Lexington Herald Leader
Published: Sunday, December 24, 2000
Section: Opinions and Ideas
Page: H1

This time last year we showcased water pollution in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky and said Kentucky should clean it up.

Our suggested resolution this year is to atone for the Bluegrass’s dirty little secret: Town Branch.

The stream that literally shaped Lexington is classified as too nasty to support aquatic life.

The pollution is the byproduct of almost everything that has ever gone on in or near downtown: industry; runoff from vehicles parked on acres of asphalt or abandoned in junkyards; a leaking city dump that predates landfill standards; and, perhaps, forgotten straight-pipes discharging raw sewage.

As unappealing as all this is, what most stands out about Town Branch is not its pollution, but its potential.

A ribbon of water and earth, Town Branch rises from its man-made confinement just west of Rupp Arena and ripples between remarkably preserved, 150-year-old, dry-laid stone walls. The stream meanders past interesting examples of industrial architecture, including a distillery that begs to be reincarnated through adaptive reuse, and the ruin of an 1820s wool mill that was once Lexington’s jail.

Beyond New Circle Road, the stream traverses open country, coming close enough to Masterson Station to make the city park a natural terminus.

The stream’s potential has inspired a group to begin working to create the Town Branch Trail. Though this visionary project can’t be accomplished quickly or cheaply, Lexington should resolve to make it happen.

The support of local, state and federal governments will be required, along with the cooperation of corporate and individual landowners.

Other places have accomplished bigger waterway restorations. These projects pay lasting dividends by making cities more attractive places to live and do business.

Described as a “linear park,” Town Branch Trail would give downtown workers and residents a natural place to walk, run and bike. Quick access to the landscape that distinguishes Lexington from other mid-size cities would be a terrific selling point.

Town Branch could become the strongest strand in a citywide web of greenways. This natural amenity would encourage residential and commercial development downtown and to the southwest of downtown all the way to South Broadway and the University of Kentucky.

The trail would tie Lexington’s historic past to a more livable future.

The city’s first permanent structure, a fort, went up in 1779 along Town Branch near a canebrake that became the corner of Main and Mill streets.

The creek front was called the Town Commons until 1790, when it was renamed Water Street. In 1793, horse racing on Water Street was confined to the lower end and only for the purpose of showing studs.

As the city grew, flooding became a nuisance. Town Branch, which is born south of Winchester Road near East Third Street, was routed underground through downtown and all but forgotten — until now.

Restoring Town Branch to a central role in the life of Lexington would be a precious gift to future generations.