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About Louisville

Louisville is Kentucky's largest city. It is ranked as either the 17th or 27th largest city in the United States depending on how the population is calculated (see Nomenclature, population and ranking below). The settlement that became the City of Louisville was founded in 1778 by George Rogers Clark and is named after King Louis XVI of France. Louisville is famous as the home of "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports": the Kentucky Derby, the widely watched first race of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing.

Destination Guides > North America > USA > South > Kentucky > Louisville, central and western Kentucky > Louisville 

Skyline of Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville is situated in north-central Kentucky on the Kentucky-Indiana border at the only natural obstacle in the Ohio River, the Falls of the Ohio. Louisville is the county seat of Jefferson County, and since 2003, the city's borders are coterminous with those of the county due to merger. Because it includes counties in Southern Indiana, the Louisville metropolitan area is regularly referred to as Kentuckiana. A resident of Louisville is referred to as a Louisvillian. Although situated in a Southern state, Louisville is influenced by both Midwestern and Southern culture, and is commonly referred to as either the northernmost Southern city or the southernmost Northern city in the United States.[3][4]

Louisville has been the site of many important innovations through history. Notable residents have included inventor Thomas Edison, the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Notable events occurring in the city include the first public viewing place of Edison's lightbulb,[5] the first library in the U.S. open to African Americans,[6][7] and medical advances including the first human hand transplant,[8] the first self-contained artificial heart transplant,[9] and the development site of the first cervical cancer vaccine.[10]


See also: History of Kentucky, Louisville in the American Civil War, and The Filson Historical Society
Louisville's founder George Rogers Clark
Louisville's founder George Rogers Clark

The first European settlement made in the vicinity of modern-day Louisville was on Corn Island in 1778 by Col. George Rogers Clark. Today, Clark is recognized as the founder of Louisville, and several landmarks are named after him.[18]

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 at the time were aiding Americans in the Revolutionary War. Early residents lived in forts due to Indian raids, but were moving out by the late 1780s.[19] In 1803, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark organized their expedition across America at the Falls of the Ohio in Louisville.

View of Main Street, Louisville, in 1846.
View of Main Street, Louisville, in 1846.

The city attributes its early growth to 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.[20]

Louisville had one of the largest slave trades in the United States before the Civil War and much of the city's initial growth is attributed to that trade. Louisville was the turning point for many enslaved blacks since Kentucky, although it was to be a border state in the Civil War, was nevertheless a slave state and crossing the Ohio River could lead to freedom in the North.

Memorial to the 1890 tornado, on Main Street in Downtown Louisville
Memorial to the 1890 tornado, on Main Street in Downtown Louisville

During the Civil War Louisville was a major stronghold of Union forces, which kept Kentucky firmly in the Union. It was the center of planning, supplies, recruiting and transportation for numerous campaigns. By the end of the war, Louisville itself had not been attacked even once, even though surrounded by skirmishes and battles. After 1865 returning Confederate veterans largely took control of the city, leading to the jibe that it 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 to Churchill Downs). The Derby was originally shepherded by Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. 10,000 spectators were present at the first Derby to watch Aristides win the race.

On March 27, 1890 the city was devastated and downtown nearly destroyed when an F4 tornado tore through the city at 8:30pm as part of the Mid-Mississippi Valley Tornado Outbreak of March 1890. An estimated 74 to 120 people were killed. The city quickly recovered and signs of the tornado were nearly totally absent within a year.

Louisville during the "Great Flood of '37"
Louisville during the "Great Flood of '37"

In late January and February of 1937, a month of heavy rain in which 19" fell prompted what became remembered as the "Great Flood of '37". The flood submerged about 70% of the city, power was lost, and it forced the evacuation of 175,000 residents, and also led to fundamental changes in where residents bought houses. Today, the city is protected by numerous flood walls. After the flood, the areas of high elevation in the eastern part of the city saw decades of growth.

