The Kentucky River Thorobred, Kentucky Sate University's floating lab.
Steeped in a rich history, the Kentucky River has played host to many famous explorers, such as Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark. It has been home to Native Americans who lived in Kentucky long before any European explorers made their way here. It was even a model of sorts for the famed Kentucky painter Paul Sawyier, who left many painted images of the waterway as it appeared in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The Kentucky River has served as a source of food, transportation and recreation for its residents that live close by for as long as anyone can remember. One of the newest projects involving the river will allow students to see it in a way many have not seen before, while learning about its history and the science that goes along with the natural resource.
The Kentucky River Thorobred is a boat that will serve as a floating science lab, history museum and somewhat of a tourist attraction. Kentucky State University (KSU) initiated the project and will operate the vessel as part of its aquaculture program.
James Tidwell, professor and chair of the Division of Aquaculture at KSU, said the boat is actually an educational, floating classroom.
“The idea came from Dr. Mary Sias, the president of the university, and she is working with the Frankfort tourism folks and river development organizations,” he said. “There are something like 60,000 school students who come to Frankfort each year, and this is a real opportunity to introduce them to the concept of the river.”
In addition to the boat, the project also includes the Kentucky River Interpretive Center, located near where the boat is docked.
The building was originally constructed in the 1800s and is a living history museum in itself. It served as a tariff house, according to Tidwell, and was there because the river was there.
“At one time, a lot of the goods coming into this area never touched U.S. soil until [they] got to Frankfort. They came in through the Port of New Orleans, up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to the Kentucky River,” he said. “The tariff house was there to collect the tariffs on the incoming goods.”
Students visiting the center will learn about the geology of how the river’s path was actually formed and how the limestone formations were created more than 360 million years ago. They will also learn how the limestone and water have played such an important role in the development of Kentucky, noted Tidwell.
“They will even learn how the state’s signature industries, bourbon and horses, are dependent on the river. Bourbon was really a way to value-add corn and ship it down the river in a higher-value, lower-volume method,” he said.
Tidwell added that students will also learn how all that changed when the Corps of Engineers came in and turned a river into a series of ponds and lakes with all of the locks and dams, and how it changed the biology of the river. He said the program will look into the future of the river as well, and how climate changes are expected to change water availability.
“Once we do kind of a pre-teach in the Interpretive Center, then we can take [students] out and get them on the science boat,” Tidwell said. “They will see Daniel Boone’s grave from the riverside and some of the palisades. They can sample the river and dig through the mussels from dredges. Kentucky has one of the best populations of freshwater mussels and more diversity of freshwater mussels than anywhere in the country, and really the world.”
The palisades Tidwell mentioned are a series of limestone ledges and cliffs that were formed millions of years ago and stand above the river for approximately 100 miles. The region, according to information from the Nature Conservancy, is home to many endangered plant species and animals and is considered by many to be one of the most unique ecosystems anywhere.
In discovering so many things, Tidwell said, it is the integration of all these different subjects that really gets the students excited. He emphasized that not only will the aquaculture division work on this project, but the intent is to involve other programs at the university.
There is still some work to be done to have the program up and running for the next school year, and some things have taken time to do, including getting Coast Guard approval, something Tidwell said has been a complicated process.
“Everything is really good to go, but now the season is over. We’ll pull the boat out of the water soon and do a few modifications from what we learned from having it in the river this summer and have it back in the river in May,” he said.
Students will likely be able to experience the boat by next school year, if all goes according to plan, and Tidwell said after they have participated in the program, he hopes some students will consider going to school at KSU when college time comes.
“It’s been my experience that you need to reach a kid not when they are a senior in high school, but a lot times when they are in middle school,” he said. “I think it will be a great educational tool, and it will be open to everybody from primary school to graduate students going out to do research on the boat.”