During the Civil War, Lyon County was pro-Confederate. Two of the greatest heroes emerging from this conflict were Willis B. Machen, a wealthy businessman and farmer, who served in the Confederate Congress and later became a U.S. senator. Mr. Machen’s plantation home was on a mound near the Cumberland River and he insisted [on] flying the Confederate flag. As federal gunboats moved up and down the river, they often took potshots at his house.
The other hero was General Hylan B. Lyon, grandson of Matthew Lyon. General Lyon was a West Point graduate, intelligent, skilled and daring. General Lyon, with a small group of handpicked soldiers, traveled through western Kentucky burning courthouses and was dubbed the “Courthouse Burning General”.
Apart from the gunboat activity along the river, there was only one battle of significance in Lyon County which occurred at Saratoga, about four miles southeast of Eddyville. (See related story.)
[A picture on this page of the newspaper is of “The Kuttawa Home of Attorney Walter Krone”. It shows a modes home with a small front porch, a picket fence and a buggy sitting in front of the picket fence.]
The next milestone in Lyon County history was the founding of the town of Kuttawa. William Kelly, spending more time on his experiments instead of managing his business, went broke. In 1866, his creditors foreclosed and his iron holdings, including 10,000 acres of land, was sold at the courthouse door.
Charles Anderson, an ex-governor of Ohio, bought the holdings. At the site of Kelly’s New Union Forge on the Cumberland River, Governor Anderson surveyed and developed the town of Kuttawa which he promoted for the rest of his life. Kuttawa is an Indian word meaning “Beautiful City”. The town was chartered in 1872 and grew rapidly.
In 1871, plans were being made to construct the Paducah-Elizabethtown Railroad. To entice the railroad to locate the route through Lyon County, Kuttawa and Eddyville, Governor Anderson gave many miles of right-of-way and the county made cash grants to the railroad. For 100 years the railroad was the heartbeat of Lyon County, providing good passenger and freight service, and bringing much needed jobs. The railroad still runs through Lyon County, but for the most part hauls bulk freight.
At the turn of the century, Kuttawa was producing more manufactured goods than Eddyville. The Suwanee Spoke and Lumber Company was the largest producer of spokes for wooden wheels in the world. At this same time, the services of the railroad was [were] increasing and shipping on the river was declining.
In 1880, when Governor Blackburn was elected Governor of Kentucky, conditions at the state prison in Frankfort were deplorable. Governor Blackburn has gone down in history as the prison reformer of Kentucky. The governorrequested that the General Assembly make rapid improvements for prison facilities. The General Assembly did not respond favorably and the Governor got their attention when he began to issue wholesale pardons. During his term in office, he pardoned over 1,000 inmates.
In 1880, the General Assembly authorized the governor to appoint a three-man state committee to study prisons, select a site and have plans and specifications prepared for a branch penitentiary. General Hylan B. Lyon was appointed a member of that committee.
After extensive travel and study of other prison systems, the committee selected Eddyville as the site for the new branch penitentiary. H.P. McDonald and Brothers of Louisville were selected to prepare plans and specifications.
The committee presented their recommendations to the 1881-82 session of the legislature. Funds were not approved for construction. The 1884 legislature approved funds for the construction and work began. In addition to local contractors and labor, 30 skilled Italian stone masons were brought in to supervise and aid in laying the huge limestone blocks, quarried at the nearby farm of General Lyon. Over 200 inmates from the Frankfort Penitentiary were brought in as laborers.
Construction was finished at the Eddyville Branch Penitentiary in 1889 and the first inmates were received on Christmas Eve of that year. The Eddyville Branch was renamed the Kentucky State Penitentiary in 1912. In 1911, the electric chair was installed. In and between 1911 and 1961, 166 persons met their fate in the chair. On July 13, 1929, between 12:24 a.m. and 2:22 a.m. seven men were electrocuted. The facility, at present, serves as a maximum security penitentiary for Kentucky.
The penitentiary has been both a blessing and a curse to Lyon County. A blessing in the millions of dollars in payroll brought to Lyon and the adjoining counties; a curse that society must have such an institution and the fears of Lyon County citizens when riots and breakouts occur.