Similar to many other older American cities, Louisville began to decline as an important city in the 1960s and 1970s. Highways that had been built in the 1950s facilitated a flight to the suburbs, and the downtown and west end areas in particular began to decline economically. In 1974 a major (F4) tornado hit Louisville as part of the Super Outbreak of tornadoes that struck 13 states. It covered 21 miles (34 km) and destroyed several hundred homes in the Louisville area but was only responsible for two deaths.[21]

From 1974 to 1987, Jefferson County lost population, but is now averaging around a 1,500 net gain in population per year. The population within the old city limits dropped by almost 100,000 from its peak in 1970, falling from 33rd nationally to 58th, although its population has now stabilized.[22]

Since the 1970s Louisville has gained, through gentrification, three areas of bohemian culture that are popular with young professionals and have very high percentages of college graduates. The largest is centered along a three mile stretch of Baxter Avenue and Bardstown Road, collectively known as The Highlands. It contains a wide variety of eclectic shops and night clubs. The second largest area is Old Louisville, which has the highest percent of young professionals and youngest median age in the city. Lining Frankfort Avenue, the Clifton and Crescent Hill areas also has a large number of upscale restaurants and antique stores.

In addition, the city also made efforts to revitalize its downtown and the city in general, including significant downtown infrastructure improvements such as the conversion of the waterfront into Waterfront Park and the development of luxury condominiums and entertainment areas like Fourth Street Live!.


See also: Downtown Louisville, Louisville neighborhoods, and List of parks in Louisville, Kentucky
Louisville skyline at night.
Louisville skyline at night.
The Highlands neighborhood is Louisville's best known bohemian and night club area.
The Highlands neighborhood is Louisville's best known bohemian and night club area.

The downtown business district of Louisville is located immediately south of the Ohio River, and southeast of the Falls of the Ohio. Major roads extend outwards from the downtown area to all directions, like the spokes of a wheel. The airport is located approximately 6.75 miles (10 km) south of the downtown area. The industrial sections of town are located to the south and west of the airport, while most of the residential areas of the city are located to the southwest, south and east of downtown. The Louisville skyline is slated to be changed with the proposed 62-story Museum Plaza as well as a 22,000-seat waterfront arena.

Another primary business and industrial district is located in the suburban area east of the city on Hurstbourne Parkway.[28] Louisville's late 19th and early 20th century development was spurred by three large suburban parks built at the edges of the city in 1890.

The city's architecture contains a blend of old and new. The Old Louisville neighborhood is the largest historic preservation district solely featuring Victorian homes and buildings in the United States, it is also the fourth largest such district overall. There are many modern skyscrapers downtown, as well as older preserved structures. The buildings of West Main Street in downtown Louisville boast the largest collection of cast iron facades of anywhere outside of New York's SoHo district.[29]

The city's Old Louisville neighborhood is filled with Victorian era mansions.
The city's Old Louisville neighborhood is filled with Victorian era mansions.

Since the mid-20th century, Louisville has in some ways been divided up into three sides of town: the West End, the South End, and the East End. In 2003, Bill Dakan, a University of Louisville geography professor, said that the West End, west of 7th Street and north of Algonquin Parkway, is "a euphemism for the African-American part of town" although he points out that this belief is not entirely true, and most Africans Americans no longer live in areas where more than 80% of residents are black.

The Romanesque-styled Levi Building, built in 1893, is an example of Downtown Louisville's classic architecture
The Romanesque-styled Levi Building, built in 1893, is an example of Downtown Louisville's classic architecture

Nevertheless, he says the perception is still strong.[30] The South End has long had a reputation as a white, working-class part of town, while the East End has been seen as middle and upper class.[31]

According to the Greater Louisville Association of Realtors, the area with the lowest median home sales price is west of Interstate 65, in the West and South Ends, the middle range of home sales prices are between Interstates 64 and 65 in the South and East Ends, and the highest median home sales price are north of Interstate 64 in the East End.[32] Immigrants from Southeast Asia tend to settle in the South End, while immigrants from Eastern Europe settle in the East End.[33]


Bourbon bottle, 19th century. One-third of all bourbon whiskey comes from Louisville.
Bourbon bottle, 19th century. One-third of all bourbon whiskey comes from Louisville.

