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NSSAR’s future home Looking Forward, Looking Back Part 1

(Present Fulton Conway & Co.) | Louisville, Ky.


A History of Main Street


Fort Nelson 1782. Picture Provided by The Filson Club Historical Society The Falls of the Ohio River was a natural obstacle in the river’s course from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, prompting the founding and settlement of Louisville. Captain Thomas Hutchens made the first survey of the region in 1766. In 1773, Captain William C. Bullitt, under a commission from the College of William and Mary, spent most of the summer surveying, so land could be transferred by the end of the year. Ironically, Bullitt fought to drive Lord Dunmore out of Norfolk during the Battle of Great Bridge on Dec. 9, 1775.
Not to be outdone, the surveyor of Fincastle County (the major portion of the present Commonwealth, which included the site of Louisville), Col. William Preston, would not recognize Bullitt’s survey as being official, and ordered the survey redone in 1774, even though Bullitt’s survey was used under the original conveyance. Land-claims disputes crowded the dockets of early Kentucky courts.

Staunch Tory John Connolly received a deed for 2,000 acres opposite the falls from Lord Dunmore for assistance to the Crown during the French and Indian War. In 1774 the land was advertised; however, with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, little more was accomplished until 1778, with the arrival of Lt. Col. George Rogers Clark, who felt the Crown’s land grants were very much out of fashion.

Soon after his arrival on May 27, Clark established a fort on 7-acre Corn Island, located in the Ohio River, starting at about the present 600 block of West Main Street. The small fort served as a base for the expeditions against British-controlled Kaskaskia and Cahokia, both in present-day Illinois, as well as Fort Sackville, which later became the town of Vincennes, Ind. The Corn Island fort was located on the margin of the favorite hunting ground of numerous, hostile tribes of Indians.

On April 24, 1779, lots were laid off on the Southside mainland along both sides of present-day Main Street (a block from the river’s edge), from First to 12th Street. In 1779, Fort Nelson, a fort-on-shore, was constructed between Sixth and Eighth Streets on the north side of Main Street. The fort occupied about an acre of ground; present-day Seventh Street would have passed through its front gate. The fort was named for Virginia Continental Congressman Thomas Nelson Jr. The area was dotted with small ponds and stagnant water, giving Louisville the name, “Graveyard of the West.” Severe epidemics occurred in 1817 and 1822, which led to the establishment of a Board of Health to safeguard the inhabitants.

After receiving an act of incorporation from the Virginia Legislature in summer 1780, the city began two decades of slow but steady growth. In 1784 approximately 200 houses were located along Main Street from First to 12th. By May 1786 all of the riverfront lots had been auctioned off.  The city continued to prosper and by 1813, Main was paved from Third to Sixth. By 1832, there were a total of 161 addresses of property along Main Street between Fifth and Ninth streets. This register contained a diverse list of entrepreneurs. However, in that same year a disastrous February flood was responsible for destroying most of the frame buildings located along the river.

The scale of buildings began to change on Main Street during the 1850s. Hotels began appearing, and wholesale operations moved into the district. There was a concentration of tobacco companies and warehouses on Main, west of Eighth Street. The decade of the 1860s saw Main Street bloom as a wholesale center. During the Civil War, Louisville was supposedly a neutral city, and prospered as a supply depot, largely because of the network of connecting railroads. Immediately after the war, a strong economy supported new construction along the street. In 1864, the first streetcar ran on Main Street.


In an article entitled, “The Once and Future Main Street,” the author described Louisville’s Main Street as it was in 1874: “Once Main Street was Louisville’s commercial heart, the place where frock-coated merchant princes, bankers, tobacco brokers, distillers, railroad executives, and manufacturers headed every morning after breakfast in their mansions on Walnut, Chestnut and Broadway. It was the destination of the less elegantly attired clerks (the office was an all-male world in 1784), of shopkeepers, of the cooks and chambermaids and scullery maids who kept the Galt House and Louisville Hotel functioning smoothly, of the burley teamsters who filled Main Street with the rumble of their heavy wagons hauling goods between the riverfront and warehouses - the only Main Street sound that could match the deepthroated whistle of arriving and departing steamboats at the wharf.”

