It’s possible residents of the Camp Taylor neighborhood don’t know that once an actual Camp Taylor existed on that very ground.
It was Camp Zachary Taylor, to be exact — as in the 13th president of the United States. And 101 years ago, as the U.S. prepared for its entry into World War I, the city of Louisville persuaded the Department of the Army to set up a training camp here.
The rough borders of the camp property were Eastern Parkway to the north, Preston Highway to the west, Newburg Road to the east, and what is now the Watterson Expressway to the south.
Farmland was cleared, buildings were razed and, in September 1917, more than 125,000 enlistees and draftees — mostly from Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana — arrived at Camp Taylor, on their way to the battlefields in France. Not all of them got there.
For some, the war ended before they could ship out. For others, a different force — as compelling as the Kaiser’s army — stopped them cold.
It was a dual assault on a devastated world. A flu epidemic began to rage throughout the U.S. in 1918, on its way to ravage a war-weary Europe as well. And Kentucky and its military camp were as hard hit as the rest of the country.
One-sixth of the Camp Zachary Taylor personnel was hospitalized, and an estimated 1,500 coffins — most of them containing young soldiers — were taken away in the dark of night so as not to demoralize the rest of the camp or the surrounding neighborhood.
The camp, in the context of the war and the flu epidemic, is the subject of a new exhibition at the Filson Historical Society, titled “The Evolution of Camp Zachary Taylor.” It runs through July 27.
The war itself began in August 1914. The U.S. entered the war in April 1917. Centennial commemorations and retrospectives have been going on here and around the world since 2014. Not surprisingly, the Filson has been active in these historical commemorations.
“We have had other exhibits focusing on the centennial of the first World War,” says Jennie Cole, the Filson’s manager of collections. “This is the first one focusing on the camp.”
And not just the camp, by the way, which had a relatively brief life from its opening in September 1917 until its closing in September 1920, nearly two years after the war’s end. Rather, the exhibit focuses on the entire history of the land on which the camp sat.
That goes back to the original 1774 grant for 1,000 prime farming acres near Beargrass Creek, deeded to Col. William Preston, a veteran of the French-Indian Wars.
And it goes forward in time well into the mid-20th century, after the camp had closed and the land was sold to developers and subdivided into the residential neighborhoods that still exist. Camp Taylor was just one of the neighborhoods that emerged. So did Audubon Park and Poplar Level, as well as the Louisville Zoo.
One of the builders of these neighborhoods was Samuel Plato, the pioneering African-American architect.
But history is often marked by great events, and the concurrent world war and flu pandemic were just that. As the U.S. mobilized to join the Allies in the war against Germany, training camps emerged out of nothing all over the country.
“The War Department chose Louisville because of its good water supply, access to an existing railroad and almost 3,000 acres of available land,” says Cole.
As the artifacts show, the camp was used for more than artillery and infantry training for the more than 125,000 soldiers who went through the camp.
“There was a chaplain school, training clergy on how to be of use to the troops overseas,” says Cole. “There was training for bakers and cooks. And there was a medical unit.”
The medical unit was drafted into unexpected action when influenza began to hit the grounds, starting in 1918. History calls it “the Spanish flu,” but that’s a misnomer, says Jim Holmberg, the Filson’s curator of special collections.
“As the flu spread in Europe, all the participants in the war censored information to keep from demoralizing people,” he says. “Neutral Spain was the only country to report on it.”
In fact, says Holmberg, the flu has sometimes been traced to a pig on a Kansas farm. The first recorded victim was Pvt. Albert Mitchell, a cook at Fort Riley, Kansas, in March 1918.
“The disease likely spread because so many of these soldiers were moving around the country, tightly packed into troop trains,” Holmberg says. “And then they got onto tightly packed troop ships and carried the flu to Europe, where people were exhausted and vulnerable, and living conditions were often unsanitary.”
Because there was no medical cure for the flu other than bedside care, nurses and Red Cross workers at Camp Zachary Taylor were harder hit than doctors.
The exhibit zeros in on Clara Gibson, a Louisville high school student who volunteered at Camp Taylor. She got the flu in February 1919, says Cole, and died. It was the third wave of the epidemic, months after the end of the war itself.
Some of the letters she received from soldiers, and letters from soldiers to her parents, are on display, as well as old photographs.
After the war, says Cole, the government decided there was not enough space for a permanent camp and moved its field artillery training to Fort Knox. The land was sold off privately, and now there’s just a neighborhood to remind us of the short, mostly unhappy life of the WWI Camp Zachary Taylor.
The exhibit is in the Filson’s Bingham Gallery in the Wood Carriage House. The Filson Historical Society is located at 1310 S. Third St. in Old Louisville
- April 4, 6 p.m. — A discussion on the homeland effects of the war by Dr. Jennifer Keene, a specialist in the American military experience during the war.
- April 17, noon — A presentation on the toll taken by the flu epidemic by Dr. Charles Oberst.
- May 15, noon — A lecture on the camp’s history by collection curator Jennie Cole.
- June 5, 6 p.m. — A revealing presentation on “the untold story behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” by author Patrick K. O’Donnell.
- June 20, noon — A discussion of “Harry’s War,” the compelling wartime diary kept by English soldier Harry Drinkwater, by Jon Cooksey (who edited the diaries for publication) and David Griffiths.