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. Transylvania University was established in 1780. 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. 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. 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 travelers 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.

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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 became a manufacturing center. IBM moved its typewriter division to the city (which later became Lexmark), while Square D, Dixie Cup, and JIF established headquarters in the city. Employment in Lexington grew 260 percent between 1954 and 1963. Suburban expansion took off to accommodate the influx of workers. Seeing the boom, in 1958 city leaders established an Urban Service Boundary — the first such boundary in the nation – to deliberately manage growth in the famous farmlands surrounding the city. In 1974 the city of Lexington and Fayette County merged to form the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, one body guiding the protected rural farmlands and urban area.

For more information regarding the history of Lexington visit the Lexington History Museum online.