The area was first visited by Europeans in 1669 by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, from France. He explored areas of the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys from the Gulf of Mexico up to modern-day Canada, claiming much of this land for France.
In 1769, Daniel Boone created a trail from North Carolina to Tennessee, and then spent the next two years exploring Kentucky. In 1773, Captain Thomas Bullitt led the first exploring party into Jefferson County, surveying the land on behalf of Virginians who had been awarded land grants for service in the French and Indian War. In 1774, James Harrod began constructing Fort Harrod in Kentucky. However, battles with the native American tribes established in the area forced these new settlers to retreat. They returned the following year, as Daniel Boone built the Wilderness Road and established Fort Boonesborough at the site near Boonesborough, Kentucky. The Native Americans allocated a tract of land between the Ohio River and the Cumberland River for the Transylvania Land Company. In 1776, the colony of Virginia declared the Transylvania Land Company illegal and created the county of Kentucky in Virginia from the land involved.
The first settlement was made in the vicinity of modern-day Louisville in 1778 by Col. George Rogers Clark, who was conducting a campaign against the British in areas north of the Ohio River, then called the Illinois Country. Clark organized a group of 150 soldiers, eventually known as the Illinois Regiment, after heavy recruiting in Virginia and Pennsylvania. On May 12, they set out from Redstone, today's Brownsville, Pennsylvania, taking along 80 civilians who hoped to claim fertile farmland and start a new settlement in Kentucky, and arrived at the Falls of the Ohio on May 27. It was a location Clark thought ideal for a communication post, and the settlers helped Clark conceal the true reason for his presence in the area.
The regiment helped the civilians establish a settlement on what came to be called Corn Island, clearing land and building cabins and a springhouse. On June 24, Clark took his soldiers and left to begin their military campaign. A year later, at the request of Clark, the settlers began crossing the river and established the first permanent settlement and by April were calling it "Louisville", in honor of King Louis XVI of France, whose soldiers at the time were aiding Americans in the Revolutionary War. Today, George Rogers Clark is recognized as the founder of Louisville, and many landmarks are named after him.
During its earliest history, the colony of Louisville and the surrounding areas suffered from Indian attacks, and the Revolutionary War was still being waged, so all early residents lived within forts, as was suggested by the earliest government of Kentucky County, Virginia. The initial fort, at the northern tip of today's 12th street, was called Fort-on-Shore. In response to the threat of British attacks, particularly Bird's Invasion of Kentucky, a larger fort called Fort Nelson, after Virginia Governor Thomas Nelson, Jr., was built north of today's Main Street between Seventh and Eighth streets, covering nearly an acre. The GB￡15,000 contract was given to Richard Chenoweth, with construction beginning in late 1780 and completed by March 1781. The fort, thought to be capable of resisting cannon fire, was considered the strongest in the west after Fort Pitt, but due to decreasing need for strong forts after the Revolutionary War, it would be in decline by the end of the decade.
In 1780, the Virginia General Assembly and then-Governor Thomas Jefferson approved the town charter of Louisville on May 1. Clark recruited early Kentucky pioneer James John Floyd, who was placed on the town's board of trustees and given the authority to plan and lay out the town. Jefferson County, named after Thomas Jefferson, was formed at this time as one of three original Kentucky counties from the old Kentucky County, Virginia. Louisville was the county seat.
Also during 1780, three hundred families immigrated to the area, Louisville's first fire department was established, and the first street plan of Louisville was laid out by Willian Pope. Daniel Brodhead opened Louisville's first general store in 1783. He became the first to move out of Louisville's early forts. James John Floyd became the first Judge in 1783 but was killed later that same year. The first courthouse was completed in 1784 as a 16 by log cabin. By this time, Louisville contained 63 clapboard finished houses, 37 partly finished, 22 uncovered houses, and over 100 log cabins. Shippingport, incorporated in 1785, was a vital part of early Louisville, allowing goods to be transported through the Falls of the Ohio. The first church was built in 1790, the first hotel in 1793, and the first post office in 1795. However, the town was not growing as fast as Lexington during the 1780s and early 1790s due to the threat of Indian attacks (ended in 1794 by the Battle of Fallen Timbers), a complicated dispute over land ownership between John Campbell and the town's trustees (resolved in 1785), as well as Spanish policies restricting trade down the Mississippi to New Orleans. By 1800, the population of Louisville was 359 compared to Lexington's 1,759.
From 1784 through 1792, a series of conventions were held to discuss the separation of Kentucky from Virginia. On June 1, 1792, Kentucky became the fifteenth state in the United States and Isaac Shelby was named the first Governor.
