The history of Louisville spans hundreds of years, and has been influenced by the area's geography and location.
Early history and founding
The rapids at the Falls of the Ohio created a barrier to river travel, and as a result, settlements grew up at this stopping point. The first European settlement in the vicinity of modern-day Louisville was on Corn Island in 1778 by Col. George Rogers Clark, credited as the founder of Louisville. Several landmarks in the community are named after him.
Two years later, in 1780, the Virginia General Assembly approved the town charter of Louisville. The city was named in honor of King Louis XVI of France, whose soldiers were then aiding Americans in the Revolutionary War. Early residents lived in forts to protect themselves from Indian raids, but moved out by the late 1780s. In 1803, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark organized their expedition across America in the town of Clarksville, Indiana at the present-day Falls of the Ohio opposite Louisville, Kentucky.
View of Main Street Louisville in 1846
The city's early growth was influenced by the fact that river boats had to be unloaded and moved downriver before reaching the falls. By 1828, the population had swelled to 7,000 and Louisville became an incorporated city. The city grew rapidly in its formative years.
Early Louisville was a major shipping port and slaves worked in a variety of associated trades. The city was often a point of escape for slaves to the north, as Indiana was a free state.
During this point in the 1850s, the city was growing and vibrant, but that also came with negativity. It was the center of planning, supplies, recruiting, and transportation for numerous campaigns, especially in the Western Theater. By the year 1855, ethnic tension was arising. Nobody knew how far this would go, though. On August 6, 1855 "Bloody Monday" happened. Then by 1861, the civil war broke out. During the Civil War, Louisville was a major stronghold of Union forces, which kept Kentucky firmly in the Union. By the end of the war, Louisville had not been attacked, although skirmishes and battles, including the battles of Perryville and Corydon, took place nearby. After Reconstruction, returning Confederate veterans largely took political control of the city, leading to the jibe that Louisville joined the Confederacy after the war was over.
The first Kentucky Derby was held on May 17, 1875, at the Louisville Jockey Club track (later renamed Churchill Downs). The Derby was originally shepherded by Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and grandnephew of the city's founder George Rogers Clark. Horse racing had a strong tradition in Kentucky, whose Inner Bluegrass Region had been a center of breeding high-quality livestock throughout the 19th century. Ten thousand spectators watched the first Derby, which Aristides won.
On March 27, 1890, the city was devastated and its downtown nearly destroyed when an F4 tornado tore through as part of the middle Mississippi Valley tornado outbreak. An estimated 74 to 120 people were killed.
20th and 21st centuries
In 1914, the City of Louisville passed a racially-based zoning residential zoning code, following Baltimore, Atlanta, and a handful of cities in the Carolinas. The NAACP challenged the ordinance in two cases. Two weeks after the ordinance enacted, an African-American named Arthur Harris moved into a house on a block designated for whites. He was prosecuted and found guilty. The second case was planned to create a test case. William Warley, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, tendered a purchase offer on a white block from Charles Buchanan, a white real estate agent. Warley also wrote a letter declaring his intention to build a house on that lot and reside there. With the understanding that the Louisville ordinance made it illegal for him to live there, Warley withheld payment, setting in motion a breach of contract suit by Buchanan. By 1917 the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Buchanan v. Warley. The court struck down the Louisville residential segregation ordinance, ruling that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.
Throughout January 1937, 19.17 inches (48.7 cm) of rain fell in Louisville, and by January 27, the Ohio River crested at a record 57.15 feet (17.42 m), almost 30 feet (9.1 m) above flood stage. These events triggered the "Great Flood of 1937", which lasted into early February. The flood submerged 60–70% of the city, caused complete loss of power for four days, and forced the evacuation of 175,000 or 230,000 residents, depending on sources. Ninety people died as a result of the flood. It led to dramatic changes in where residents lived. Today, the city is protected by numerous flood walls. After the flood, the areas of high elevation in the eastern part of the city had decades of residential growth.
Louisville was a center for factory war production during World War II. In May 1942, the U.S. government assigned the Curtiss-Wright Aircraft Company, a war plant located at Louisville's air field, for wartime aircraft production. The factory produced the C-46 Commando cargo plane, among other aircraft. In 1946, the factory was sold to International Harvester, which began large-scale production of tractors and agricultural equipment. In 1950, the Census Bureau reported Louisville's population as 84.3% white and 15.6% black.
Similar to many other older American cities, Louisville began to experience a movement of people and businesses to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s. Middle class residents used newly built freeways and interstate highways to commute to work, moving into more distant but newer housing. Because of tax laws, businesses found it cheaper to build new rather than renovate older buildings. Economic changes included a decline in local manufacturing. The West End and older areas of the South End, in particular, began to decline economically as many local factories closed.
In 1974, a major (F4) tornado hit Louisville as part of the 1974 Super Outbreak of tornadoes that struck 13 states. It covered 21 miles (34 km) and destroyed several hundred homes in the Louisville area. Only two people died.
Since the 1980s, many of the city's urban neighborhoods have been revitalized into areas popular with young professionals and college students. The greatest change has occurred along the Bardstown Road/Baxter Avenue and Frankfort Avenue corridors as well as the Old Louisville neighborhood. In recent years, such change has also occurred in the East Market District (NuLu).
Since the late 1990s, Downtown has experienced significant residential, tourist and retail growth, including the addition of major sports complexes KFC Yum! Center and Louisville Slugger Field, conversion of waterfront industrial sites into Waterfront Park, openings of varied museums (see Museums, galleries and interpretive centers below), and the refurbishing of the former Galleria into the bustling entertainment complex Fourth Street Live!, which opened in 2004.