Downtown Lexington History

Settlers seeking westward expansion came across what is now Lexington in 1775, but no settlement was made. Three years later Lexington was permanently established when the first blockhouse was built on the south side of what is now Main Street, on the banks of Town Branch Creek, the middle fork of the Elkhorn. As Lexington developed, its streets and town commons were laid out on a grid aligned with Town Branch, which served various industrial uses.

Young Lexington quickly became a social center for the region. The first county courthouse, built on the corner of Main Cross (now Broadway) and Main Streets, was a hub of activity. People from surrounding areas who came to Lexington for Court Day – the one time a month county court was held – were treated to local farmers selling produce, political debates, hangings, and even horse races. By the mid 1780s, downtown Lexington boasted inns, stores, and even a second courthouse in 1788 (at present-day Cheapside Park). Transylvania University was established in 1780. Its charter by the Commonwealth of Virginia made it the first public school for male citizens of Kentucky.

With the stagecoach boom of the early 1800s Lexington became a hub for transcontinental travel. All mail coming by stagecoach from Washington, D.C. and the East arrived first in Lexington to be distributed from there to the rest of the state.

The Kentucky Insurance Company bank was established on Main Street in 1802. A branch of the Second National Bank came soon after, to the corner of Short and Market Streets. By 1810 Lexington’s population had surpassed 4,300. In 1835 the first railroad depot west of the Allegheny’s was built at Mill and Water Streets.

By 1860 Lexington’s population had risen to 9,521, (and Fayette County’s to 22,599) and it was recognized as a cultural center, the “Athens of the West.” In these antebellum years, two new banks opened downtown, and two rail lines, the Central Kentucky Line and Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad, were established, bringing more travellers to Lexington. Records from 1889 show 25 to 30 saloons in one square block of downtown. The Town Branch Creek by this time had been channelized and would later be buried completely for two and half miles in a culvert to make room for the rail infrastructure.


By the early 20th century the population was outgrowing downtown’s residential capacity, and so construction moved east and to the Ashland and Bell Court neighborhoods, encouraged by the advent of the electric streetcar. The University of Kentucky was established in earnest in 1916 and by the 1920s Lexington’s population began to boom due to its role as the largest tobacco market in the world. By the Great Depression Lexington’s population was 45,000. To address its growth, Lexington commissioned its first Comprehensive Plan in 1932.

Post-WWII Lexington, located ideally at the intersection of interstates 64 and 75, became a manufacturing center. IBM moved its typewriter division to Lexington, while Square D, Dixie Cup, and JIF established headquarters in the city. Employment in Lexington grew 260% between 1954 and 1963. Suburban expansion took off to accommodate the influx of workers. In 1958, the city had the foresight to establish an Urban Service Boundary — the first such boundary in the nation – to deliberately manage growth in the famous farmlands surrounding the city.

Today, Fayette County is home to more than 300,000 residents and has grown to accommodate the population growth. The economy has diversified from tobacco and manufacturing to include higher education, healthcare, construction services, financial services, advanced manufacturing, and energy.

Fayette County has experienced energetic growth and is now home to more than 300,000 residents. The bustling economy has diversified from tobacco and manufacturing to include higher education, healthcare, construction, technology, financial services, advanced manufacturing, and energy. Located in the heart of Central Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region, Lexington’s cultural offerings and quality of life have made it a remarkable place to live, work, and play.

In recent years, Lexington has placed an emphasis on reinvesting in its downtown core. In anticipation of hosting the 2010 World Equestrian Games, many new public amenities were put into place. The local restaurant scene has come alive with a wide variety of interesting and unique options, and urban residential opportunities have flourished. This growth has been accompanied by increased vitality in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown. A rising number of tech start-up companies have established themselves downtown, contributing to its innovative and appealing work environment.

Downtown Lexington is fortunate to be surrounded by the University of Kentucky, Transylvania University, and an expanding community and technical college campus, and is working to increase the connection to this abundance of resources. Plans are on the boards for new hotels, office buildings, and residential projects on the exciting backdrop of the renovation of Rupp Arena, construction of a new convention center and hospitality district, and resurrection of the Town Branch Creek. Downtown Lexington has become a dynamic urban center that will only continue to grow and thrive.