In 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark organized their expedition across America at the Falls of the Ohio and Louisville. The Lewis and Clark Expedition would take the explorers across the western U.S., surveying the Louisiana Purchase, and eventually to the Pacific Ocean.
However, most cargo was still being sent downstream in the early 19th century, averaging 60,000 tons downstream to 6,500 tons upstream. Boats passing through still had to unload all of their cargo before navigating the falls, a boon to local businesses. The frontier days quickly fading, log houses and forts began to disappear, and Louisville saw its first newspaper, the Louisville Gazette in 1807 and its first theatre in 1808, and the first dedicated church building in 1809. All of this reflected the 400% growth in population reported by the 1810 Census.
The economics of shipping were about to change, however, with the arrival of steamboats. The first, the New Orleans arrived in 1811, traveling downstream from Pittsburgh. Although it made the trip in record time, few felt it was very meaningful at the time, believing a steamboat could never make it back upstream against the current. However, in 1815, the Enterprise, captained by Henry Miller Shreve became the first steamboat to travel all the way from New Orleans to Louisville, showing the commercial potential of the steamboat in making upstream travel and shipping practical.
Industry and manufacturing reached Louisville and surrounding areas, especially Shippingport, at this time. Some steamboats were built in Louisville and many early mills and factories opened. Other town sites were developing at the falls: New Albany, Indiana in 1813 and Portland in 1814, all competing with Louisville to become the dominant settlement in the area. Still, Louisville's population grew rapidly, tripling from 1810 to 1820. By 1830, it would surpass Lexington to become the state's largest city, and would eventually annex its two Kentucky-side rivals.
The city's first library opened its doors in 1816, known as the Louisville Library Company, and started a subscription-based service.Also, in a series of events ranging from 1798 to 1846, the University of Louisville was founded from the Jefferson Seminary, Louisville Medical Institute and Louisville Collegiate Institute.
In response to great demand, the Louisville and Portland Canal was completed in 1830. This allowed boats to circumvent the Falls of the Ohio and travel through from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. In response to several epidemics and the increasing need to treat ill or injured river workers, Louisville Marine Hospital was completed in 1825 on Chestnut Street, an area that is today home to Louisville's Medical Center.
In 1828, the population reached a size of 7,000, and Louisville became an incorporated city, the first in Kentucky. John Bucklin was elected the first Mayor. The nearby towns of Shippingport and Portland remained independent of Louisville for the time being. City status gave Louisville some judicial authority and the ability to collect more taxes, which allowed for the establishment of the state's first public school in 1829.
In 1831, Catherine Spalding moved from Bardstown to Louisville and established Presentation Academy, a Catholic school for girls. She also established the St. Vincent Orphanage, which was later renamed as St. Joseph Orphanage.
Louisville's famous Galt House hotel — the first of three downtown buildings to have that moniker — was erected in 1834. In 1839, a precursor to the modern Kentucky Derby was held at Old Louisville's Oakland Race Course. Over 10,000 spectators attended the two-horse race, in which Grey Eagle lost to Wagner. This race occurred 36 years before the first Kentucky Derby.
The Kentucky School for the Blind was founded in 1839, the third-oldest school for the blind in the country.
In 1848, Zachary Taylor, resident of Jefferson County from childhood through early adulthood, and a hero of the Mexican-American War, was elected as the 12th President of the United States. He only served sixteen months in office before dying in 1850 from acute gastroenteritis. He is buried in the east end of Louisville at Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.
The Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company was founded in 1850 by James Guthrie, who also was involved in the founding of the University of Louisville. The railroad was completed by 1859 and Louisville's strategic location at the Falls of the Ohio became central to the city's development and importance in the rail and water freight transportation business.
Founded in 1858, the American Printing House for the Blind is the oldest organization of its kind in the United States and since 1879 has been the official supplier of educational materials for blind students in the U.S. It is located on Frankfort Avenue in the Clifton neighborhood, adjacent to the campus where the Kentucky School for the Blind moved in 1855.
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. The expression "sold down the river" originated as a lament of Kentucky slaves being split apart from their families and sold in Louisville and other Kentucky locations to be shipped via the Ohio River down to New Orleans to be sold yet again to owners of cotton and sugar field plantations. In 1820, the slave population was at its height at nearly 26% of the population, but by 1860, that proportion had dropped to 7.8%, even though this percentage still represented over 10,000 people. 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, called the "River Jordan" by escaping slaves, could, barring capture by bounty-seeking slave-catchers, lead to freedom in the North via the Underground Railroad.