Louisville's early economy first developed through the shipping and cargo industries. Its strategic location at the Falls of the Ohio, as well as its unique position in the central United States (within one day's road travel to 60% of the cities in the continental U.S.) make it an ideal location for the transfer of cargo along its route to other destinations.[47] The Louisville and Portland Canal and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad were important links in water and rail transportation. Louisville's importance to the shipping industry continues today with the presence of the Worldport air hub for UPS. Louisville's location at the crossroads of three major Interstate highways (I-64, I-65 and I-71) also contributes to its modern-day strategic importance to the shipping and cargo industry. As of 2003, Louisville ranks as the 7th largest inland port in the United States.[48]

Recently, Louisville has emerged as a major center for the health care and medical sciences industries. Louisville has been central to advancements in heart and hand surgery as well as cancer treatment. Some of the earliest artificial heart transplants were conducted in Louisville. Louisville's thriving downtown medical research campus includes a new $88 million rehabilitation center, and a health sciences research and commercialization park that, in partnership with the University of Louisville, has lured nearly 70 top scientists and researchers. Louisville is also home to Humana, one of the nation's largest health insurance companies.

Louisville is home to several major corporations and organizations:

Louisville for a long time was also home to Brown & Williamson, the third largest company in the tobacco industry before merging with R. J. Reynolds in 2004 to form the Reynolds American Company. Brown & Williamson, one of the subjects of the tobacco industry scandals of the 1990s, was the focus of The Insider, a 1999 film shot around the Louisville area. Also located in Louisville are two major Ford plants, and a major General Electric appliance factory.

Additionally, one third of all of the bourbon whiskey comes from Louisville. The Brown-Forman Corporation is one of the major makers of bourbon, which is headquartered in Louisville. Other major distilleries of bourbon can be found both in the city of Louisville, or in neighboring cities in Kentucky.

Louisville also prides itself in its large assortment of small, independent businesses and restaurants, some of which have become known for their ingenuity and creativity. In 1926 the Brown Hotel became the home of the Hot Brown "sandwich". A few blocks away, the Seelbach Hotel, which F. Scott Fitzgerald references in The Great Gatsby, is also famous for a secret back room where Al Capone would regularly meet with associates during the Prohibition era.

Several major motion pictures have also been filmed in or near Louisville, including Goldfinger, Stripes, The Insider, Lawn Dogs, Nice Guys Sleep Alone, Keep Your Distance and Elizabethtown.

Annual festivals and other events

See also: List of attractions and events in Louisville, Kentucky
2006 Kentucky Derby Festival Thunder Over Louisville fireworks display as seen from the Kentucky side of the Ohio River
2006 Kentucky Derby Festival Thunder Over Louisville fireworks display as seen from the Kentucky side of the Ohio River

Louisville is home to a number of annual cultural events. Perhaps most well-known is the Kentucky Derby, held annually during the first Saturday of May. The Derby is preceded by a two-week long Kentucky Derby Festival, which starts with the annual Thunder Over Louisville, the largest annual fireworks display in the nation. The Kentucky Derby Festival also features notable events such as the Pegasus Parade, The Great Steamboat Race, Great Balloon Race, a marathon, and about seventy events in total.

Usually beginning in late February or early March is the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, an internationally acclaimed new-play festival that lasts approximately six weeks.

The summer season in Louisville also features a series of cultural events such as the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival (commonly called Shakespeare in the Park), held in July of every year and features free Shakespeare plays in Central Park in Old Louisville. The Kentucky State Fair is held every August at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville as well, featuring an array of culture from all areas of Kentucky.

