For those who have never had the pleasure of living in a city with a vibrant urban parks system, it’s hard to imagine the many uses and benefits that urban parks offer to downtown workers, residents, and visitors. Louisville Waterfront Park is the front door to Kentucky, a playground for people of all ages, and a gathering place for folks from all over the community. It offers a grand view of the river, space for concerts and festivals, quiet places to read a book, picnic spaces for your family and friends. The parks hosts crowds of 350,000 for Thunder Over Louisville, and groups of 25 for family reunions.
Looking at Waterfront Park today, it’s hard to remember that it began as a natural river crossing point for migrating buffalo seeking the salt-licks and nutritious cane of the Kentucky region during the winter. With plentiful fish and mussels, the falls area of the Ohio River supported a succession of Native American cultures for some 12,000 years prior to European colonization.
The French explored the Ohio Valley in the late 17th century and established settlements in present-day Illinois and Indiana, but lost the area to the British by the treaty in 1763 that ended the French and Indian War.
The Birth of a City
During the American Revolution, Virginian George Rogers Clark conceived a scheme to strengthen Virginia’s claim to the territory northwest of the Ohio River by seizing British outposts in the Illinois country. In 1778, Lieutenant Colonel Clark stopped at the falls landing on now vanished Corn Island to train his 175 Virginia militiamen. When he left for the Illinois country, he left behind some sixty civilians who had accompanied him. This small band became the beginnings of Louisville.
The Falls of the Ohio are a series of rapids composed of layers of limestone, which were exposed by the melting water of glacial retreat over some 20,000 years. This resulted in a series of rapids with a river bed drop of over 26 feet. The Falls are the only natural obstruction in the nearly 1,000 mile length of the Ohio River.
This natural obstruction became a stopping place for the riverboats above and below the Falls. As river travel technology changed from keelboats and to steamboats in the early 1800s, Louisville’s existence as a town tied to river traffic portage and commerce was permanently established. The 1830 opening of the Louisville and Portland Canal, which allowed boats to bypass the Falls for a cost, demonstrated the extent of maritime commercial commitment. Warehouse and shipping industries lined Louisville’s banks as water traffic intensified, and the industrial character of the waterfront that would last nearly two-hundred years was firmly fixed.
The Golden Age
Mid-nineteenth-century modes revolutionized river travel, prompting the growth of new and existing ports around the Falls, such as Shippingport and Portland (which had suffered from the construction of the canal), New Albany, and Jeffersonville. Maritime commerce around the Falls was at an all-time high by the 1850s as cities such as St. Louis, New Orleans, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh were now more accessible.
By the mid-1800s rail travel had developed extensively, and in 1870 the Falls and river were crossed for the first time by a railroad link connecting north to south from New York to New Orleans. The expansion and development of railroad transportation began to dominate the riverfront. As railroad lines increased along the waterfront, non-commercial public access to the river’s edge was further hindered.
The Waterfront Falls into Neglect
By World War II, changes in industry and continual advances in transportation methods (particularly trucking) led to the virtual abandonment of the wharf area, which became relegated largely to parking. In the 1950s and ’60s, Louisville saw the expansion of the automobile and extensive construction of elevated roadways. Drivers could now cross the waterfront into downtown quickly and efficiently, extending commutable distances well outside Louisville’s boundaries. The resulting traffic contributed to the separation of the waterfront from downtown by impeding pedestrian movement to the wharf and river areas.
Efforts to re-establish the connection between the city and the waterfront began as early as 1931 with a riverfront redevelopment plan championed by Harland Bartholomew and continued with subsequent plans in the ’50s and ’60s. In 1962, the Belle of Louisville was purchased. As a public attraction, the restored steamboat served as the only accessible public activity on the waterfront at the time. The construction of the elevated I-64 highway in the 1960s represented the single most significant barrier in the continuing separation of waterfront and city. A concerted effort to revive the waterfront as an urban open space resource was sparked in 1973 by the development of the Belvedere. Since then, renewed interest has led to continued redevelopment of waterfront real estate, and a renaissance of riverfront related interest in the community.
A New Millennium
With the completion of the first three phases and the plans for Phase IV, Waterfront Park has had a real impact on the surrounding area. The waterfront neighborhood has become a major development center, paving the way for projects like Louisville Slugger Field, Waterfront Park Place, RiverPark Place, the Yum! Arena, and Preston Pointe, while also indirectly influencing development by going to the top of a growing list of amenities that helped spur residential and commercial development in downtown Louisville. Waterfront Park has become a recreation center for downtown and the region, drawing national events that have historically been out of Louisville’s reach.
*** Some images above courtesy of University of Louisville’s Library.