A business block was constructed by noted architect John Andrewarta (who also designed Louisville’s City Hall) on North Main Street, between Eighth and Ninth, for Samuel Thorner of Cincinnati, according to information in The Courier Journal of March 10, 1873. This business block suffered a destructive fire on Oct. 17, 1876, according to the Louisville Commercial.




The Fulton Conway Building as it appeared on June 20, 1960.In 1881, W. D. Depauw obtained an indenture with Samuel Thorner, owner of the parcel (Jefferson County Deed Book 237, page 492). Construction started soon after on a building in the style of Modified Renaissance Revival.  A strong stylistic impression is created on the first story by 10 cast-iron columns, identical to those on the Fort Nelson building nearby. Nine segmentally arched windows are separated on the second floor by 10 wide-brick pilasters. Above each window is a panel with a series of corbelled-brick dentils which, taken together, constitute the only feature approaching an entablature in appearance.

The Kentucky Tobacco Co. Warehouse (KTCW) is located in the Cast Iron District of West Main Street. Cast iron was developed as a building material by Daniel Badger of New York and first used in Boston in 1842; James Bogardus is credited with developing cast-iron units that generally imitated classical architecture. Cast iron was cheaper than stone or brick, and mass-produced units could be assembled quickly; consequently, there are some areas where whole streets were comprised of cast-iron facades, resembling elaborate masonry buildings. The Soho district in New York City is the only place in the United States with more cast-iron facades than Louisville’s Main Street. Another area with a similar concentration of castiron facades is Portland, Ore. Cast iron is light and strong, and its load-bearing capacity was such that it allowed taller structures to include wider expanses of glass. Almost coincidental to the expanded use of cast iron for local construction, a glass works in New Albany, Ind., owned by John Ford and W.A. Depauw (Depauw also built the tobacco warehouse), would soon develop the first successful American made plate glass in 1870.

The cast iron used on Louisville’s Main Street was probably manufactured in the Louisville foundries of Merz Architectural Iron Works or Sneed Iron Works. Both were leaders in the manufacturing of cast-iron facades, and the Sneed foundry was located at Eighth and Market, the building where Glassworks is presently located. Louisville’s network of railroads allowed its foundries to make cast iron available nationally.

The Kentucky Tobacco Co. Warehouse was built to store tobacco hogshead, which is a large wooden barrel used in America since colonial times to store and transport tobacco. By 1760 a standardized hogshead measured 48 inches long and 30 inches in diameter at the head. Fully packed with tobacco, it weighed about 1,000 pounds. In all probability Main Street’s earliest formation was actually as a tobacco road, where hogsheads of tobacco were rolled to the warehouses, thus packing down the primitive dirt road.

The warehouse was occupied in the early years by a variety of tobacco brokers. In the early 20th Century, its use had switched to grocery and coffee storage. During the years surrounding the start of the Great Depression, it was vacant. In 1936, A. J. Whitley purchased the building, and relocated Fulton Conway & Co., an automobile accessories business, from a location a few doors west on Main Street. His grandson, Whitley Courtenay, eventually purchased the business.


West Main Street, from Eighth to 12th Streets, was lined with tobacco warehouses. The 1905 city directory lists 14 tobacco warehouses on West Main, from the Kentucky Tobacco Co. Warehouse at 805 W. Main to the United Dark Warehouse at 1116 W. Main, plus one at the corner of Ninth and Main. While many of the tobacco warehouses were built prior to the approximate 1881 construction of Kentucky Tobacco Co. Warehouse, one might question the long-range planning of W. D. Depauw. The initial hogshead system of tobacco storage and sale had gradually given way in Virginia to the sale of loose-leaf tobacco by auction. In 1849 the Virginia Code recognized these methods, in lieu of the sale of hogsheads of the leaf, as provided in the 1730 Act. By 1865, the tobacco auction had completely replaced the earlier marketing techniques in Virginia (Tobacco Institute, Virginia, 1971: 28-29). While other states later followed suit, the tobacco industry conversion to the loose-leaf storing and selling procedures eliminated the need for a heavy-load supporting building such as the Kentucky Tobacco Warehouse. This is probably why the building wasn’t restored to four floors after the 1890 cyclone. It subsequently was only used for storage of tobacco for a little more than 20 years.

 Artist view of the New NSSAR Library and Headquarters

Read more about the history of our new building here.


Click on any of the pictures to see them in a larger format.