In September is the Adam Matthews Balloon Festival, the fifth largest hot air balloon festival in the nation. The festival features early morning balloon races, as well as balloon glows in the evening. Also in September, in nearby Bardstown, is the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which features some of the finest bourbon in the world. The suburb of Jeffersontown is also the home of the annual Gaslight Festival, a series of events spread over a week. Attendance is approximately 200,000 for the week.

The month of October features the St. James Court Art Show in Old Louisville. Thousands of artists gather on the streets and in the courtyard to exhibit and sell their wares, and the event is attended by many art collectors and enthusiasts. The show is the second most attended event next to the Derby. Another art-related event that occurs every month is the Gallery Hop. A TARC trolley takes art lovers to many downtown area art galleries on the first Friday of every month.

Museums, galleries and interpretive centers

A giant baseball bat adorns the outside of Louisville Slugger Museum in downtown Louisville.
A giant baseball bat adorns the outside of Louisville Slugger Museum in downtown Louisville.
See also: Museums of Louisville, Kentucky and List of attractions and events in Louisville, Kentucky

The West Main District in downtown Louisville features what is locally known as "Museum Row". In this area, the Frazier International History Museum, which opened in 2004, features a collection of arms, armor and related historical artifacts spanning 1,000 years, concentrating on U.S. and UK arms. The building features three stories of exhibits, two reenactment arenas, a 120-seat auditorium, and a 48-seat movie theater. Also nearby is the Louisville Science Center, which is Kentucky's largest hands-on science center and features interactive exhibits, IMAX films, educational programs and technology networks. The Muhammad Ali Center opened November 2005 in "Museum Row" and features Muhammad Ali's boxing memorabilia, as well as information on the core themes that he has taken to heart: peace, social responsibility, respect and personal growth.

The Speed Art Museum opened in 1927 and is the oldest and largest art museum in the state of Kentucky. Located adjacent to the University of Louisville, the museum features over 12,000 pieces of art in its permanent collection and hosts regular temporary exhibitions. Multiple art galleries are located in the city, but they are especially concentrated in the East Market Street area of downtown. This row of galleries, plus others in the West Main District, are prominently featured in the monthly Gallery Hop.

Historic Locust Grove, the final residence of Louisville founder George Rogers Clark
Historic Locust Grove, the final residence of Louisville founder George Rogers Clark

Several local history museums can be found in the Louisville area. The most prominent among them is The Filson Historical Society, founded in 1884, which has holdings exceeding 1.5 million manuscript items and over 50,000 volumes in the library. The Filson's extensive collections focus on Kentucky, the Upper South, and the Ohio River Valley, and contain a large collection of portraiture and over ten thousand museum artifacts. Other local history museums include the Portland Museum, Historic Locust Grove visitors' center, the Falls of the Ohio State Park interpretive center (Clarksville, Indiana), Howard Steamboat Museum (Jeffersonville, Indiana) and the Carnegie Center for Art and History (New Albany, Indiana). The Falls interpretive center, part of the Falls of the Ohio National Wildlife Conservation Area, also functions as a natural history museum, covering findings in the nearby exposed Devonian fossil bed.

There are also several historical properties and items of interest in the area, including the Belle of Louisville, the oldest Mississippi-style steamboat in operation in the United States. The United States Marine Hospital of Louisville is considered the best remaining antebellum hospital in the United States. It was designed by Robert Mills, who is best known as the designer of the Washington Monument. Fort Knox, spread out among Bullitt, Hardin and Meade Counties (two of which are in the Louisville metropolitan area), is home to the U.S. Bullion Depository and the Patton Museum of Cavalry and Armor. The previously mentioned Locust Grove, former home of Louisville Founder George Rogers Clark, portrays life in the early days of the city. Other notable properties include the Farmington Historic Home (home of the famous Speed family), Riverside, The Farnsley-Moremen Landing, and the restored Union Station, which was opened in September 7, 1891. The Louisville area is also home to the Waverly Hills Sanatorium, a turn-of-the-century (20th) hospital that was originally built to accommodate tuberculosis patients, and is now listed as one of the nation's most haunted houses.

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