Just about all of Marshall County has enjoyed the benefits that were triggered by the building of Kentucky Dam in the 1940s. No locale has reaped more benefits than Calvert City.
That’s appropriate, given that one of the city’s driving forces, businessman George Luther Draffen, has been described by veteran Marshall County journalist Bobbie Foust as “the father of Kentucky Dam.”
Along with the dam itself and the tourism and recreation revenue brought in by Kentucky Lake, there was the influx of industry in the late 1940s and early 1950s that gave the county overall and Calvert City in particular an enviable economic base.
“If not for his efforts, this region might still be awaiting construction of the dam and the resulting industrial complex at Calvert City,” Foust said in a 2009 address to the Jackson Purchase Historical Society.
Development over the past six-and-a-half decades has brought dramatic change to what was once a sleepy railroad town.
One of the county’s three remaining incorporated communities, Calvert City traces its origins to landowner Potilla Calvert, who built a stately home, Oak Hill, in the northern part of the county in 1860.
He offered to donate land if the Paducah and Elizabethtown Railroad agreed to build a station near his home, and the station was named for him.
The city was first incorporated in 1871. At first the town was called simply Calvert, but “City” was later added to the name, and it stuck.
Thomas “Sprout” Davis, a lifelong resident of Calvert City except for the three years he served in the Navy during World War II, remembers a good bit of the town’s history.
“The population, back before the war, they said it was 350,” Davis said. “That was before people started coming in for the dam.”
When Davis returned in 1946, Kentucky Dam had already been dedicated and growth was about to explode.
He partnered with Jack Karnes in a venture to open a drug store and put in some time as a boilermaker’s apprentice at the railroad shops in Paducah before coming home to a job at one of the new plants.
Pennsylvania Salt, or Pennsalt (now Arkema), was the first to open, followed by Pittsburgh Metallurgical (now CC Metals). At present some 16 major international corporations have plants placed along the curve of the Tennessee River below Kentucky Dam, employing approximately 3,000 workers.
Davis worked for one of those plants, GAF (now Ashland), until his retirement in 1986.
“I don’t know what all of us would’ve done if the plants hadn’t come in,” Davis said. “Everybody started living better.”
Of course, there were many attributes that residents were able to enjoy over the years leading up to the prosperity that followed the dam.
There was some industry, in the form of Norman Milling Co.
Along Railroad Avenue and up and down Main Street north and south of the railroad tracks, there were grocery and general merchandise stores (“six or seven of them,” Davis recalled), two barber shops, a funeral home, two doctors, the Lander Hotel and a pool hall.
For many years, there was no dentist.
“You had to go to Paducah” for dental work, Davis said.
Getting to Paducah was no simple task, as there was no paved road to provide a direct connection the way U.S. 62 and Interstate 24 now do.
“I remember riding a bicycle to Paducah when I was about 15 or 16,” Davis said.
The road that is now Highway 95, like most of the other roads in the county before the late 1940s, was gravel.
The railroad provided freight and passenger service right on up through the 1950s, and it was part of the infrastructure that helped attract the industry.
As was the case in many Marshall County communities, there was high school basketball. The Calvert City Wildcats claimed First Region championship titles in 1934 and ‘35.
Calvert City High was absorbed into North Marshall High School by consolidation at the end of the 1953-54 school years. In 1959, North Marshall brought home a state championship.
The original charter lapsed somewhere along the way, but the city was re-incorporated in the mid-20th century with the prospect of growth that has been fulfilled.
In addition to the nearby dam and Kentucky Lake, Calvert City boasts a holdover from the 1950s, the Calvert Drive-In theater, on Highway 95 south of the city, and Kentucky Lake Motor Speedway, one of the nation’s premier dirt auto racing tracks, at the junction of Interstate 24 and the Purchase Parkway, soon to be designated as I-69.
City government set a modern precedent in 2004 by authorizing liquor sales by the drink in an otherwise dry county.
Much of the original town is now gone, and the focus has shifted south and east of where Calvert City was established.
The municipal government offices, city parks, Calvert City Elementary School and much commercial and residential development has grown up along 5th Avenue, which, when it was first built, was described as “a road that started nowhere and went nowhere.”
The town has spread further south and west, to U.S. 62, the highway that came along in the early 1950s, and west almost all the way to Gilbertsville.
Now, further expansion has been targeted, with a proposal to annex Kentucky Dam Village State Park.
The Calvert City Industrial Complex was described as “Luther Draffen’s monument” by Murray State University journalism professor L.J. Hortin.
Since the 1940s, Calvert City has been the leader in Marshall County’s economic development. The city continues to fill that role.