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Monday, February 27, 2017

How Fort Thomas Came To Be

The exterior of the water tower being constructed. 
By Sam Shelton 

On the 27th of February 2017, the City of Fort Thomas will be celebrating its one hundred fiftieth birthday. Since 1867, our city has grown to become one of the best places to call home in Northern Kentucky. Our story begins before the founding of the District of Highlands in 1867.

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A century earlier, around 1749, one of the largest Indian battles known as the Battle of the Highlands took place in the hills overlooking the Ohio River between the Cherokee, the Shawnee, and the Miami Tribes. The battle lasted for three days and by the time it ended the Cherokee were forced to leave. Before leaving, the Shawnee and the Miami Indians treated their wounded and buried their dead before heading North. Almost 600 Indian warrior graves were discovered on Highland Avenue in the early 20th century.

Decades later early settlers began to call the hills home. The Perry Brothers were one of the first to make their home here owning most of what is now the north end of town. Slowly the property was subdivided amongst their descendants. During this time Cincinnati and the surrounding river cities start taking shape, yet the District of highlands would still be mostly undeveloped. However, this soon changed as one man’s vision of opportunity grew.

This man was Samuel Bigstaff. At the age of 15 he ran away from home to enlist in the Confederate Second Kentucky Cavalry. At the battle of Versailles, he was captured by the Union, but would later escape to join his regiment in Liberty, Tennessee. After the battle of Snow Hill, with a rifle ball in his leg, he was sent to several prisons before being transferred to the Newport Kentucky Barracks. Bigstaff soon became friends with many of the workers at the barracks and citizens in Newport. After being released he would marry Mary Alice Webster, daughter of a successful attorney, and later attend law school. He worked his way up the ladder becoming Vice President of the Newport Street Railway Company and found himself in the real estate business after inheriting property in Newport.

The Greenline streetcar on N. Fort Thomas Avenue. 

Bigstaff knew that the barracks flooded yearly and saw an opportunity to expand his companies. He insisted that the barracks be moved into the surrounding hills. After getting the approval from Washington D.C., he invited members of the army to visit the new site located in the District of Highlands. The men rode their horses through the 111 acre peach orchard, surveying the property in 1887. Bigstaff saved the best part for last- the view of the mighty Ohio river and miles and miles of forested land that stretched out over the horizon. It was at this point that General Sheridan proclaimed “… this new Fort will be ‘The West Point of the West!”

Work began on the Fort in 1883.  The first structure constructed at the fort was the commanders house located at 1 Alexander Circle. The homes were built quickly on Battery Lookout first before other structures on the property.  As the buildings were finished the army moved in. To make sure the fort would always have enough water, a 102 ft. high stone water tower was constructed at the entrance of the fort. It could hold up to 100,000 gallons of water. At the time the men building it probably didn’t know that they were building an historic iconic landmark that would go on to be used years after the army post left. Forty-nine buildings were completed by 1893.

Midway District. 
The district of Highlands started taking shape. Bigstaff kept his promise of bringing his electric street cars that ran from Newport to the District of Highlands. This once desolate place started attracting people from around the area and people started moving in, building large estates. The surrounding land became a retreat for the rich and famous wanting to escape from the bustling, crowded river cities.

The Midway District soon emerged near the Fort. Named after the Midway Carnival at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This new Midway featured restaurants, bars, ice cream shops, and prostitution which soon made the area to the south of the Fort an entertainment spot for the soldiers. After a large fire broke out destroying several buildings in the Midway District, local churches decided to “clean up the Midway”.

Hotels soon sprung up across the developing city. The first hotel, named The Ft Thomas Hotel, was located at 1051 South Ft. Thomas Avenue.  The most famous hotel in the area was The Altamont Springs. People traveled for miles seeking the “health benefits of the hotel’s cleansing spring waters”. The hotel, stood overlooking the Ohio River, where Crown Point is today, was popular for years until it was proven that there was no health benefit in its water.

The Altamont Hotel. 
During the first world war, the Altamont was bought by the army to be used as a hospital for the wounded. The Shelly Arms hotel, located adjacent to the Altamont, was used as an annex for the doctors and nurses. After going through several owners, the Altamont met its final match- the wrecking ball. All remains of the hotel were pushed over the hillside. To this day you can walk along the old road and stairs that once lead from the Ohio River to the famous hotel.

The time had finally come to name the district and declare it a city in 1914. The north end of town wanted to have the new city named Highlands, after the district, while the southern part of town wanted to have it named after the Fort that made the area flourish. Families were divided, friendships broke apart, the new city had entered a community civil war. Northerners even marched to the south end of town dressed in Highland costumes playing bagpipes demanding that they respect the name of the Highlands. Northerners pointed to Park Hills and the seven hills of Cincinnati, which were named after their topography.

The southerners claimed that this was the name known throughout the state and country, and backed up their position with surrounding areas such as Fort Mitchell and Fort Wright. The factor leading to the name choice was ultimately decided by the area post office. The post office that had recently moved near the Fort was called “Fort Thomas Branch, Newport, Kentucky” within a year the name was shortened and would forever be known as “Fort Thomas, Kentucky”.

Photos special to Fort Thomas Matters. Thanks to NKY Views.


  1. Hey, those dummies had a streetcar like Cincinnati.

  2. There is an error on dates and a key piece of history left out of this article.

    Sheridan and Bigstaff probably did their horseback survey prior to 1887 if construction began in 1883 and was completed in 1893. The dates don't add up.

    Also, per late Bill Thomas history account, the Taliafero, (Pronounced Toliver) family, Mrs Toliver was the sister of Newport's General JAMES Taylor) built Mount Pleasant as the first home in the area in 1815, with the labor of their slaves. The first school and church services were held in the Toliver's back room, alternating Baptist and Methodist services every other week. Eventually, the church would lead to Highland United Methodist Curch and the North end school would be Johnson Elementary. The Toliver home, the first home, church and school, still stands as the PENDERY home across from St Catherine's.

  3. Ever wonder how Newport got it's name? Contrary to speculation that it was named after an unrelated revolutionary war hero, Newport, which was originally owned by my fourth great grandfather, William Morgan; was named after our family's ancestral home, Newport, Wales; in the burough if Monmouthshire. His son, Charles Morgan, sold off the land after his death in the late 1700's to the people credited in "founding" the area, such as Gen'l Taylor.