccentric, quarrelsome, generous and intelligent (the accounts vary). Nash is said to have been one of the first Europeans to settle in Boone County, and, apparently, while working as a surveyor for the Spanish government in 1804, he secured a piece of paradise — the present site of Cooper’s Landing.

“The most beautiful spot in all creation,” he called it.

Rick Goodman lives on land near the old town of Nashville. Legend has it that Nash is actually buried on his property, and some of his descendants have even come to inquire. Goodman said there are three mounds up on top of a ridge near his home.

“One is a good amount taller than the others,” he said. “Ira didn’t get along with his neighbors, and the rumor is he was buried standing up so he could look down on his neighbors.”

Nash died the same year his town did. The Missouri River flooded in 1844, ending the promise of young Nashville after covering it in eight feet of water. Yet many of its inhabitants simply moved upriver. A 1962 Missourian article said John Parker, who became a wealthy businessman in Providence, named the new town out of thankfulness for God’s salvation.

Only a little more than a mile upriver from what was Nashville, the town sat on higher ground and soon became a booming river town. The Nashville post office was relocated there. Parker built a 16-room brick hotel, and its chimney is still standing. A state road was established in 1847 between Columbia and Providence. By 1849, steamboats would land at the Providence wharf every day, dropping off cargo to be carried to Columbia and picking up Boone County’s goods bound for St. Louis or Kansas City, according to a 1984 article by John Beahler in the Sunday Missourian magazine.

The town’s success made Parker wealthy. His hotel housed visitors waiting for the steamboats that traversed the unpredictable river. He owned part of the wharf and the largest slaughterhouse in the state outside of St. Louis and Cape Girardeau.

Businessmen such as Judge Gilpin Tuttle, James McBaine and James Wood made their living there with warehouses, a hotel and stores for travelers. There are stories of Providence whiskey, which sold by the drink or the barrel. With all the riverboat crews passing through, it was in high demand. Riverboat captains, complaining about the shallow Missouri River and the difficulty of finding parts deep enough to navigate, would say that crews navigating the river needed more whiskey than those on other rivers. The captains would fill a bucket full of whiskey every few hours and put it on the deck to help deckhands unwind.

 

Driving commerce

To foster commerce between Columbia and Providence — and to help offset the threat of the coming railroads — Parker and other businessmen from the area launched an initiative to build a plank road between the two towns. The Boone County Plank Road and Turnpike Co. formed in 1853. As president, Parker lobbied heavily on its behalf. Soon, many of Columbia’s leading businessmen were stockholders.

Plank roads, the investors thought, would be inexpensive, durable and easily repaired. In 1850, there were more than 40 plank road companies operating in Missouri. But that was also before there were any railroads west of the Mississippi.

A 1973 article by historian John C. Crighton in the Columbia Daily Tribune tells how Columbia hedged its bets. In May 1853, the Boone County Court voted to pitch in $5,000 on the plank road construction. But in December of that year, the court also approved the purchase of $100,000 of capital stock in the North Missouri Railroad on the condition that it would pass through the county.

By 1856, a plank road ran from South Fifth Street in Columbia, across Hinkson Creek and down into Providence. The 12-foot-wide road cost $33,000, and the company charged fees for its use. Its completion was quite an ordeal in Columbia. Col. William Switzler, who wrote a history of Boone County, and Maj. James Rollins gave speeches at the grand opening.

Wagons hauled cargo, including many slaves, back and forth between the river landing at Providence and downtown Columbia. Politicians, students bound for MU and eventually Civil War soldiers used the road to get from the steamboats into Columbia.

Providence was at its peak. It had about 3,000 residents, two hotels, a saloon, three drugstores, a blacksmith and four doctors. It was Columbia’s chief river port, and connected the town to the rest of the country.

But the road didn’t last. It easily deteriorated, and the boards that weren’t replaced warped into curved bows until some of the road’s travelers began to complain they still felt as if they were on a boat.

A paper by former Columbia Daily Tribune historian Francis Pike covers the ill-fated road. An 1855 law exempted travelers going to religious services and military troops from paying the toll, which hurt the road once the war started. By the 1860s, the war and the North Missouri Railroad had begun to make both the road and Providence itself irrelevant. In 1863, the plank road was sold for $400. By 1880, not a plank remained.

But more than the war, it was the railroads that led to the slow death of Providence. Ironically, the railroad boom fueled some of Providence’s last prosperous years. Railroad ties made from Boone County timber were collected in the town and shipped to places like Omaha, Neb.; Sioux City, Iowa; and Yankton, S.D.

The MKT Railroad eventually built a rail line through the town. In the 1930s, a grocery store, a drug store and several houses occupied by MKT employees remained.

Now, there is barely any evidence the town existed. But it might have been doomed from the start. Riverboat captains often called the dangerous and unpredictable Missouri River a harlot because it changed its bed so often. And sometime late in the 19th century, the river shifted again, leaving Providence a half-mile inland.

 

A pipe dream come true

Robert and Marvin Sapp still own 13 lots in Providence. Their father bought the land formerly owned by James Longstreet Cleveland, the son of James Gillespy, a former Columbia councilman and mayor who also served terms as Boone County’s sheriff, treasurer, collector and state representative.

Years ago, the Lindners tried to buy the Sapps’ land. They sold about 100 acres north of the boat ramp but kept the land they grew up on and the lot where the Parker Hotel stood.

“We grew up there, my brother and I,” Robert Sapp said. “It’s sort of sentimental to us. We just want to keep it.”

Only four families lived there when Robert Sapp was growing up during the ’40s and early ’50s. Providence residents back then worked for the MKT Railroad, which ran five or six trains a day right by town, Sapp said. When he was older, the trains only came through about once a night.

He remembers catching carp with nets in Perche Creek and building the little wooden shack that sits a couple hundred feet up the trail from the boat ramp. And people in town always said former President Abraham Lincoln once stayed in the Parker Hotel.

“At least that was the gossip,” Sapp said. “I don’t know if it’s wrote down anywhere.”

About 15 years ago, around the time Sapp took down two of Providence’s last buildings — the old Sunday school building and the sawmill on his land — the old Parker Hotel “just sorta fell down,” he said. But the chimney still stands.

He doesn’t think Providence will change much anytime soon. Sapp never expected the Lindners to put up any new buildings. Most of the land the Sapps sold can’t even be built on, he said.

“He had some wild dreams about it I guess,” Sapp said. “I wasn’t worried at all about it. I thought it was a pipe dream, and I guess it was.”

 

History for sale

Most travelers on Old Plank Road today are trucks hauling boats to Perche Creek, and the cargo they bring back to Columbia consists mostly of catfish.

The Lindners have not returned numerous phone calls asking whether any buyers have shown interest. One of the land’s former owners, Tom Mendenhall, said he never knew what the Lindners planned after they bought the former town site from him.

Goodman wishes they would all just go away. He wants the land to stay just like it is or, better yet, turned into a conservation area with no people. Just “deer, turkey and coyotes.”

“That’s my plan,” Goodman said. “As soon as I win the lottery; I know my numbers are coming up.”

It doesn’t seem that much will change in the area anytime soon. The rumors of the Lindners’ plans years ago — a shopping center, a lake, million-dollar homes, maybe even a riverboat casino — might be passed off to a new owner.

For anyone looking, though, there’s a pretty little piece of history on sale — for $36 million.


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