Author Topic: Louisville Explainer I: The Landscape (lotsa maps, for geography geeks only)  (Read 5948 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline Jeffery

  • 2717'-Burj Khalifa
  • **********
  • Posts: 2467
A long answer to the short question:  “Why isn’t Louisville in a valley?”, using the question as an excuse to digress on the regional landscape, the setting for Louisville, or sort of a “Louisville, the Architecture of the Four Ecologies” (apologies to Reyner Banham).

Louisville is at the intersection of two plateaus of the Interior Low Plateaus physiographic region and the glaciated flatlands of the Midwest.  One of the plateaus, the Bluegrass, is a upward swelling of the earths crust, rising east of Louisville to reach elevations of over 1000 feet around Lexington.  The other to the south and west forms a high escarpment that is called Muldraughs Hill in Kentucky and various names in Indiana.  Locally it’s called Floyds Knobs, the Indiana Knobs, Sliver Hills (in New Albany), etc.

The low spot between the western escarpment and the rise of the Bluegrass forms a trough followed by the glaciers and glacial outwash, which formed a broad plain, across which flows the modern Ohio River.

This geological map and section gives the regional picture, showing the limits of the ice from the three ice ages, and the western escarpment.  The rise of land to the east shows in the cross section below the map.

The escarpment breaks up into isolated belts of hills and individual outriders.  These are called knobs (in Kentucky, more formally, The Knobs).  Around Louisville these are sometimes used as parkland or forest preserves.

The following ariel shows the wooded escarpment running north south, partially set aside as forest preserves and parks, and partially used as a wilderness maneuver area for Fort Knox, particularly the rugged country approaching Muldraughs Hill.  A few other prominent features are labeled, like the towns of Madison and Carrollton, and the Borden Valley in southern Indiana penetrating into the western plateau (a route followed by an early Indiana railroad).

A close up map and cross sections of the area immediately around Louisville, providing an excellent diagram of the variety of local landscapes, which are sort of recognized by the average person, though people don’t use the geological terms on this map.

One can see how Ohio River breaks out of its valley and flows across the outwash plain, then south for +/- 25 miles along the foot of the western escarpment until breaking through around West Point, were it’s joined by the Salt River. 

An aerial of roughly the same area covered in the map.

…with Iroquois Park and the Jefferson Memorial Forest noted (examples of knob country being set aside as parkland).

Next, zooming in, this map is intended to show the bedrock contours (part of a study on the formation of the Falls of the Ohio), which you see in light gray.   These are underground, not visible on the surface. 

But the map also shows the local landscape types, too. 

I’ve added labels to some features/places that would be recognized by the locals, such as the Highlands and Crescent Hill (the start of the upslope of the Bluegrass region), the “Wet Woods” (an old lake bed), the some prominent isolated outriders of the Knobs (Kenwood Hill, Finley Hill), etc.

The sections for the map, with labels for the Highlands and Wet Woods added by me.

A few quick words on the ‘Wet Woods’.  This is a historic name and it’s not really used by the locals.  They recognize this as place or landscape, though;  I’ve heard it called “the muck”, or “crawdad country”.   It’s one of the drearier landscapes of the metro area, filled with ugly urban sprawl, industrial use, the airport, and a huge landfill.  I-65 passes through it on the way to Nashville.

It used to be a lake from the ice age. There is a layer of hardpan below the surface preventing drainage, and since the land is nearly dead flat, it remained swampy and wet, like big Ohio Valley version of the Okeefenokee.    A remnant of the ice age lake survived into to historic times, called Oldham’s Pond, a fairly large body of standing water in the center of this area.

The land was sparsely settled and nearly impassable, becoming a haven for freed slaves, charcoal burners, moon shiners, and outlaws

But it was drained, leaving a uniform landscape of forests, long strait drainage ditches, and dead flat open land (before sprawl took over)


” Petersburg was settled by a freed slave, Eliza Curtis Hundley Tevis (also spelled Tives, Tivis, Travis and Tivas in various records), in the 1820s or '30s.

Petersburg was then known as the Wet Woods, a vast swamp thought to be uninhabitable. It was the only land in the area that whites would sell to blacks.”

The Knobs

Now we will take a closer look at things in the old city of Louisville.  The first are the Knobs, specifically two outriders that used to be called Burnt Knob and Coxes Knob, but are now known as Iroquois Park and Kenwood Hill.