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, especially in the Western Theater. While the state of Kentucky officially declared its neutrality early in the war, prominent Louisville attorney James Speed strongly advocated keeping the state in the Union. Seeing Louisville's strategic importance in the freight industry, General William Tecumseh Sherman formed an army base in the city in the event that the Confederacy advanced.
In September 1862, Confederate General Braxton Bragg decided to take Louisville, but ultimately changed his mind due to lack of backup from General Edmund Kirby Smith's forces and the subsequent decision to install Confederate Governor Richard Hawes in Frankfort. In the summer of 1863, Confederate cavalry under John Hunt Morgan invaded Kentucky from Tennessee and briefly threatened Louisville before swinging around the city into Indiana during Morgan's Raid. In March 1864, Generals Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant met at the Galt House to plan the spring campaign, which included the capture of Atlanta, Georgia.
By the end of the war, Louisville itself had not been attacked even once, even though surrounded by skirmishes and battles, including the Battle of Perryville and the Battle of Corydon. The Unionists — most whose leaders owned slaves — felt betrayed by the abolitionist position of the Republican Party. 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. Subsequently, in 1895, a Confederate monument was erected near the University of Louisville campus.
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 February 2, 1876, Professional Baseball launched the National League, and the Louisville Grays were a charter member of the league. While the Grays were a relatively short-lived team, playing for only two years, they began a much longer lasting relationship between the city and baseball. In 1883, John "Bud" Hillerich made his first baseball bat from white ash in his father's wood shop. The first bat was produced for Pete "The Gladiator" Browning of the Louisville Eclipse (minor league team). The bats eventually become known by the popular name, Louisville Slugger, and the company he started, Hillerich & Bradsby, rapidly became one of the largest manufacturers of baseball bats and other sporting equipment in the world. Today, Hillerich & Bradsby manufactures over one million wooden bats per year, accounting for about two of three wooden bats sold worldwide.
On August 1, 1883, U.S. President Chester A. Arthur opened the first annual Southern Exposition, a series of World's Fairs that would run for five consecutive years adjacent to Central Park in what is now Old Louisville. Highlighted at the show was the largest to-date installation of incandescent light bulbs, having been recently invented by Thomas Edison (a previous resident of Louisville).
Downtown Louisville began a modernization period in the 1890s, with Louisville's second skyscraper, the Columbia Building, opening on January 1, 1890. The following year, famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to design Louisville's system of parks (most notably, Cherokee, Iroquois and Shawnee Parks) connected by tree-lined parkways. Passenger train service arrived to the city on September 7, 1891 with the completion of the Union Station train hub. The first train arrived at 7:30 am. At the time, Louisville's Union Station was recognized as the largest train station in the South.
Interrupting these developments, on March 27, 1890, a major tornado measuring F4 on the Fujita scale visited Louisville. The "whirling tiger of the air" carved a path from the Parkland neighborhood all the way to Crescent Hill, destroying 766 buildings ($2 1/2 million worth of property) and killing an estimated 74 to 120 people. At least 55 of those deaths occurred when the Falls City Hall collapsed. This is one of the highest death tolls due to a single building collapse from a tornado in U.S. history.
In 1893, two Louisville sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, both schoolteachers, wrote the song "Good Morning to All" for their kindergarten class. The song didn't quite catch on popularly, and the lyrics were later changed to the more recognizable, Happy Birthday to You. This is now the most performed song in the English language.
In the early 20th century, controversy over political corruption came to a head in the 1905 Mayor election, called the most corrupt in city history. An anti-corruption party unique to Louisville, called themselves the Fusionists, briefly emerged at this time. Democratic boss John Whallen succeeded in getting his candidate, Paul C. Barth, elected, but the results were overturned in 1907. Elections gradually became less corrupt, but political machines would still hold considerable power for decades.
The Waverly Hills Sanatorium was opened in 1910 to house tuberculosis patients. The hospital was closed in 1961. It was later used as a retirement home (1963-1981). It was unused for more than a decade until 1991, when it was reopened for tours.
During World War I, Louisville became home to Camp Taylor. In 1917, the English-bred colt "Omar Khayyam" became the first foreign-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby. Two years later, in 1919, Sir Barton became the first horse to win the Triple Crown, though the term didn't come into use for another eleven years.
In 1920, Louisville's first zoo was founded at Senning's Park (present-day Colonial Gardens), next to Iroquois Park. Barely surviving through the Great Depression, it closed in 1939 and its successor, the current Louisville Zoo, wouldn't open until 1969.
In 1923, the Brown Hotel's chef Fred K. Schmidt introduced the Hot Brown sandwich in the hotel restaurant, consisting of an open-faced "sandwich" of turkey and bacon smothered with cheese and tomato. The Hot Brown became rather popular among locals and visitors alike, and can be ordered by many local restaurants in the area today.
