Reaching Lexington, Kentucky

Lexington, KY, best known for its horse industry and college basketball tradition, is the home of more than 300,000 people. It traces its roots back to 1775, when European settlers from Pennsylvania camped at McConnell Springs – a spot located on the western edge of the modern city’s downtown core. These settlers returned to the area to establish a more permanent settlement, and named it Lexington - after the Revolutionary War battle which took place in Lexington, Massachusetts. A permanent structure – a blockhouse – was built at Lexington in 1779 to protect the settlers from the attacks of Native Americans resisting this colonization.

These were the early days of Kentucky’s modern history. Daniel Boone had crossed into Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap only eight years earlier. The first permanent settlement in Kentucky was founded by James Harrod, at Harrodsburg, in 1774. European settlers arrived in Central Kentucky through one of two ways. Many came through a southern overland route through the Cumberland Gap and the Wilderness Road. Others arrived from the north via the Ohio River.

Of this path, Gilbert Imlay wrote in his 1792 promotional treatise A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America that:

“Travelers or emigrants take different methods of transporting their baggage, goods, or furniture from the places they may be at to the Ohio, according to their circumstances, or their object – coming to the country. For instance, a man is travelling only for curiosity, or has no family or goods to remove, his best way would be to purchase horses and take his route through the Wilderness; but provided he has a family or goods of any sort to remove, his best way, then would be to … carry his property to Redstone Old Fort [on the Monongahela River, modern Brownsville, Pennsylvania which is 10 miles upstream from Pittsburgh], or to Pittsburgh, according as he may come from the northern or southern States.” (Elsinger 2004, p. 7-8).

Once on the southern shore of the Ohio River, settlers had to take a 65 mile land road between Maysville and Lexington, which has had several names, including “Frontier Highway”. Some settlers began this trip further upstream along the Ohio River at its confluence with the Salt Lick Creek, including Col. Robert Patterson, who brought the first horses and first cattle to the region. 

The trails that became the “Frontier Highway” came from the buffalo traces that spanned the region. These traces became more established as Native Americans used them for travel and hunting, and the mass arrival of European settlers and their slaves converted them into something more akin to the roads we think of today. 

From the founding of Lexington until 1887, the portion of this path located within town limits was known as Mulberry St. In 1887, the Lexington city council changed the road’s name to Limestone Street.

Growing Lexington

The earliest town map of the city of Lexington featured smaller inlots near Main Street and larger outlots which extended northward from Main Street to near Seventh Street. At the onset, Lexingtonians used inlots for commercial, industrial, and residential purposes while outlots were used for agricultural purposes. As the city grew, outlots were subdivided for a wide range of uses.

In Kentucky’s Frontier Highway, Raitz and O’Malley expand on this evolution of Lexington’s outlots from 1800 through the 1990s. Throughout the nineteenth century, outlots along North Limestone transitioned from a natural environment to an agricultural landscape dotted with several significant large houses, and then into more developed residential, commercial, and industrial districts. 

The emancipation of slaves following the Civil War significantly altered housing demands in the area, and incentivized large-scale employers to construct housing for workers - many of which had previously been their slaves. Prior to the conflict, subdivision of blocks varied in size, but most of the houses constructed (and their lots) remained at least moderately substantial. At the time the city limits of Lexington extended in a circle with a radius of one-mile in all directions from the city center. On North Limestone, the outlots already extended that distance from the city center.

Seeing Growth - Sanborn Fire Maps

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps are one method of studying the evolution and development of the buildings within a community. These maps were created to aide insurance agents in determining how risky a particular property would be to insure. Maps were generated for communities across North America; Lexington, Kentucky’s first Sanborn map was prepared in 1885. Today, these maps are invaluable resources about the kinds of structures that existed decades and centuries ago, and are also key to seeing how a community grew and evolved. 

Sanborn maps largely identified insurable structures. The absence of notation on a Sanborn map suggests a lack of significant structures, or perhaps an agricultural use. Heading north along Limestone Street (nee Mulberry Street), the 1885 Sanborn map ceases to describe the structures beyond Fourth Street. The block bounded by Sixth, Seventh, Upper and Mulberry was the old Presbyterian Cemetery. Though once “the leading burying ground in Lexington,” the bodies interred here were removed in 1889.

North of Seventh Street – just past the city limits – those drawing the Sanborn maps again recognized significant industrial structures, but largely ignored the residential areas to the north of Seventh Street on either side of North Limestone being Brucetown to the west and the Neale & Pratts Addition to the east of the dividing roadway. Both of these residential areas existed and appeared in the earlier 1877 Atlas of Fayette and neighboring counties published by D.G. Beers & Co. of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (shown below).

1877 Atlas of Fayette County