Louisville was established in 1778 at the Falls of the Ohio River. It owes its existence and much of its development to the river. Situated at the only natural impediment to navigation in entire 1579 kilometres of the Ohio River, Louisville was a portage point. Before the construction of canals and locks, the Falls were only navigable during a brief “high water” period each year, meaning people and goods had to disembark. This created a variety of opportunities for those on its shores. From this beginning, the city’s history has been intertwined with the river. Technological innovations including steamboats, canals and locks, hydroelectric power and flood control have all shaped this city. While the river provides commercial and industrial opportunities, its natural beauty has given residents and visitors alike an opportunity to take a break from the city heat and enjoy its sights and sounds from the riverbanks. The Ohio River gave Louisville its foundation and continues to define the city in many ways.

The Ohio River takes its name from the Seneca “Ohi:yo',” which can be translated as “good river,” “great river” or “large creek.” It stretches from the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cairo, Illinois, where it joins the Mississippi River. Not surprisingly, it was in use by Native Americans long before the arrival of Europeans to the area, for much the same purpose: transporting people and goods. We must acknowledge that the land where Louisville now sits was primarily Shawnee, Cherokee, Osage, Seneca-Iroquois, Miami, Hopewell and Adena land, and was occupied for over 11,000 years before the arrival of Europeans; this history is now largely lost.

Pinckney’s Treaty, negotiated by the United States and Spain in 1795, freed navigation on the Mississippi down to New Orleans (then under Spanish control) and made that city a “free-trade zone.” This meant goods could travel through Louisville to New Orleans and out to a waiting world, which led to economic growth as river traffic increased. The Ohio played a significant role as a conduit for agricultural produce and manufactures from the Upper Ohio Valley over the 19th century. As one historian describes it, “The Falls was a valve in the river lifeline, a valve controlled by mercantile Louisville.” Businesses from warehouses to insurance companies and banks to hotels and gambling houses benefited from this traffic.

While the Falls gave Louisville its initial raison d’etre, they are without a doubt an impediment to navigation, and were an even more significant issue for the larger steamboats, which made their first appearance in 1811. In 1830, the first canal was built at Portland (then an independent town, later annexed by Louisville). However, navigation of the Portland Canal itself could be tricky, as well as expensive (as much as $1,000 round trip), which meant Louisville retained much of its portage-related business.

Steamboats also brought people to and from Louisville – some of them willing immigrants, some of them enslaved. Louisville’s population expanded with the influx of German and Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century, many of them arriving by steamboat. At the same time, we must acknowledge that Louisville also served as a location for the sale of enslaved people who were often sent to the cotton plantations further South, giving rise to the American idiom “sold down the river.” To be sold down the river is to be profoundly betrayed; it was essentially a death sentence.

The stately steamboats, however, soon faced competition from railroads. The Louisville & Nashville Railroad was established in 1850, in a period of rapid expansion of railway lines in the United States and Europe. The railroads took traffic away from the Ohio River, but Louisville was not to be left behind. The L&N Railroad played a pivotal role in the economic and industrial development of the Southeastern United States.

And railroads had to, almost inevitably, cross the river. The first Ohio River bridge was completed in 1870 at 14th Street. The second, the Kentucky and Indiana (K&I), was completed in 1886, and allowed vehicular traffic as well as rail. Another bridge, linking Louisville and Jeffersonville, Indiana, and known as the Big Four Bridge, was completed in 1895. These bridges enabled Louisville to continue to serve as a transportation hub.

But the Ohio still had a great deal of potential as a transportation route. Following the American Civil War, the United States Army Corps of Engineers initiated a decades-long project to build locks and dams along the length of the Ohio. The ultimate goal was to create a year-round, consistent minimum depth of nine feet, making the river more navigable. In 1927, work was completed on a dam at Louisville that also allowed for the generation of electric power. River traffic began to build again. Following a major modernization project in the 1950s, the facility was renamed McAlpine Locks and Dam.

The late 19th century also saw growth in the use of the river and its banks for recreational purposes such as swimming and boating. Amusement parks developed on both the Kentucky and Indiana sides of the river. Public parks were also opened along the Ohio. This development continued into the 20th century, and in 1937, the city, working with the federal government, built a municipal harbor.

With the dawning of the 20th century came increased automobile traffic, which soon outgrew the capacity of ferries. While cars could use the K&I bridge, drivers resented what they considered an expensive toll of 30 cents. The Louisville Municipal Bridge opened on December 31, 1929, financed with bonds which were retired using money collected in tolls – at 35 cents apiece.

Louisville’s location on the Ohio enabled it to participate in the post-World War II economic boom, and it continued to be a transportation hub. Steel could travel downstream from Pittsburgh; coal came from elsewhere in Kentucky; and finished goods fanned out across the region on railroads. The story of development in the United States following World War II is one of burgeoning suburbs and decaying urban centers spurred by a new system of interstate highways. Louisville’s role as crossroads plays out in the three interstate highways that cross through it, and also in the additional river bridges constructed to carry ever-increasing traffic across the Ohio.

However, the positioning of those interstate highways, which intertwine downtown near the waterfront, visually and physically cut Louisville off from the Ohio. Almost as soon as construction was completed on the highways, Louisville sought to reclaim the riverfront as a place of leisure. This began with the creation of Riverfront Plaza and The Belvedere (a park), and rebuilding the wharf, which enabled the county-owned steamboat, the Belle of Louisville, to dock alongside other passenger boats. The dawning of the 21st century saw the development of Waterfront Park, including the Great Lawn, a park that hosts concerts and other events. What had been an industrial site, used for scrap yards and sand pits, is now a green, public space, and a popular destination on hot Kentucky nights. In 2014 the Big Four Bridge, which had laid unused and abandoned since 1968, was reopened as a pedestrian bridge, enabling people to walk across the Ohio River between Kentucky and Indiana. Gradually, Louisville has rehabilitated its waterfront, making it a space that draws people in, where they can take their leisure and relax.

Louisville is a city whose life and livelihood is ever intertwined with the Ohio River. The river brought Louisville into being and provided it with economic opportunities, and it has been a source of pleasure and relaxation. It is, indeed, a great river.

Carrie Daniels (Archives & Special Collections, University of Louisville)

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