The Belle of Louisville, today recognized as the oldest river steamboat in operation, came to Louisville in 1931. That same year, the Louisville Municipal College for Negroes was established to allow black Louisvillians to attend classes. (The college was dissolved into the University of Louisville with the ending of segregation in 1951.)
In late January and February 1937, a month of heavy rain throughout the Ohio River Valley prompted what became remembered as the "Great Flood of '37". The flood submerged about 70 percent of the city and forced the evacuation of 175,000 residents. In Louisville, 90 people died. At the crest on January 27, 1937, the waters reached above flood level in Louisville. Photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White documented the flood and its aftermath in a series of famous photos. Later, flood walls were installed to prevent another such disaster.
Throughout the 20th century, the arts flourished in Louisville. The Speed Art Museum was opened in 1927 and is now the oldest and largest museum of art in Kentucky. The Louisville Orchestra was founded in 1937. In 1949 the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival was begun, and today it is the oldest free and independently-operating Shakespeare festival in the United States.
The Kentucky Opera was started in 1952, and the Louisville Ballet was founded that same year, though it only achieved professional status in 1975. In 1956 the Kentucky Derby Festival was started to celebrate the annual Kentucky Derby. The next year, in 1957, the St. James Court Art Show was started. Both these are still popular festivals in the region.
In 1946 the General Assembly passed a law allowing the formation of a Metropolitan Sewer District, and Louisville's Board of Aldermen approved its creation a few months later. With the expansion of sewer service outside of traditional city limits and laws hindering Louisville's annexation attempts, areas outside of the city limits that were developed during the building boom after World War II became cities in their own right for the main purpose of preventing annexation by Louisville. As a result, Louisville's population figures leveled off. With the incorporation of several new communities it lead to the defeat of Louisville's attempt to merge with Jefferson County in 1956 and left Louisville to continue fighting to annex land to grow.
For a variety of reasons, Louisville began to decline as an important city in the 1960s and 1970s. Highways that had been built in the late 1950s facilitated a flight to the suburbs, and the downtown area began to decline economically. Many formerly popular buildings became vacant. Even the previously strong Brown Hotel closed its doors in 1971 (although it later reopened). Fontaine Ferry Park, Louisville's most popular amusement park during the early 20th century, closed in 1969.
The once-strong farmer's market, Haymarket, ceased operations in 1962 after 71 years of operation. The final death-knell for the Haymarket, already in decline due to changing economic trends, was the construction of an Interstate 65 ramp through the main part of the open-air market. This was a common trend, as not only did interstates facilitate suburban living, they sliced through older city neighborhoods and often divided them irreversibly.
Despite these signs of decline, a number of activities were taking place that presaged the Louisville Renaissance of the 1980s.
Southeast Christian Church, today one of the largest megachurches in the U.S., was founded in 1962 with only 53 members. In 1964, Actors Theatre of Louisville was founded. It was later designated the "State Theater of Kentucky" in 1974.
In 1973, the racehorse Secretariat made the fastest time ever run in the Derby (at its present distance) at 1 minute 59 2/5 seconds.
Another major (F4) tornado hit on April 3, 1974 as part of the Super Outbreak of tornadoes that struck 13 states. It covered and destroyed several hundred homes in the Louisville area but was only responsible for 2 deaths. It also caused extensive damage in Cherokee Park.
There were signs of revival in the 1970s. Throughout the decade, new buildings came under construction downtown, and many historic buildings were renovated. Louisville's public transportation, Transit Authority of River City, began operating a bus line in 1974. And in 1981 the Falls of the Ohio National Wildlife Conservation Area was granted status as a Federal conservation area.
On the down side, in the early morning hours of February 13, 1981, sewer explosions ripped through the southern part of Old Louisville and near the University of Louisville. The cause was traced back to chemical releases into the sewer system from a nearby manufacturing plant. Louisville would continue to struggle during the 1980s in its attempt to redevelop and expand. They were left fighting other Jefferson County communities again in two more failed attempts to merge with county government in 1982 and 1983. Barry Bingham, Jr. would sell the family business Standard Gravure on July 20, 1986 which would send the company into a major restructuring in the following years. The Courier-Journal was one of the papers printed by Standard Gravure, and on September 14, 1989 Joseph Wesbecker, who was on medical leave due to mental illness and work related stress, entered the Courier-Journal building with guns, killing eight employees and injuring another twelve before killing himself.
