It has been said that every great city is built on a great body of water. London has the Thames River; Paris has the Seine. New York sits on the Hudson, Chicago on Lake Michigan, Moscow on the Moscow River. And our very own Kentucky Proud Louisville stands proudly on the Ohio River.
These are mighty rivers and grand lakes cutting through the middle of these great metropolises. But what if the great water source isn’t so easy to see?
Lexington is one of Kentucky’s greatest cities, and it boasts quite the impressive history as the Athens of the West for its arts and culture. But anyone who as road tripped to Lexington may have found themselves wondering how the city that hosted the first American performance of a Beethoven symphony, that is the very heart of horse country, and that boasts a colorful political history seems to be missing a river.
The answer: It’s not.
Okay, well technically speaking it is. But it does have a very notable water source (a couple actually) that served as the basis for the city’s founding in 1775. And if you haven’t seen the water, it’s because you haven’t been looking hard enough. You have to look underground to find it.
In the summer of 1775, a small group of men, led by William McConnell, set up camp along the Elkhorn Creek. This group from Pennsylvania named their camp “Lexington,” in honor of one of the first battles of the American Revolutionary War in Lexington, Massachusetts. This group would eventually return home only to return to their Lexington camp more permanently.
Now, these weren’t the first frontiersmen in Kentucky. Other settlers including Robert Patterson had already established camps on the Kentucky frontier. However, McConnell’s group discovered a complex system of sinking springs at their camp site that would allow a settlement near no river to develop and thrive with a water source.
Today, McConnell Springs is the only known site in Fayette county that has a series of artesian springs that come to the surface, go underground, reappear, flow on the surface and go back underground only to surface again a couple of miles away. Visitors can visit McConnell Springs natural areas park including the actual historic springs where the city of Lexington was named. Today the park features 26 acres of natural land, two miles of trails, and an education center.
But McConnell’s spring system isn’t where the story of a thriving Lexington ends. In fact, it’s only part of where it begins. In 1779, Patterson would join McConnell’s band of settlers and the group would travel to the Middle Fork of the Elkhorn Creek, which became known as Town Branch. There, the group erected a blockhouse near this water source.
As Lexington expanded and more settlers joined the community, a canal was constructed to carry the water of the Branch straight through town. But no one anticipated the potential heavy water flows of the Elkhorn, particularly after heavy rains, and this canal regularly overflowed. A decade after the canal was built, it was covered, and buildings were constructed on top of the water source. When the cholera epidemic hit Lexington in 1833, the community was devastated. As a disease that is spread through water, citizens blamed the Branch for their sickness.
Due to decades of flooding issues and Lexington’s inability to forgive the water source that brought in cholera, the bed of Town Branch was lowered in the 1930s and enclosed in a subterranean tunnel under the streets of Lexington.
Today, Town Branch is experiencing a bit of a rebirth. Work to clean up the water source that has been contaminated by pollution, run off, and waste management is underway and new restaurants are popping up along its west banks. Town Branch surfaces just west of the Rupp Arena parking lots and continues past Manchester Street and out of town.