Most people know it as the home of the Kentucky Derby, that stylish party full of elaborate hats and mint juleps (followed by two minutes of horse racing). But there’s a lot more to this city of 750,000 than horses and bourbon, including its history as a transportation hub, a nifty collection of Victorian homes, and a signature dish known as the Hot Brown.
1. Louisville owes its existence to a stretch of rapids along the Ohio River known as the Falls of the Ohio. Located just north of the city, the falls posed a barrier to boat transportation in the late 1700s, requiring travelers to stop and portage further downriver. Several communities sprang up along this stopping point, including Louisville, which was fully incorporated as a town in 1780.
2. The name was a tribute to King Louis XVI of France, who had supported American colonists during the Revolutionary War. His countrymen didn’t view him quite as favorably, executing him by guillotine during the French Revolution in 1793.
3. In October of 1803 Meriwether Lewis met William Clark just across the river from Louisville, at the Falls of the Ohio. The two had corresponded for months about their expedition to the Pacific Ocean, and at Clark’s home they got down to the nitty gritty of planning and assembling the Corps of Discovery before setting out less than a month later.
4. Louisville was a major river and railroad transportation hub in the 1800s, serving the steady flow of commerce pushing westward. The city continues that tradition today as the worldwide air hub for UPS, where an average of 1.6 million packages are processed every day.
5. Proximity to the Ohio River and low-lying land make Louisville prone to flooding. The worst flood, in 1937, submerged 60% of the city and forced 23,000 people to evacuate. Eight years later, the second-worst flood struck, forcing 50,000 out of their homes. Louisville has since installed a 29-mile floodwall system, and it’s credited with preventing widespread damage during ensuing floods. [PDF]
6. Louisville also has an unfortunate history with tornadoes. In 1890, a category 4 tornado ripped through downtown, killing more than 100 people. A Courier-Journal headline proclaimed that the city had been “Visited by the Storm Demon.” Decades later, in 1974, another category 4 tornado hit, destroying several hundred homes and killing two.
7. Horse racing has deep roots in the city. And like all great American sports, it began in the streets. The first reported races date back to the late 1700s on Market Street. Injuries to riders and spectators were apparently quite common, prompting the construction of racetracks like Elm Tree Gardens and Oakland Race Course, both predecessors to the famous Churchill Downs.
8. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, was a financial failure at first. Founded in 1874 by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of explorer William Clark, the track changed owners several times before finally turning a profit after 28 years in business, in 1903.
9. Churchill Downs was originally called the Louisville Jockey Club. A local newspaper made the first mention of its current name in 1883, in reference to Clark’s uncle, John Churchill, who had formerly owned the 80 acres in what was then a rural area just south of Louisville. The name caught on, and in 1937 the venue was officially incorporated as Churchill Downs.
10. The Kentucky Derby’s signature drink, the Mint Julep, actually originated in Virginia and was typically made with rum instead of bourbon. Word has it the drink was a morning pick-me-up for field hands, who relished its boozy kick and the supposed medicinal properties of the mint. As Kentucky’s bourbon distilling industry grew, the local spirit replaced its Caribbean competitor, and in 1938 the Mint Julep became the official drink of the Derby.
11. Speaking of drinks, a bartender at Louisville’s swanky Pendennis Club is said to have invented the Old Fashioned in 1890.
12. Louisville’s signature dish is a comfort food free-for-all called the Hot Brown. It’s an open-faced sandwich with turkey and bacon smothered in Mornay sauce (main ingredients: butter and heavy cream), topped with Parmesan cheese and roma tomatoes, and oven-broiled. The name refers to the Brown Hotel, where the dish originated in 1920 as an after-hours treat. You can still order a Hot Brown at the hotel’s restaurant, but fair warning: Don’t try to take it down alone.
13. Nineteenth-century architecture enthusiasts, rejoice: Louisville has one of the largest collections of Victorian homes in the country, and the largest collection of cast-iron building facades outside of New York’s SoHo district. [PDF]
14. It’s the starting point for the wildly popular Bourbon Trail, a long weekend’s stumble through several Kentucky distilleries. For those who prefer not to leave town, there’s also the Urban Bourbon Trail, which features tastings at more than 30 local bars.
15. Frederick Law Olmstead, renowned designer of Central Park, designed an extensive parks system in Louisville that includes 18 parks and 6 parkways. Commissioned in 1891, it was the last major project of his career and also one of his largest.
16. Hillerich & Bradsby, makers of Louisville Slugger bats, started out as a woodworking shop in 1864. The owner, J. Frederick Hillerich, a German immigrant, was not a baseball fan, but his son, Bud, was an amateur player. The younger Hillerich, who apprenticed under his father, taught himself how to fashion bats, and according to company legend, offered to make one for local pro Pete Browning after watching Browning break his bat in a game. Browning agreed, and the new bat, made from white ash, delivered three hits in its first game in use. Browning continued to hit well with the bat, and eventually gained the nickname “Louisville Slugger.”
17. Burn, baby, burn! Louisville makes more disco balls than any other city in the U.S. At one point, the Omega National Products factory reportedly produced 90% of the country’s disco balls. There’s a campaign underway to produce the world’s largest disco ball in Louisville. It’s called “World’s Largest Disco Ball, Y’all”.
18. Venture down to the waterfront and there’s a good chance you’ll see the world’s oldest Mississippi River-style steamboat still in operation, The Belle of Louisville.
19. It went from the 67th largest city in the country to the 16th largest—overnight. On January 6, 2003 the city merged with surrounding Jefferson County, nearly tripling the population. Officials touted it as a move towards greater efficiency, but with so many “16th Largest City” signs posted around town, it was clearly a marketing move as well.
20. The largest building in the city (and in the state of Kentucky, for that matter) is a former limestone mine that’s been converted into an amusement park. Its support structures designate the underground cavern—part of a 17-mile chain of corridors that run beneath the city—as a building rather than, you know, an abandoned mine.
21. It has a recent history of medical firsts. Doctors at the Kleinert, Kutz and Associates Hand Care Center performed the first successful hand transplant, in 1999. Two years later, a team at Jewish Hospital installed the first self-contained artificial heart in a patient.
22. The country’s largest fireworks display, Thunder Over Louisville, takes place on the Ohio River every April during the Kentucky Derby festival. Pyrotechnic wizards the Zambelli family (a.k.a. the first family of world fireworks) fire off more than 60 tons of shells from barges on either side of the Second Street Bridge spanning the river, and from the bridge itself. Check out a video of the awesome display here.
23. The Louisville Water Tower is the oldest ornamental water tower in the country. It began operating in 1860 after cholera epidemics and several large-scale fires demonstrated the city’s need for lots of clean water. The 1890 tornado did irreparable damage to its pumping capabilities, and in 1903 it ceased operations. These days, it’s enjoying a second life as a museum situated in a picturesque city park.
24. One of the world’s largest fast-food companies, Yum Brands, has its headquarters in Louisville. The conglomerate owns Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell, and has yearly sales of $13 billion. Little wonder that Kentucky has the most fast food restaurants per capita of any state in the nation.
25. Louisville is the hometown of Muhammad Ali, Diane Sawyer, Jennifer Lawrence and Hunter S. Thompson. It’s also where a young Tom Cruise landed his first gig—as a newspaper delivery boy.
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