During the time of Civil Rights Movement in the late 50s and thru the 60s Louisville was effected. During this time the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had located a office in the Parkland neighborhood which had an African-American majority population. On May 27, 1968 a group of 400 mostly African-American gathered for a protest in the neighborhood of Parkland. They gathered to protest a possible reinstatement of a white officer that was suspended for an incident that happened on May 8, 1968 resulting in two arrests of African-American men in which a physical conflict occurred. The group was organized by the Black Unity League of Kentucky group known as BULK for short. BULK had announced that they arranged for Stokely Carmichael to come to Louisville to speak about the arrests. However Carmichael had no knowledge of the arrangement and no plans were made to go to Louisville. When the crowd gathered community leaders had said a decision had not be reached and it seemed the crowd would disperse calmly. However rumors of civil right activist Stokely Carmichael's plane being delayed on purpose began and angered many of the protesters and the riots began.
The crowd tossing bottles and looting had forced the police response to retreat. By midnight several stores had become looted in Downtown Louisville. Cars were overturned and some burned. Mayor Kenneth A. Schmied ordered the 2,178 Kentucky National Guardsmen to help disperse the crowd. The mayor also issued a city wide curfew. 472 arrests were made during the riots, two African-American teenage boys were killed, and over $200,000 in property damage was done. The National Guard remained in place until June 4, 1968. Following these events the demographics changed drastically for Louisville with the city becoming segregated by neighborhoods.
The following years changed drastically for African-Americans in the nation and in Louisville the public schools were about to change drastically. In 1971 and 1972 there were lawsuits filed by the Kentucky Civil Liberties Union, Legal Aid Society, and NAACP in federal court requesting desegregation of the Louisville and Jefferson County school systems. The Kentucky Commission on Human Rights also filed suit asking that desegregation be achieved through merger of the Louisville, Jefferson County and Anchorage school systems. By February 28, 1975, the state Board of Education ordered the merger of the Louisville and Jefferson County schools systems effective April 1, 1975. July 17, 1975, a final order to judge James F. Gordon stipulated that a desegregation plan would be implemented at the beginning of the 1975–76 school year, which began on September 4, 1975. Mandatory busing began to integrate the newly merged school systems. The students were bused according to the first initial of their last name and their grade level. The black students were planned to be bused up to 10 of their 12 years in school and white students 2 of their 12 years. The busing was to set certain percentages of racial diversity in schools regardless of the location of the students. In 1978 the judge ended his supervision of the project but the decree remained in effect in some places and the school system continued the busing system. The system would continue into the mid 1980s when the system was restructured to become more local for the students. However, guidelines remained in effect for percentages of the student population based on ethnicity.
Many cultural showcases were founded or expanded in this period. The Kentucky Center for the Arts was officially dedicated in 1983. In 1984 the center hosted one of the U.S. presidential election debates between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. Today the Center hosts many touring plays and performances by the Kentucky Opera and the Louisville Ballet. An IMAX theater was added to the Louisville Science Center in 1988. Phase I of the Louisville Waterfront Park was completed in 1999, and Phase II was completed in 2004. Though originally built as a standard movie theater in 1921, the Kentucky Theater was reopened in 2000 as a performing arts venue.
In 1988, the Louisville Falls Fountain, the tallest computerized fountain in the world, began operation on the Ohio River at Louisville. Its high spray (later reduced to due to energy costs) and fleur-de-lis patterns graced Louisville's waterfront until the fountain was shut down in 1998. For a single decade Louisville enjoyed this unusual and distinctive landmark on its cityscape.
In communications, The Courier-Journal, Louisville's primary local newspaper, was purchased by media giant Gannett in 1987. The Louisville Eccentric Observer (LEO), a popular alternative newspaper, was founded in 1990, and the Snitch Newsweekly was established in the 1990s. Velocity was later released by the Courier-Journal to compete with the LEO in 2003.
In 2003, the city of Louisville and Jefferson County merged into a single government named Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government. This merger made Louisville the 16th or 27th most populous city in the U.S., depending on how the population is calculated.
New changes and growth are still evident in the city. The entertainment and retail district called Fourth Street Live! was opened in 2004, and the Muhammad Ali Center was opened in 2005. Between the 1990 Census and 2000 Census, Louisville's metro area population outgrew Lexington's by 149,415, and Cincinnati's by 23,278.
Currently Louisville doesn't have a dedicated museum focused only on the history of the city, but various museums and historic homes present displays devoted to this history. Prominent among these locations include the Filson, Portland Museum, Historic Locust Grove, Falls of the Ohio State Park interpretive center (Clarksville, Indiana), Howard Steamboat Museum (Jeffersonville, Indiana), Carnegie Center for Art and History (New Albany, Indiana), and the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History (Frankfort).