Louisville: History

Canal Completion Spurs City's Development

One historian has noted that chances of a settlement being established where Louisville now stands—adjacent to the Falls of the Ohio on a plain along the Ohio River—for a long time appeared unlikely because of treacherous rapids that had forced many prospective Native American, French, and Spanish settlers to turn back. In 1773, Thomas Bullitt was sent with a small surveying party to the site to plan a town, but they remained for less than a year. Then, in 1778, Colonel George Rogers Clark, accompanied by 120 soldiers and twenty families, established the first permanent settlement on nearby Corn Island, a land mass in the Ohio River that has since been worn away by water. The following year Clark and his party moved to a fort on the mainland that served as a base for supplying Clark's expeditions into the Northwest Territory. This settlement, on the site of what is now 12th Street, was officially designated a town by the Virginia legislature in 1780 and named in honor of France's King Louis XVI for French service against the British during the American Revolution. A year later, Clark again moved his group and built Fort Nelson at the foot of present-day 7th Street.

Louisville, incorporated as a city in 1828, became an important river port because of its location on the Ohio River, a main artery for westward expansion. The economy profited greatly from the portaging of goods around the falls, but the advent of steamboats from New Orleans made it apparent that the falls were a barrier to development. In 1830 the Louisville & Portland Canal was completed, thus providing a water by-pass around the falls and opening the way for increased river traffic from Pittsburgh to New Orleans.

Cultural and Economic Growth Continues

By the mid-nineteenth century Louisville was a prosperous industrial center and had begun to thrive culturally, its citizens surprising European visitors with their sophistication and cultivated tastes. As part of the New Orleans commercial empire, Louisville attracted two new groups of people who were to make permanent contributions to the life of the city—the French from New Orleans and the Germans from Pittsburgh.

During the Civil War the city served as an important Union supply depot, but the conflicting loyalties among its residents reflected the often bitter division between pro-Union and pro-Confederate sentiments that existed throughout the state of Kentucky. After the war Louisville was forced to adjust to the collapse of the southern plantation economy; new merchandising methods were initiated and railroad links were established with other major cities in the South.

The city continued to grow, and by 1900 the population had surpassed 200,000 people. During the 1920s a building boom brought skyscrapers to Louisville's silhouette, and in 1925 an electrical power plant was constructed at the Falls of the Ohio. The city was relatively untouched by the depression, as the tobacco trade and manufacturing maintained their normal levels; federal job programs during the 1930s helped to alleviate unemployment. In the winter of 1937, the Ohio River flooded and devastated the city, but by the summer of that same year Louisville was able to resume its usual way of life through rehabilitation loans and Red Cross assistance.

The city has recently undergone extensive redevelopment and revitalization with completion of many projects including Riverfront Plaza and Belvedere, an urban plaza overlooking the Ohio River, 4th Street Live!, Glassworks, Louisville Extreme Park and the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage. A direct link to the past has been retained with the restoration of old buildings that are being used as museums, theaters, shops, and restaurants. A challenge for the twenty-first century is to make downtown Louisville a place where people want to live and work.

Historical Information: Louisville Free Public Library, 301 W. York Street, Louisville, KY 40203; telephone (502)574-1611