One is a park, one of the last designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead, the other was developed as a neighborhood.

Iroquois Park is mostly a big forest preserve with an open prairie on the top flat (knobs sometimes have flats on top since they are pieces of plateau), but the popular feature here are the overlooks

…including one looking north over Churchill Downs to the downtown skyline.  For our purposes the one to the south is more instructive, as one can see yet another outrider, Finley Hill, in the foreground, and, in the blue distance, the belt of rugged wooded knob country of the Jefferson Memorial Forest.

To the west, one can see the western plateau escarpment, the Indiana Knobs, across the broad outwash plain.

Kenwood Hill was developed, on the higher slopes, with very narrow roads and houses tucked away on steep lots

…an early feature was summer cabins for Louisvillians (a local tradition before WWII was to move out to the countryside during high summer to escape the city, since Louisville has a very uncomfortable summer climate).   These are now the Little Loomhouse, a craft center…

….with cultural significance since “Happy Birthday” (the song) was written here.

And another view through the trees across to more knob country, this time to Red Stone Hill, from the street to the top of Kenwood Hill.

Floodplain Edge

There is a gap between The Knobs and the higher country starting at Germantown and the Highlands.  This gap isn’t really flat since a noticeable and sometimes sharp low rise in the land runs roughly east-west across it.   The modern I-264 (Watterson Expressway) follows it as it cuts across the South End.

This is probably the edge of the Ohio River floodplain, or maybe the outwash plain from the last glaciations.

The West End Floodplain & Natural Levee

Now we move north into the broad flatlands of the floodplain.  The natural features of the landscape have been obscured by urban growth, but a deliciously detailed map of the Civil War fortifications fortunately survives, illustrating the character of the landscape surrounding Louisville as of the 1860s. 

Using this as a base map a quick diagram of the drainage system shows various streams and sloughs in the West End (including some inferred courses) and the Beargrass Creek system weaving its way through the steeper slopes and hills of the East End.

Zooming in on the countryside that would become the West End,  one can see various now-gone streams and watercourses…

The red boxes are shown below in the 1930s:

Before and after of a stream heading east from the Shawnee Park area….

…and the stream system that veined the Parkland neighborhood as ghostly contours under the street grid.

A map of the 1937 flood shows areas above water as crosshatching, and one can see a string of high ground following the Ohio as it makes its big bend as it turns south. 

This might be a natural levee akin to the one New Orleans sits on (though there is no backswamp here).  On this map I tint it red to pop it out more

This natural levee was incorporated into the man-made levee, the floodwall and levee system that now protects the city.

Some examples along Northwestern Parkway (which connects Portland to Shawnee Park, pretty much following this natural levee).

Here, the man made levee is to the right, as a low berm

…houses on the natural levee….

…and a low floodgate, where the man-made levee sits on the natural one, giving a little more protection just in case…

The East End Highlands

The flood map clearly shows the higher country on the east end of the city, separated by the flooded bottoms of the Beargrass Creek branches.   Germantown has more of a “Dayton” hilliness, long rolling slopes, while the others have steeper hills, particularly as one gets into the Beargrass creek valleys and along the Ohio as one heads east (and the land rises)

Some of the neighborhoods have names that indicate the topography, like Irish Hill, Crescent Hill, the catch-all name “The Highlands”, etc…

The Civil War map shows a system of little valleys and slopes leading to the larger valleys of the Beargrass forks.  Turnpikes either follow the high ground between the Beargrass valleys, or follow the valley floors.

A modern topo of the Germantown area, with the inset showing the landscape of sloping streets and land, with the grid shifts here giving a somewhat picturesque character to the place.  The inset is keyed to the map via the factory building, visible in the background.

Zooming in on the Civil War era landscape of The Highlands, making the little side valleys and hollows visible.  Some of these were incorporated into the park system, like the modern Tyler Park and Cherokee Parkway.

The same area in modern times (but before I-64), with parks and cemeteries tinted (mostly Cave Hill cemetery and Cherokee Park, another of the “Olmstead” parks.  Parks, cemeteries, golf courses, institutional uses, and occasionally estates follow the Beargrass valleys creating greenbelts between Germantown, The Highlands, and Crescent Hill/Clifton.

