Lexington, KY – If the Arena, Arts, and Entertainment District project comes to fruition, and when the Distillery District project is completed, a significant feature in Lexington’s history will be revealed: The Town Fork of the Elkhorn, or simply Town Branch. “Contained” in 1934, the very reason for Lexington being where it is has been out of downtown’s sight for most of our lives.
That both projects would dovetail, connected by a revitalized Town Branch, says something about the modern attitudes toward our little creek. Not so long ago, Dudley Webb was ridiculed for wanting to create a lake in the area west of Rupp Arena. “Lake Dudley,” as it was derisively dubbed, would have recreated a major water feature that most cities of merit come by naturally.
Now, the idea is to uncover a good portion of Town Branch and create a natural water feature in downtown Lexington.
Just what was Town Branch? And how did we come to lose it?
Named in June 1775 when word arrived from Fort Boonesborough that the first battle of the American Revolution had been fought at Lexington, Massachusetts (our Lexington is named for the battle, not the town), the town was not settled until four years later because of the threat of American Indian raids spurred by the British. In 1779, the first blockhouse was constructed along Town Branch to take advantage of the ready source of water. The blockhouse was located near the nominally southwest corner of today’s Main and Mill streets. Given the orientation of the creek, however, the blockhouse in fact faced northeast, giving our compass-challenged community its orientation. (At one time Broadway was designated “East” and “West.”)
On Jan. 25, 1780, the settlers signed a compact, essentially establishing the town of Lexington (which would not be incorporated until January 1831). By 1804, a stockade was completed around the block house, giving additional safety for the village.
Although horses most likely accompanied the earliest settlers, Kentucky’s other signature product, whisky, did not arrive until 1780, when Elijah Culpepper built his log cabin distillery alongside Town Branch. Culpepper can be credited for establishing an industry that reigned in Fayette County until 1920, when Prohibition obliterated it. Whisky would not again be legally distilled in Fayette County until 2011, when Alltech introduced (what else but?) Town Branch Kentucky Bourbon.
Between 1780 and 1804, the original town bounds were established, creating the downtown grid pattern we find today. The bounds created a “Commons” along the creek, assuring everyone access.
In 1785 the first bridge to span Town Branch was built at Main Cross (now South Broadway about where Triangle Park is), followed by bridges at Mill and Spring streets. The following year, a fourth bridge was built to cross at Mulberry Street (now South Limestone). Soon after, the town trustees passed an ordinance prohibiting youngsters from fishing off the bridges. This, after all, being Kentucky.