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The cities of Lexington and Louisville have long been at odds, a rivalry dating much further back than the contentious basketball matchup. But a quick glance at the storied history of both cities tells us that it’s more than basketball, beer, or the deep seated love of our cities that separate Louisville and Lexington. The story of the Louisville-Lexington rivalry has its roots in the larger, national processes of urbanization that have influenced the growth and decline of those cities since their very beginning, and the differing outlooks we developed about our respective home towns that those processes engendered in each of us.

In his article, “Urban Life in Western America, 1790-1830,” Richard Wade, an urban historian, assures us, speaking of rapid urban development in the region, that “by 1800 the sites of every major metropolis in the Old North West except Chicago, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis had been cleared and surveyed.” Louisville had been founded in 1776, as we all well know, and in 1787 Lexington had petitioned the Virginia legislature to be incorporated as “an inducement to well disposed persons, artisans and mechanics who from motives and convenience do prefer Town life.”

A map of Louisville from 1824. (Courtesy KY Heritage Council)
A map of Louisville from 1824. (Courtesy KY Heritage Council)

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Both Louisville and Lexington experienced rapid urbanization during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Louisville’s expansion was in part due to its geographical location along the Ohio River and its utilization of steamboat technology. The coming of the steamboat enhanced both Louisville’s size and influence, “quickened transport, cut distances” and “steam navigation telescoped 50 years of urban development into a single generation.” Louisville fattened on the transhipment of goods around the Falls of the Ohio, and the city’s population grew over 10,000 inhabitants during the period. Much like today, it was Louisville’s ability to carry manufactured goods to varying destinations that led to its economic dominance. According to The Brookings Institute, by the late 1850’s the Louisville-Nashville Railroad “was expanded at breakneck pace into the dominant carrier throughout the South.”

Lexington did not fare as well. Although a city on the rise, and a major market of goods for Kentucky and Tennessee, the 1819 depression and its landlocked status caused its population to remain stagnant for over two decades.

Lexington's "old" courthouse in the 1850s and the "new" courthouse in the early 20th century.
Lexington’s “old” courthouse in the 1850s and the “new” courthouse in the early 20th century.

Lexington had been the area’s largest town until 1810, and the region’s capital of arts and science. In an attempt to offset the decline, the city’s civic leaders worked to generate a set of policies that would lead to “vigorous cultural expansion.” Lexington set to work building new schools, increased subsidies to Transylvania University, and advertised opportunities in the area throughout the 1820s. Their goal: to become a “resort of the most talented”; their belief: that only Transylvania University could keep Lexington’s economy from complete collapse.

Once located in the center of Lexington's Gratz Park, Transylvania University's main building, erected in 1816, was destroyed by fire in 1829. (Courtesy Transylvania University Special Collections, Lexington, KY)
Once located in the center of Lexington’s Gratz Park, Transylvania University’s main building, erected in 1816, was destroyed by fire in 1829. (Courtesy Transylvania University Special Collections, Lexington, KY)

Horace Holly, the first President of Transylvania University recruited a body of faculty that would be the backbone of this cultural expansion. At his disposal he already commanded a distinguished medical department including Dean Charles Caldwell—who had turned down positions in New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston to reside in Lexington—as well as surgeons, Daniel Drake and Benjamin Winslow Dudley. Transylvania University hosted other famous faculty such as botanist Charles Wilkins Short, and most famously, Turkish-born naturalist Constantine Rafinesque. In 1826, Transylvania University granted 67 degrees, 28 from native residents. Over time the university graduated 17 Congressmen, three Governors, six U.S. Senators, and one President of the Confederacy. The university’s nickname became the Harvard of the West. Few now remember that in 1817 Anthony Philip Heinrich performed the very first Beethoven symphony in the U.S. for Lexington’s newly cultured residents.

Downtown Lexington in the mid-19th century. (Courtesy KYVL)
Downtown Lexington in the mid-19th century. (Courtesy KYVL)

Their plan was such a great success that it provoked an almost immediate lament from the rural areas as many young Kentuckians headed for Lexington to educate themselves, thus abandoning the rural areas that made the urbanization of these cities a possibility. Funding was quickly redacted as Agrarian representatives in legislature sought to slow the rapid urbanization of the area. Wade tells us that “state leaders virtually invented Frankfort to keep the Capital away from Lexington and Louisville.” This fear was founded in that although Louisville and Lexington urbanites were far fewer in number, they controlled a disproportionate power over politics in Kentucky. Louisville had 25 percent of the population in Kentucky but could claim that both a state Senator and two representatives hailed from their city.

The busy Louisville wharf around the time of the Civil War.  (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
The busy Louisville wharf around the time of the Civil War. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

These urbanizing processes are still clear in the form and function of the cities of Louisville and Lexington. Louisville continues its economic dominance through the familiar structure of global shipping hub but with the addition as a home for medical insurance companies, and vehicle production. It now looks to attract tourism with its Urban Bourbon Trail, local food scene, and other cultural attractions. Louisville continues to enforce a rivalry with its sister city of Lexington who has long claimed cultural dominance in the area, much of which it still retains in the form of top notch research facilities at the University Kentucky, Transy University, and other celebrated cultural producers.

A map of Louisville from 1883. (Courtesy KY Heritage Council)
A map of Louisville from 1883. (Courtesy KY Heritage Council)

The histories of these two cities has constructed a long lasting rivalry in which there is no end in sight. Every year I see more and more of my friends ‘drafted’ into the long lasting basketball rivalry, debates about food and drink from each city and who rivals whom on quality and consistency, and each city continues to try to ‘one up’ the other on issues ranging from urban development to regional influence, to bluegrass music scenes.

Ultimately, this rivalry serves as a quant distraction. Something fun to rile our friends about. What really makes both Lexington and Louisville amazing cities are their ‘governing terrains’, the intersections between the actual, existing geography and the Cities will to develop. This is just one of many short explorations of political economic, historical, and social processes that shaped those cities.

[Top image: Aerial view of Lexington in 1871.]
Looking east down Main Street from Third Street in 1850. (Courtesy UL Photo Archives)
Looking east down Main Street from Third Street in 1850. (Courtesy UL Photo Archives)
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Drew Tucker

Drew Tucker

A fifth generation Louisvillian, Drew received his MS in Design & Urban Ecologies from Parsons the New School for Design. He loves the La Cite for its contradictions, human processes, and liberatory conflict. His current engagements include Noble, a workers collective, project visioning for TruLab with Aseem Inam, development work for the University of Orange in New Jersey, and a two-year research commitment to a communal remediation project in Wyoming. He currently resides in Flatbush, Brooklyn with his dogs Gracie & Musket, and his much smarter, much better looking partner, Colette Henderson.
Drew Tucker

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