Residential development in the Highlands was mostly a late 19th (after 1883) and early 20th century thing, so in some cases it is more sensitive to topography, incorporating the steeper slopes that abound in this part of the city

The three big Olmstead parks were developed around landscape themes.  Iroquois is the knobs, Shawnee is the floodplain landscape, and Cherokee the creek bottoms and hills of the Bluegrass.  A landscape architecture of the three ecologies. 

Here is a view over the Beargrass Creek valley from a Cherokee Park overlook, showing the low wooded hills across the valley.

The parks where built in suburban areas at the time, and the city grew around the parks.  In the case of Cherokee the build-out was mostly before WWII, so the park becomes this green island surrounded by older neighborhoods and estates, but you’d never know it in the valley bottom since the wooded hills hide the city.

Following a progression from this somewhat flat part of The Highlands (Douglas Boulevard):

Dropping down a side valley into Cherokee Park, on a road that is at first flanked by houses, then estates, and finally the park itself and the valley floor:

The valley floor following Beargrass Creek

…which sometimes floods

River City

After all this not much on the central feature of the city, the Ohio River.   The river is a presence in various ways, one is the bridges being visible from the edge of the Highlands, just as one drops down to the floodplain, due to their crossing the river at angles to the viewer.  An example from Irish Hill

…and another from Crescent Hill or Clifton… 

…and, for the finale,  all the bridges in one image:

The next thread header will be dedicated to the river. Get ready for a very in-depth look at the original raison d’etre for Louisville;  the Falls of the Ohio

« Last Edit: February 06, 2010, 01:37:53 PM by Jeffery »

Offline Scrabble

  • 2717'-Burj Khalifa
  • **********
  • Posts: 3248
Very nice!  I'm looking into hearing your history of the Falls of the Ohio.

Offline Eighth and State

  • Global Moderator
  • *****
  • Posts: 2897
  • Mill Creek Yacht Club

    The Falls of the Ohio is a major geographical point of interest, or at least it should be. It is the only part of the Ohio / Mississippi River System that was not navigatable between Pittsburgh and New Orleans; all of the early commerce on the river including military movements had to deal with this fact. It is somewhat analagous to Niagara Falls, although not as dramatic.

    Yet in these days of interstates hardly anyone seems to know about the Falls of the Ohio.

    Looking forward to your next one!

Offline dmerkow

  • 1450'-Willis Tower
  • *********
  • Posts: 1861
    • Westerville's Philly Historian
Grand Slam! Great work!

Offline Living in Gin

  • The architect of good taste
  • 2717'-Burj Khalifa
  • **********
  • Posts: 2065
    • Living in Gin
Great work... I have some extended family in Louisville (my great-grandfather actually co-founded the Hillerich & Bradsby Basball Bat Company), but I've only been there a couple times and hardly know anything about the city itself. Looking forward to your next installment.
« Last Edit: February 06, 2010, 03:34:42 PM by Living in Gin »
It's all fun and games until somebody gets burned at the stake.

Offline ColDayMan

  • Administrator
  • *****
  • Posts: 17000
  • ♪♪ An Apollo Legend! ♪♪
I love it when people come into a message board and immediately begin to mix it up.  I mean, Jesus, at least say hello!  Do you walk into a room full of strangers, pick a random woman, and tell her she's fat? - buildingcincinnati

Offline Rabbit Hash

  • 947'-Key Tower
  • ********
  • Posts: 1362
Awesome!  Always appreciate your posts as they give me new insight into my hometown.  I am particularly interested in the Wet Woods history and learned a few things here.  I have a few insights on the Wet Woods if you are ever interested.

Offline westerninterloper

  • 629'-Rhodes State Tower
  • *****
  • Posts: 519
I have a few insights on the Wet Woods if you are ever interested.

Do tell.

Great thread as always, Jeffery.

Offline edale

  • 2717'-Burj Khalifa
  • **********
  • Posts: 4126
Great thread, Jeffery!

Offline Jeffery

  • 2717'-Burj Khalifa
  • **********
  • Posts: 2467
I am particularly interested in the Wet Woods history and learned a few things here.  I have a few insights on the Wet Woods if you are ever interested.

Yes, please share!  I am interested in this area too, but can't find much on it. 

Offline Rabbit Hash

  • 947'-Key Tower
  • ********
  • Posts: 1362
Jeffery...noticed I never followed up on this...let me dig up what I have.

Remove Ads