History of CHNK

Written by Paul A. Tenkotte, Ph.D.
Colonel Amos Shinkle, founder of Children's Home of Northern Kentucky
Original charter for CHNK, dated April 13, 1880

In the late 1800s, the cities of Cincinnati, Ohio and neighboring Covington, Kentucky looked like many urban areas of their day. Living conditions for the poor and working classes were crowded and dreary, and coal soot from furnaces, factories and locomotives polluted the environment. Medical knowledge was limited, and the development and use of antibiotics was decades away. Mortality was high, and epidemics regularly swept the nation. As a consequence, there were many orphans—children whose parents had both died, often rather suddenly. In addition, like modern times, there were homeless, neglected, and abused children, as well as single parents who had no financial means and nowhere to turn to raise their children. There was no Social Security, no Worker’s Compensation, no Medicaid, and no food stamps. A work accident, economic recession, illness, or death could plunge poor and working class people into financial ruin.

Amos Shinkle (1818-1892) was a self-made man who worked his way up from being a flatboat cook on the Ohio River to building and owning steamboats. In the 1840s, he moved to Covington and became a successful businessman and civic leader. Shinkle is perhaps remembered best as President of the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company that built this area’s premier symbol—the Suspension Bridge (1867)—which Shinkle himself financed in part. A devout Methodist, he practiced works of charity and philanthropy throughout the region. Emotionally moved by the needs of poor children who lived in shantyboats along the rivers, Shinkle began to work for the establishment of an institution, whose 1880 charter stated, would care “for the friendless, homeless, unprotected children or orphans.” In an era when denominational differences held great importance, Shinkle was especially concerned for Protestant children, as there already existed two Catholic orphanages in Northern Kentucky. The Covington Protestant Children’s Home (CPCH), which opened in 1882, was the result of his vision and of his generosity. Designed by the noted architect Samuel Hannaford, the CPCH at 14th and Madison Avenue was a state-of-the-art facility. Shinkle spared no expense in making certain that the facility was inviting, that the furnishings were up-to-date, and that the care provided was “kind and humane.”

From its beginnings, the CPCH depended upon the generosity of everyone to achieve success. In fact, the first donation to the home was by four small girls, who held a neighborhood fair and raised $10. Two boards oversaw the work of the home: a Board of Trustees composed of businessmen, and a Board of Managers comprised of women who operated the home on a daily basis. The Board of Managers performed much of the fundraising for the home. Yet even school children got into the spirit, holding little “pound parties” for the benefit of the home, collecting “pounds” of food and goods for the orphanage. Throughout the first few decades of its existence, the home’s annual reports contained detailed records of all donations, ranging from the gifts of wealthy philanthropists to the chickens and vegetables that working class people brought to the facility.

Quite clearly, the historical records indicate that even in the late 1800s and the early 1900s many of the children at the home were only there temporarily. Single parents and the working poor, undergoing setbacks in their lives, would entrust their children to the home’s caregivers for a short term. The Board of Managers welcomed these children with open arms, but also worked tirelessly to find suitable adoptive homes for the children entrusted to their permanent care. Whether there temporarily or permanently, all of the children received moral instruction and were enrolled, after kindergarten, in the city’s public schools so that they could enter adulthood as educated citizens. The 1900 annual report enthusiastically related how “We had the pleasure of attending the commencement exercises at which one of our young women was graduated with high honors, among a class of eighteen. Another of our young women is [the] teacher of a large primary class in a flourishing Sunday-school, and is loved by all. Several of our young men are supporting themselves, and are an honor to the community in which they live.”  Providing access to educational opportunities, amidst a nurturing and wholesome environment, was pivotal to the home’s mission. As several early 20th century annual reports stated, the home was dedicated to “the work of improving the condition of human society and especially caring for—until suitable homes are found—neglected and homeless children who will eventually become Christian mothers, intelligent voters and substantial citizens.”

Colonel Amos Shinkle financed the construction of the Suspension Bridge, but 15 years later, he built a better bridge - Children's Home of Northern Kentucky, which is visible in the background of this striking photo by photographer Bob Flischel.

The Home outgrew its first building by the early years of the 20th century, but World War I delayed planning for a new facility. In May 1925, the Home conducted a massive 10-day fundraising campaign that raised over $225,000 for a new building. Designed by the noted architectural firm of Hannaford and Sons, the new Colonial Revival facility was situated on 26 acres adjoining Covington’s hilltop Devou Park, with sweeping views of the City of Cincinnati. In 1935 a new Junior Board, composed of civic-minded women, was established to assist with fundraising. In that same year, the Junior Board began its successful Charity Ball, which has been held annually ever since, with the exception of 1937— the year of the devastating Ohio River flood.

After World War II, as medical advances contributed to lower mortality rates nationwide, there were very few true orphans. In addition, new federal programs like Social Security provided unemployment benefits, as well as Aid to Dependent Children. Third, decades of social service and psychological research cast increasing doubts upon dormitory-style children’s homes, as well as Institutionalization of children. Foster care became the norm for most children. Finally, for those children in need of more specialized emotional and behavioral services offered by an institution, a new model prevailed. Smaller freestanding cottages, replicating family life with “parents” and “siblings,” became the preferred method. Perhaps the new 1920s facility of CPCH, only a couple of decades old in the Post-World War II period, delayed the building of cottages. However, other changes were fast approaching. In the 1960s, the nursery was closed as the home began to focus on children over the age of six. By the close of the 1970s, the home transitioned to offering a residential treatment program for abused, neglected, and at-risk boys between the ages 7-17, “without regard to race, creed, or religious affiliation.” In addition, it established programs specializing in foster care, assisted families in the adoption process, provided after-school care for at-risk children, and provided professional assistance for families in crisis. In 1990, the Covington Protestant Children’s Home changed its name to Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky and began constructing its first residential cottages.

Today, Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky serves as a bridge to a better future for hundreds of children and families annually who benefit from its specialized treatment programs. It continues to fulfill the mission established by its founder, Amos Shinkle, the literal “bridge-builder,” who recognized a need and took action. And the Home continues to invest in the state’s most important but often most neglected resource—children.