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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The “Napoleon of Promoters” was Early Fort Thomas Developer and Major Influencer

Samuel Bigstaff, developer of Fort Thomas

Fort Thomas became Fort Thomas largely because of the efforts of one man - Samuel Bigstaff, a colorful and dynamic character. He was a Confederate prisoner of war, a smooth talker, a speculator, developer, entrepreneur, and lawyer who pretty much set Fort Thomas on the path it took to becoming what it is today. He is a fascinating character and Chuck Taylor of the Fort Thomas History Museum is the perfect person to tell Bigstaff’s story.

Samuel Bigstaff ran away from his Bath County, Kentucky home to join the Confederate army when he was sixteen years old. He was captured, escaped, was shot in battle, captured again, and eventually sent to the Newport Barracks at the junction of the Ohio and Licking Rivers in current Newport. Chuck Taylor describes Bigstaff, “He was a Confederate prisoner of war, was captured twice, and finally wound up at Newport Barracks. He must have been a charmer because he had free run of the Newport Barracks.” That’s right. A prisoner of war had the run of the military installation and was rumored to have attended the officer’s club. Remember, he was a Confederate prisoner who never rose above the rank of private.

Bigstaff met Alice Webster, the daughter of a prominent Newport lawyer, F.M. Webster, and married her after the Civil War. Recognizing Bigstaff’s intellect, her father paid his way to law school in Cincinnati. Bigstaff stayed in Newport because he sensed opportunity. And, boy, was there ever an opportunity about to happen.

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The museum's Chuck Taylor offers his assessment that Bigstaff was a “flamboyant, energetic entrepreneur” who had the knack for seeing what was going and how he could capitalize on it.  We get a glimpse into his character by how people reacted to him. At some point he picked up the nickname of “Major” which no doubt some people falsely assumed was his military rank. He was  called the “Napoleon of Promoters” because he made things happen.

Historian Chuck Taylor at the Fort Thomas Military Museum. FTM file. 
The Newport Barracks was susceptible to floods because of its location so after the flood of 1884 Bigstaff lobbied officials in Washington for a new fort on higher ground. He has a spot in mind that was on the crown of a hill that overlooked the Ohio River in the District of the Highlands. General Phillip Sheridan visited, agreed, and the government bought 111 acres of mostly orchards and Fort Thomas began. Interestingly enough, Bigstaff and his partners owned the purchased land. Bigstaff suggested that the fort be named in honor of General Thomas, one of the true Northern heroes of the Civil War.

Bigstaff was a visionary who had a knack for seeing opportunities and moved on them early. Now that there was a fort, people would need roads so Bigstaff built them. He brought in the street cars, developed residential areas, recreation areas, businesses, and built roads. He developed what is believed to be the first golf club in Northern Kentucky in the 1890s, The Inverness Country Club, on land that today is directly across the street from Johnson Elementary School on North Fort Thomas Avenue. He even gave Inverness its name.

He also built the streetcar line that ran from Newport to the golf club along what is now Memorial Parkway.  By the early 1900s, the club had about 400 members. Unfortunately, the club burned down and was relocated to its current location along Alexandria Pike. Eventually Bigstaff extended his streetcar line to the south end of town to the turn around near where the Blue Marble bookstore is today.

He was instrumental in developing other major projects in the area - the Central Bridge, the Shortway bridge, the fort’s stone water tower, and Grand Avenue (to expedite travel to the fort). “He developed Grand Avenue to get stuff back and forth between Newport and the Fort,” Taylor says.

He developed the Cote Brilliant neighborhood in Newport which is the location of the Newport Pavilion shopping center today. He was a developer/investor of the Altamont Hotel, a hotel that boasted a grand view of the river, and the nearby Shelly Arms Hotel. They sat on what is today Crown Avenue.

Bigstaff bought the Shaw House, a regal home on Audubon, and lived there until his death on August 18, 1912.  Chuck Taylor says, “He was into everything. He was one of the biggest movers and shakers in Northern Kentucky and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery.”  Samuel Bigstaff made things happen.

Samuel Bigstaff was a major force in developing the area into a desirable community. His name does not grace any statues or historic markers and not too many residents recognize his name.  He was a powerful figure in the development and naming of Fort Thomas and he deserves some attention during our Sesquicentennial celebration. Samuel Bigstaff saw the future and made it happen.

Bigstaff's enthusiastic and forward thinking approach created the city the we call home. He never rested. And it is that attitude that will ensure our future success.

The 1883 map of the District of the Highlands. FTM file. 

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